The taxation of aboriginal/native title payments gives rise to a number of complex and difficult legal and policy issues. Reform measures announced on 13 February 1998 by the then Federal Treasurer and Attorney-General did not address the possible capital gains tax (‘CGT’) implications and even those relating to ordinary income under s 6-5 Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 (Cth) remain unimplemented. The much anticipated Report of the Native Title Payments Working group (6 February 2009), while primarily focusing on non-taxation issues, also recognises the need for taxation reform and makes some recommendations in regard to such. Most recently, on 18 May the Assistant Treasurer, Senator Nick Sherry, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, and the Attorney General, Robert McClelland, announced the commencement of a national consultation on the tax treatment of native title, including the interaction of native title, Indigenous economic development and the tax system. The Assistant Treasurer recognised the need for “greater clarity and increased certainty for native title holders on how the tax system and native title interact.” At the same time, they released a paper entitled Native Title, Indigenous Economic Development and Tax to guide the national consultation. The proposed measures considered in the paper, including exempting Native title payments and/or creating a new tax exempt Indigenous Community Fund, provide a welcome step towards reform in this area. This article is part of a broader research project that explores the CGT implications of aboriginal/native title. While these provisions impact on both Indigenous traditional owners and relevant payers, such as mining companies, the focus in the project is particularly on the CGT implications for the traditional owners. This first part of the project examines the status of aboriginal/native title and incidental/ ancillary rights as CGT assets. The broader research project will then build on this analysis in the context of relevant CGT events. As the preliminary findings in this article evidence the CGT implications of aboriginal/native title are far from certain. The application of CGT to aboriginal/native title raises more issues than it answers. The key reason is that the current law is entirely unsuitable to communally held inalienable aboriginal/native title. Nevertheless, it will be seen that it is arguable that aboriginal/native title and/or incidental rights are post-CGT assets and acts in relation to such could trigger a CGT event with tax implications for the traditional owners. It will be suggested that these current tax provisions provide a very pertinent example where the law operates as a blunt tool that does not appropriately promote justice and reconciliation. To tax Indigenous communities as a result of acts that extinguish or impair their traditional ownership is incongruous. A specific provision(s) should be included in the capital gains provisions to ensure any such payments are exempt from taxation. This is not only fair given the history of uncompensated extinguishment of aboriginal title Australia, but also promotes the ability of Indigenous communities to optimise the financial benefits stemming from aboriginal/native title agreements.
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