DARWIN, Australia – Aborigines won traditional ownership rights over a large stretch of coastline in northern Australia on Wednesday, in a landmark ruling lawyers said could set a precedent in other parts of the country.
The ruling by Australia’s highest judicial body means the traditional owners will be able to exclude people from using the foreshore — the intertidal area that lies between the high-tide line and the low-tide line — in the area unless they have permission.
The High Court ruling most directly affects fishermen on beaches and tidal rivers in a 35,000-square-mile area in the Northern Territory that was subject to the claim.“It is a landmark victory for traditional owners and we have waited for over 30 years for our sea rights to be legally recognized,” said Wali Wunungmurra, the chairman of the Northern Land Council.
Dismissing a government appeal, the High Court voted 5-2 to uphold a lower court’s ruling.
Wunungmurra said the traditional owners had no desire to stop commercial and recreational fishing in the region, but said a permit system was likely.
“I think we now have got to negotiate on a lot of things that we disagree on,” he said, adding that traditional owners would not try to exert their new rights for 12 months so an agreement can be reached.
About half of the sprawling Northern Territory has been given back to Aborigines, including most of the coastline, under federal land rights legislation passed in 1976.
Legal experts said Wednesday’s ruling could pave the way for similar claims in other parts of Australia, though they would probably need to be tested on a case-by-case basis.
“Morally, other Aboriginal people would now be able to argue that if these sorts of rights are being provided to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory they should be extended elsewhere,” said Jon Altman from the Australian National University’s Center for Aboriginal Policy Research.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said government lawyers were studying the ruling and considering whether legislation was needed to curtail the new Aboriginal rights.
He said he preferred that a “fair and sensible” outcome was reached through negotiation.
“I think the key way through this is common sense,” he told reporters.
Australia’s first inhabitants have battled in the courts to restore their land rights for decades, and the pace picked up in the 1990s after the High Court overturned the assumption that Aborigines held no land rights when white settlers arrived in 1788.