The Bill that would have seen harsher criminalisation of the Northern Territory’s Indigenous Australians has been withdrawn by the Gunner Government.

If passed, the Bill could have seen Aboriginal people fined tens of thousands of dollars or imprisoned for up to two years if kin were buried outside of Government recognised cemeteries.

After ignoring recommendations made by many Aboriginal groups to the Burial and Cremation Bill 2019, the NT Legislative Assembly’s Social Policy Scrutiny Committee handed down a report in early October that endorsed passing the Bill without any amendments.

Northern Land Council CEO Marion Scrymgour said while the current Cemeteries Act 1952 needs a legislative overhaul, Indigenous Australians shouldn’t have to seek permission to bury their own on country.

“While the proposed legislation addresses a number of administrative problems with the Act it fails to account for contemporary Aboriginal culture in a way that we would expect in 2019,” Ms Scrymgour said.

“The Legislation should be able to respect the rights and culture of Aboriginal people while meeting the needs of government.”

In a statement from NT Minister for Local Government, Housing and Community Development Gerald McCarthy, the Bill was withdrawn last week “in response to concerns of Territorians on how it relates to customary decision making on Aboriginal land.”

“Penalties would only have applied in cases where burials occurred without a death certificate, permission from the next of kin and permission from the landowner,” the statement read.

A spokesperson for Minister McCarthy said the Bill was “misunderstood” and that had the Bill passed, over 100 new Aboriginal-controlled cemeteries would have been created.

“[It] was misunderstood in that penalties would not have applied to traditional burials on Aboriginal land, because they would have been legalised by the Bill.  Most traditional burials are currently not legal under the [Cemeteries Act 1952],” the spokesperson said.

Minister McCarthy also said the new legislation was designed to better reflect the current practices of Territorians, including recognising the rights of First Nations people to make decisions about their land.

“Government will continue to work with those who have concerns toward contemporary legislation, supporting their ability to conduct burials on Aboriginal land,” Minister McCarthy said.

Member for Nhulunbuy in the NT Legislative Assembly and fierce opposition of the Bill, Yingiya Mark Guyula said he was pleased at the withdrawal.

“But I am still disappointed that they didn’t listen to my concerns or the land councils or the [North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency] or the concerns raised by clan groups from the beginning,” Mr Guyula said.

“I want to have a Government that is genuine about local decision-making and handing control back to the people. We shouldn’t have to fight for the livelihood of our culture. It should be a partnership.”

Ms Scrymgour said NLC welcomes the decision to withdraw the Bill as it “does not properly recognise the importance to Aboriginal people of customary burials on their land.”

“Since the review of the Act has already taken many years, I want to urge the NT Government not to put it in the ‘too hard’ basket and to work with the land councils towards a solution to deal with this sensitive and complex issue,” Ms Scrymgour said.

Comments on Facebook from Minister McCarthy claiming the Bill was “widely misunderstood” have been condemned by Mr Guyula.

“This statement is insulting and ignores the genuine and informed concerns that have been raised by Aboriginal people from across the Northern Territory,” Mr Guyula said.

“It is not Aboriginal people who have misunderstood this legislation, it is the Northern Territory Government who have misunderstood that they have entered into an autonomous Aboriginal space and made decisions about what is good for us.”

The Department declined to comment on whether the NT Government had overstepped and taken Aboriginal decision-making into their own hands.

The Member for Nhulunbuy said the Government must work hard to overcome this paternalistic approach to working with Aboriginal groups.

“We have not misunderstood the content or intentions of this Bill. We stand strong because this is bad law that threatens our culture, customs and law.”

By Hannah Cross