The Gove Land Rights case – Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, (1971) 17 FLR 141 – was the first litigation on Native Title in Australia. Justice Blackburn ruled against the Yolngu claimants on a number of issues, rejecting the doctrine of Aboriginal Title in favor of terra nullius. His ruling says a great deal about the Balanda (white people, European) concept of ‘private property’ and the social relations that comprise it.
‘I think that property, in its many forms, generally implies the right to use or enjoy, the right to exclude others, and the right to alienate. I do not say that all these rights must co-exist before there can be a proprietary interest, or deny that each of them may be subject to qualifications. But by this standard I do not think that I can characterize the relationship of the clan to the land as proprietary.
It makes little sense to say that the clan has the right to use or enjoy the land. Its members have a right, and so do members of other clans, to use and enjoy the land of their own clan and other land also. The greatest extent to which it is true that the clan as such has the right to use and enjoy the clan territory is that the clan may, in a sense in which other clans may not (save with permission or under special rules), perform ritual ceremonies on the land. That the clan has a duty to the land-to care for it-is another matter. This is not without parallels in our law, which sometimes imposes duties of such a kind on a proprietor. But this resemblance is not, or at any rate is only in a very slight degree, an indication of a proprietary interest.
The clan’s right to exclude others is not apparent: indeed it is denied by the existence of the claims of the plaintiffs represented by Daymbalipu. Again, the greatest extent to which this right can be said to exist is in the realm of ritual. But it was never suggested that ritual rules ever excluded members of other clans completely from clan territory; the exclusion was only from sites. The right to alienate is expressly repudiated by the plaintiffs in their statement of claim.
In my opinion, therefore, there is so little resemblance between property, as our law, or what I know of any other law, understands that term, and the claims of the plaintiffs for their clans, that I must hold that these claims are not in the nature of proprietary interests.
That disposes of the question in general terms, but it is proper also to consider the applicability of the Lands Acquisition Act 1955-1966. That Act does not define “property” but defines ” interest,” in relation to land, as “(a) a legal or equitable estate or interest in the land; or (b) a right, power or privilege over, or in connexion with, the land” (s. 5 (1)). The earlier Act had substantially the same definition, applied to “land,” with the inclusion of the word “easement.”
The Solicitor-General submitted shortly (the point, in his submission, did not require extensive argument) that the Act does not apply to any interest other than one already known to the law of property at the time when the Act was passed. It therefore could not protect the plaintiffs’ interests. I do not think I need decide the theoretical question whether a proprietary interest of a new kind which was created, or held to exist, after the passing of the Act, would be protected by it. Mr. Woodward submitted that the words “right, power, or privilege over, or in connexion with, the land” were wide enough to cover “communal native title” which was shown by the evidence to be vested in the Rirratjingu and the Gumatj in respect of the land attributed to their respective clans. With respect, I think this is begging the question. It amounts to saying that whenever aboriginal natives are found in occupation of land under a system which does not recognize private property in land, that is “communal native title,” and that that alone is sufficient to attract the protection of the words “right, power, or privilege over, or in connexion with, the land” in the Act.’