A commitment in applied anthropological policy work to maximising cultural appropriateness or even to supporting what indigenous people say they want is not always possible. This proved to be the case in connection with formulating recommendations for land rights legislation in Australia's Northern Territory. Until 1992 the only rights in land that Aboriginal people had as the original occupiers of the continent were statutory (that is, through acts of state and federal parliaments). No treaties were signed with Aboriginal people and until that date the continent was treated as terra nullius, unowned, at the time of colonisation in 1788. From early on in the history of European colonisation, however, areas of land had been set aside for the use and benefit of Aboriginal people. These reserves were held by the government, or by one of a number of religious bodies that ministered to Aboriginal people, usually supported by government funding. Beginning with South Australia in 1966 all of the states, except Tasmania, have passed legislation that gives varying degrees of control of these reserves to land trusts governed by Aboriginal people. Each of these pieces of legislation had/have different shortcomings which included some or all of the following: the total area that had been reserved was small; the powers granted over the land were limited; the majority of the Aboriginal population did not benefit from the legislation; and none of them addressed the issue of self-determination. In 1973 a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights, with a single Commissioner, Mr. Justice Woodward, was established by the newly elected Federal Labor government, the first in 23 years. It was planned that it would deal with the continent but that it would begin by focusing on the Northern Territory which until 1978 was administered by the Federal government. At the time there were 25,300 Aboriginal people in the Territory making up 25% of the population.

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