Improving land tenure in northern Australia

Changes in land tenure arrangements offer significant opportunities to drive diverse investment in the sustainable development of northern Australia.

Land tenure is the term given to the legal regime under which land is owned. The majority of land (75.4 per cent) in northern Australia is Crown-owned, two thirds of which is pastoral leasehold. Another 18.5 per cent is Indigenous land. Privately owned land accounts for 6.1 per cent.

In the context of northern Australia, the focus on land tenure has been increasingly driven by matters that relate to rights of economic and cultural development and in particular control of important resources such as minerals, prime agricultural land and traditional lands.

Tenure improvement—opportunities and challenges

Recent and proposed changes to tenure arrangements in northern Australia aim to enable more diverse uses within tenures and clarify access and use rights in circumstances where there are multiple entitlement holders.

Changes to current land tenure regimes in northern Australia have the potential to:

  • improve the benefits to the nation from the optimal use and management of the north's natural resources
  • support the transformation of Indigenous communities from welfare dependency to economic participation
  • sequester and manage vital ecosystem services such as water, biodiversity and carbon while providing additional economic development opportunities
  • reduce contestation over land and resource use while improving the strategic use of land and resources for national benefit.

In order to realise these opportunities, a number of barriers to land investment must be overcome. These include:

  • the underlying complexity of tenures and entitlements on a given area of land
  • the capacity for investors to manage across multiple tenures and jurisdictions and resolve disputes efficiently
  • limits of some types of tenure to allow owners to leverage land assets for capital and development purposes, such as on some Indigenous tenures.

It is also important to understand that while tenure is an important consideration, it is only one of a number of factors that may impede investment. Infrastructure, distance to market, land values and terms of trade all have significant weight in investment decisions.

Next steps

While there is broad stakeholder support for improving tenure arrangements in northern Australia, significant cross-jurisdictional cooperation and national investment in R&D is needed in areas such as:

  • addressing Indigenous tenure issues
  • improving landscape-scale planning
  • developing consistent principles to guide tenure reviews
  • improving tenure data across northern Australia
  • improving development assessment processes.


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