Objectives: The need to improve access to good health care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been the subject of policy debate for decades, but progress is hampered by complex policy and administrative arrangements and lack of clarity about the responsibilities of governments. This study aimed to identify the current legal basis of those responsibilities and define options available to Australian governments to enact enduring responsibility for Aboriginal health care.

Methods: This study used a framework for public health law research and conducted a mapping study to examine the current legal underpinnings for stewardship and governance for Aboriginal health and health care. More than 200 pieces of health legislation were analysed in the context of the common and statutory law and health policy goals.

Results: Very little specific recognition of the needs of Aboriginal people was found, and nothing that creates responsibility for stewardship and governance. The continuing absence of a legislative framework to address and protect Aboriginal health can be traced back to the founding doctrine of terra nullius (unoccupied land).

Conclusions: We considered the results applying both a human rights perspective and the perspective of therapeutic jurisprudence. We suggest that national law for health stewardship would provide a strong foundation for progress, and should itself be based on recognition of Australia’s First Peoples in the Australian Constitution, as is currently proposed.