Law & Nature > Northern Australia Law Futures Network

Future of Ecological Governance and Regulation in Northern Australia

The Northern Australia Law Futures Network (NALF Network) started with five legal researchers from Griffith University’s Law Futures Centre who had a common interest in applying their research expertise to the legal future of ecological governance in northern Australia. This expertise is growing as legal researchers join the network and contribute diverse areas of expertise including laws relating to native title, governance, soil, shipping, restoration, water quality, flooding, urban planning, fisheries, sustainable housing, aquaculture and genetic resource management. 

The focus on northern Australia arose out of the gap in environmental legal analysis concerning the latest government push to develop the north. In 2015 the Commonwealth Government released the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia setting out its economic plan for development primarily in food and agribusiness, mining, energy, tourism, hospitality, international education, healthcare, medical research and aged care. The development plan aims to “grasp [the North’s] full potential” to make it “an economic powerhouse within our great country.” The White Paper was conspicuously silent, however, on how to secure the North’s ecological future to cope with and sustainably support this form of development.

There is a wide range of research hubs, cooperative research centres, land councils, Indigenous corporations, universities, natural resource management groups, advisory committees, government regulators and other organisations working on a diverse range of projects of relevance to governance in the north. What is lacking is a central point for combining legal expertise with other governance and resource management initiatives.

NALF Network is a focal point for legal researchers to work collaboratively on a range of law and policy issues relating to the future of northern ecological governance. Members of the network carry out their own research and also have the opportunity to become involved in the Northern Australia Law Futures Research Program led by Griffith University. 

Northern Australia Law Futures (NALF) Research Program

The Northern Australia Law Futures Research Program (NALF Program) led by Griffith University explores four dimensions of potential legal issues surrounding current and future ecological governance and regulation in northern Australia. These relate to (1) the current fragmented legal governance framework that (2) compartmentalises subject-specific environmental matters in regulation (3) without a clear vision of the north’s ecological, economic, social and cultural values and (4) regulates the use of northern land, sea and resources using a narrow knowledge base.

These are four of the main strategic legal issues facing the north’s ecological future and constitute the four themes of the NALF Project. It seizes upon the timely opportunity to address these issues, given the current political attention and financial resources directed towards northern development, as well as the relative lack of impairment to ecological systems in the region.

Our Program’s four strategic themes:

1)    Fragmented governance
Current ecological governance is jurisdiction specific (three levels of government plus a range of governance bodies including Indigenous Land Councils, Joint Authorities and Regional Councils). Cooperative federalism and red tape reduction processes have not achieved the integrated legal governance necessary to address the cumulative social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts of northern land, sea and resource use.

2)    Compartmentalised regulation
Current regulation is subject-specific and designed to tackle components of environmental management (eg water, agriculture, fisheries, mining, shipping). It does not yet have the capacity to regulate the cumulative effects of a wide range of ecological, cultural, social and economic impacts on terrestrial, marine and freshwater environments. These cumulative effects can have a greater impact on the north’s ecological long-term resilience. 

3)    Neglected values in development
The sectors earmarked for development in the Commonwealth’s White Paper include food and agribusiness, mining, energy and tourism. From one vantage point, the White Paper appears to assume that a southern Australian economic and extractive model of development is best for northern Australian land and seascapes without necessary and adequate study of the implications. There is no clear vision of how the value(s) associated with the north’s unique ecological, and related social and cultural characteristics are to be included in policy formulation. There is no indication of how these values should be protected and enhanced through legal frameworks to support economic development.  

4)    Narrow knowledge bases
Today’s northern land and seascapes have been shaped by thousands of years of traditional knowledge approaches to management and use. Contemporary Australian environmental regulation has largely evolved to accommodate an approach to land, sea and resource management based on scientific world-views. The marginalisation of traditional and other knowledge systems in crafting legal frameworks to support economic development limits the range of management and conservation options available to decision-makers and policy and law developers that suit northern ecological, economic, social and cultural characteristics.

Our Vision

A unique geographic North Australia with integrated governance and regulation of the cumulative impacts on its shared ecological, economic, social and cultural values using scientific, Indigenous and other knowledge bases.

Our Mission

To systematically bring together expertise and knowledge from a range of disciplines to inform a broad knowledge-based, multi-jurisdictional and cumulative -focused governance and regulatory framework for northern land, sea and resource conservation and use.

NALF outputs


The Law Futures Centre is hosting a conference in Brisbane on 24-25 November 2017 to explore the Program’s four strategic themes. More information will become available in June 2017. For more details see:

NALF Program Leaders’ areas of expertise
(alphabetical order)

Each of our leaders brings the following areas of research and/or professional experience to the Program:

Professor Don Anton
31 years of experience in areas including international law, environmental law and policy, and natural resources law.

Associate Professor Afshin Akhtar-Khavari
21 years of experience in areas including international environmental law, soil and restoration law.

Dr Chris Butler
21 years of experience in the fields of law and geography, urban governance, administrative law and political ecology.

Dr Philippa England
20 years of experience in areas including planning and environment law, climate change law and local government law.

Ms Heron Loban
18 years of experience in areas including native title law and Indigenous legal issues.

Dr Fran Humphries
15 years of experience in areas including fisheries, aquaculture and genetic resource law.

Professor Poh-Ling Tan
33 years of experience in areas including property law, water planning and Indigenous engagement in water reform.

Open invitation for partners and collaborators:

If you or your organisation would like to join our research network and/or be involved in the Program, please email