Human Rights, Tim Wilson, First Peoples, Native title reform – and the sacred right of private property?

Tim Wilson, Human Rights Commissioner
National Press Club
Wednesday, 18th February 2015

Check against delivery.

Extract only.


Property rights are human rights

Magna Carta’s anniversary also provides the opportunity to reconnect Australia’s human rights discourse back to their origins, particularly the importance of property rights.

The very foundation of human rights is that people own their own bodies and should be free to pursue their lives, their opportunity and their enterprise.

Preservation of property rights is central to the human rights cause.

They underpin autonomy, security, and the foundations of a market economy through physical and intellectual property to deliver the growth to deliver higher standards of living, art and culture, innovation and education and health outcomes.

Property is the foundation of industries past, and the entrepreneurialism and creativity of tomorrow.

Denying them has the reverse effect. In Perth I met with property groups who articulated the human cost of excessive environmental laws that destroy the security and opportunity for farmers to invest in their own future.

In Alice Springs we went to art galleries that ensured remote Aboriginal communities earned an income through the sale of artwork that is built on a respect for their intellectual property.

In his compelling book, The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto, identified “Without formal property, no matter how many assets the excluded accumulate or how hard they work, most people will not be able to prosper”.[3]

The freedom to exercise property

If you need evidence to demonstrate the human consequences of denying property, you just need to look at Aboriginal Australia.

Mabo established recognition of the common law right of native title and the road for Aboriginal Australians to reclaim their available lands. But it was only the beginning of the story.

It’s not enough for Aboriginal Australians to simply have property rights; they must also have the freedom to exercise them.

Unleashing the freedom to exercise native title must be part of the next chapter in ensuring our Aboriginal Australians, as Noel Pearson wrote in a recent essay, achieve their “equal liberty … [and] the freedom to take responsibility”.[4]

Aboriginal leaders from Broome to Cairns have detailed to me the complex bureaucracy after native title is secured, including:

Excessive regulations that undermine self-determination and entrench poverty.
Land tax bills for property that they’ve never had the opportunity to develop.
And legal restrictions that stop land being used as equity to raise the capital to be entrepreneurial.

This is neither fair, nor just.

We can’t complain about the cost of welfare programs for Australia’s first citizens, when we concurrently deny them the freedom to use the primary asset they own to escape dependency.

It is not our place to tell Aboriginal Australia how to use their land. But it is our duty to ensure they can by removing red tape. Reform requires:

Flexible legal instruments enabling communities to use their title as they see fit, including with different ownership structures that meet their needs.
Complimentary new business models that ensure finance can be raised, and risk can be priced, so communities can build economic opportunities.
Mechanisms to raise finance for the development of housing and ownership.

Having met with leaders, there is an appetite for constructive reform to set native title free.

Reform must respect native title’s unique role as a sacred bond between Aboriginal Australians and their homelands.

Therefore, I’m proud to announce that my colleague, Mick Gooda, and I will be hosting a high-level forum on this subject later this year.

Any proposals from this forum will require the consent of native title holders if implemented and will not compromise the protection of the inherent legal rights of Aboriginal Australia.

We will be bringing together parties interested in reviewing and reforming native title to remove legal and regulatory barriers that hold Aboriginal communities back from reaching their full potential.


(emphasis added – Songlines)

Full text at

Further Reading: Human Rights as a Western Construct with limited applicability.