The vulnerability of Native Title?

Queensland v Congoo [2015] HCA 17, a recent High Court case, has implications for Native Title holders throughout the country.  It may also have implications for the High Court’s management of cases with an even number of judges.

Recent changes in personnel within the High Court have led to a number of decisions being made with a bench of six, rather than the full seven, judges.  This has in turn led to some decisions being made with a 3:3 split.  In such cases, under section 23 of the Judiciary Act 1903, the decision being appealed from is left intact. The resulting judgments may be referred to as having a ‘statutory majority’, which offers less precedential value than a traditional, numerical majority. 

While the existence of a statutory majority in the Congoo case makes the lessons we can learn from it more precarious, the judgments still offer illumination. Thus Congoo provides an understanding of Native Title as a more robust form of title that can survive particular forms of temporary occupation.

The facts of the Congoo case were largely uncontested and it was only the legal implications that were in dispute.  The existence of the Bar Barrum People’s native title in the relevant area of the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland was accepted by all as having existed, however the Queensland Government sought to establish that the relevant native title had been extinguished by the area’s occupation by military authorities during the Second World War. It was generally agreed that the native title in question had consisted of rights to ‘to go onto the land, to camp there [including building temporary shelters], to hunt, fish and gather for personal, domestic and non-commercial communal purposes, to conduct ceremonies, to be buried there, to maintain places of importance and areas of significance, to teach the physical and spiritual attributes of the area, to hold meetings there and to light fires for domestic purposes.’ (per Haynes J at 53).

The military occupation (and the establishment of an artillery and live fire range) had precluded anyone other than the military from using the area at the time.  It was effected by Military Orders made under Regulations which were, in turn, made under the National Security Act 1939. ‘The NSA [it was pointed out by the statutory majority] was a draconian measure with a sunset clause.’  The statutory grant of power was, as all accepted, only operational if it was crucial in the national interest.

A central tenet of the statutory majority was the importance of native title and that its extinguishment should be avoided where possible. They focussed particularly on the legislature’s intentions, saying that ‘a clear and plain intention is necessary to effect extinguishment’. They explained this focus: ‘[t]he high threshold of attributed legislative intention flows from the seriousness of the consequences of extinguishment for indigenous inhabitants’ (at 32). 

The statutory majority emphasised the temporary and limited nature of the legislative regime. They decided that, since the government had never intended the regulations to be permanent, and had made several arrangements which emphasised the underlying property rights were not extinguished but had simply been suspended for the duration of the war, the native title rights had also not been extinguished. The Prime Minister commented at the time ‘there must be as little interference with individual rights as is consistent with concerted national effort’. (quoted by French CJ and Keane J at 3).

The minority judges regarded the legislative intentions as significantly less relevant, arguing that the tests for extinguishment were objective. Consequently the subjective intentions of those allegedly extinguishing native title were ‘irrelevant’. (Kiefel J at 109).

The statutory majority took a sophisticated approach to the notion of possession – pointing out that there is still no single ‘satisfactory’ definition of possession available – illustrating this thesis by pointing to at least two concepts of possession: one of which is the right to permanently exclude anybody for whatever reason and another of which is simply the physical/actual possession of an area.  They emphasised the fluid nature of the term and concept of ‘possession’ so that the military ‘possession’ did not necessitate the extinguishment of other interests. Finally they pointed to the various differences between the access provided by the legislation and an estate in fee simple (the fullest ‘possession’ known to the law).

The minority decided that the authorities necessitated the extinguishment, emphasising that comparable ‘possessions’ of a lesser sort, such as temporary leases, had previously served to extinguish native title. They took a narrower view of the ranges of ‘possessions’ — in particular the types of possession which could allow for the continued existence of Native Title.

In a helpful article commenting on the case, the law firm McCullough Robertson concluded that after Congoo ‘[c]lients that propose any developments or projects in these jurisdictions can no longer argue that such military orders extinguished native title.’ However the nature of the split in this case caused Jeremy Gans, a Melbourne academic, to question the security of this outcome. He comments that the issue ‘has not been finally resolved’ and that, while the decision binds the participants in the case, it could be re-opened in subsequent proceedings.  In a series of articles, Professor Gans has argued that the High Court should, therefore, address the problem of retiring judges leading to evenly balanced decisions and less conclusive outcomes.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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