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Federal cabinet documents kept secret for 20 years reveal a radical legislative proposal to acquire Aboriginal land to ensure the construction of the 1,400 kilometre rail line from the Red Centre to Darwin.
The ambitious rail line, taking freight and the Ghan passenger train between Australia's southern and northern ports in Darwin and Adelaide, was eventually built without the laws pressing ahead.
But the cabinet-in-confidence documents from 1998, publicly released on Wednesday, show that then-prime minister John Howard had offered a green light to "introduce legislation to provide access to Aboriginal land along the route of the railway if there is a genuine and immediate need".
The documents also show both the then-federal and CLP Northern Territory governments were prepared for a fight with Aboriginal groups over the matter.
"It is likely the legislation may attract criticism from Aboriginal interests to the extent that it is perceived to diminish the rights of Aboriginal land owners," the papers read.
"There may also be a risk of attempted constitutional challenge to the legislation."
The papers showed that Mr Howard considered the rail link a "project of national significance" and confirmed the Commonwealth's commitment of $165 million to the line, 20 per cent of which ran across Aboriginal land.
"The NT Government has indicated it is experiencing difficulties with obtaining access to Aboriginal-owned and claimed land along the proposed route of the railway and this could significantly delay or prevent construction of the railway," the papers read.
Proposed laws slammed by ATSICThe proposed laws to take land were slammed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) as "unnecessarily extreme", "very unfair" and "ill-advised", the documents show.
"ATSIC does not support the recommendation to draft Commonwealth legislation to enable the NT to acquire all interests in land along the proposed route of the railway," it reads.
"It is very unfair to Aboriginal traditional owners, who have not been consulted about this proposal, and will potentially be denied the ability to negotiate a fair agreement with the NT.
"[It] is an unnecessarily extreme response to the situation … [it] will provoke a strong negative reaction from Indigenous interests across Australia, and will renew public controversy over land rights only weeks after the Wik legislation has finally been settled."
NT historian Alex Nelson said there "was no love lost between the land councils and the Northern Territory government of that time".
"It was a major feature of Territory politics, was this divide between black and white essentially, and for much of that period … of self-government up to the end of the century, it worked in favour of the CLP," he said.
The rail line eventually proceeded after an agreement was reached between the NT government and Aboriginal traditional owners, with the link between Alice Springs and Darwin completed in 2003.
In February 2004, the Ghan arrived in Darwin for the first time to great fanfare.
Statehood plans well-advanced by 1998The documents also revealed how advanced planning was to create Australia's seventh state.
Prime Minister Howard had voiced his "in-principle" position "that statehood should be granted to the Northern Territory subject to terms and conditions to be determined by the Federal Parliament".
Why isn't the Northern Territory a state?
Among the conditions being debated, the papers show, were the ownership of uranium resources, how many senators should be allocated to the region, and whether the Ashmore and Cartier Islands should be incorporated into the federation's newest state.
The future financial situation of the fledgling state was also taken into account.
"The granting of statehood should avoid imposing any additional financial burden on the Commonwealth," the documents read.
A new state constitution for the Northern Territory had also been drafted and was contained in the newly-released cabinet papers, which ruled that Aboriginal customary law would be recognised as "a written law of the state".
One year after Howard's commitment, a statehood referendum held in the NT failed to garner the support of Territorians, with more than 51 per cent of the population voting against the proposal.
There has never been a second referendum held on the matter.
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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