Date: Sat, 13 Dec 97 21:28:22 CST
From: email@example.com (Brian Hauk)
Subject: Australian Gov't Tries To Gut Aboriginal Rights
Australian Gov't Tries To Gut Aboriginal Rights
By Bob Aiken and Ron Poulsen,
in the Militant
Vol. 61, no. 44 (15 December 1997)
SYDNEY, Australia - Prime Minister John Howard has moved to
sharply curtail Aboriginal land rights. His proposed
amendments to the Native Title Act (NTA) - denounced by many
pro-land rights figures as "the final act of indigenous
dispossession" - have been met in recent months by protest
rallies and public meetings across the country in defense of
Howard's amendments known as the 10-point plan come in
response to a rightist campaign to nullify a December 1996
High Court ruling in the Wik case, which legitimized native
title claims on pastoral leases - public land leased to
farmers and pastoralists (ranchers). But the polarization over
the issue is shaking his government.
With the proposed amendments likely to be blocked in the
Senate, where his government lacks a majority, Howard has
threatened to call a special general election over this issue.
Thousands rally to defend land rights
In one of the larger protests to date, around 5,000 people
rallied against the amendments October 11 in Sydney. Two days
later, several hundred people took part in an action at
Parliament House in Canberra, delivering a petition to support
native title rights signed by 60,000 people. "Native title"
refers to the customary land use rights - such as hunting,
fishing, camping, and access to ceremonial sites - of
Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the indigenous peoples
Some 200 Aborigines, representing 11 tribes from across the
remote Kimberley region of Western Australia, protested in
Broome October 6 at a hearing called by the parliamentary
committee examining the bill. One of the Kimberley peoples,
the Nyigina Mangala, have filed a native title claim on part
of the Fitzroy River. "We don't want to keep people out. We've
got to look after the place where we're born and bred," they
declared. "We belong to this river."
The hearing also heard testimony about a group of 300
people who live on a 1 square kilometer Aboriginal reserve in
the middle of a station (ranch) operating under a pastoral
lease. With all the gates padlocked, the Aboriginal community
is barred by the leaseholder from using station roads or
visiting their cemetery.
"Extinguish our title and you extinguish our people,"
declared the Kimberly Aborigines in their submission to the
hearing. The statement was read by Kimberley Land Council
executive director Peter Yu, who later denounced the hearing
as a "sham" after it was revealed that statements made in
Aboriginal languages were never translated.
Gatjil Djerrkura, Howard's appointee as the chairperson of
the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC),
announced November 5 that it would protest the prime
minister's attack on native title on the world stage.
Aborigines, who make up less than 2 percent of the
population, comprise the most oppressed section of Australian
society. Unemployment among Aborigines was 38 percent in 1994,
compared to 10 percent for the general population, while the
rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal youth is 18 times greater
than for other youth.
Howard has further angered supporters of Aboriginal rights
by opposing a campaign by representatives of the "stolen
generations" for compensation and an apology. Tens of
thousands of Aboriginal children were permanently taken from
their families and placed in institutions or foster care, in a
racist official policy carried out up through the late 1960s
in some states.
Meanwhile, federal Minister for Resources Warwick Parer
announced October 8 the go-ahead for the Jabiluka uranium mine
in the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory. The
mine is opposed by the Aboriginal tribe whose lands contain
both the proposed mine and the existing Ranger uranium mine.
They have been joined by environmental groups in a national
campaign to block the mine.
It was only in 1992 that a ruling by the High Court in the
Mabo case ended the legal myth of terra nullius - that
Australia was an "empty land" at the beginning of European
colonization. The terra nullius doctrine gained currency in
the 1880s, as the colonial rulers sought to justify their
course of action to dispossess Aborigines of the land. This
aspect of the Mabo decision belatedly reflected the political
ground already taken by Aboriginal rights fighters since the
As part of Mabo, the High Court also ruled that Aboriginal
title had been extinguished on freehold (private) land and on
government-issued leases that gave "exclusive possession." It
said that "continuous association" with the land was necessary
to prove a native title claim. This legitimized the
dispossession of the vast majority of Aborigines, who now live
in more settled regions of Australia. The NTA, which was
drafted by the Labor government of Paul Keating and took
effect at the start of 1994, states in its preamble that
native title is extinguished on leasehold land.
In December 1996, in a case brought by the Wik people of
northern Queensland, the High Court ruled against that, saying
that native title could be argued to coexist on a case-by-case
basis and as a subordinate right on pastoral leases, which
cover some 42 percent of the continent.
Pastoral leases in Australia originated to limit massive
land grabs by wealthy settlers in the 1840s and permit the
grazing of sheep and cattle, primarily in the more thinly
settled regions in the interior of the country. Today, in
addition to large corporations, thousands of working farmers
also work land under pastoral leases, which are issued by
Scapegoating of Aborigines
Over the course of this year, the National Farmers
Federation (NFF), which represents mainly capitalist farmers,
has spearheaded a campaign asserting that small farmers' right
to work the land is in jeopardy from the newly recognized
native title rights. This scare campaign is backed by the
National Party and sections of the Liberal Party, including
the state governments in Queensland and Western Australia.
Howard's measures were drawn up under the pressure of these
In early 1997 the presidents of the Queensland and West
Australian National and Liberal parties and the Northern
Territory Country Liberal Party - the governing parties in
these states and the Northern Territory - declared in a joint
statement that captured the sharp tone of the polarization,
"The history of the past two decades proves that the
Aboriginal industry has an insatiable appetite for this
nation's public lands, its pastoral estate, mineral fields,
rivers and seacoast."
"Aboriginal industry" is a derogatory term for the movement
for Aboriginal rights.
Howard's coalition government faces additional pressure
from the ultraright, with the rise of Pauline Hanson's
incipient fascist One Nation Party. Hanson has demagogically
targeted the limited gains in land rights and affirmative
action that Aboriginal people have made in recent times.
The campaign against the Wik ruling is taking place against
the backdrop of an ongoing farm crisis. In a period of rising
indebtedness, uncertain commodity prices, and long-term
drought, these capitalist forces have zeroed in on Aboriginal
claims for native title rights as the alleged source of
"uncertainty" for working farmers.
Central to the solution the capitalist farmers are
demanding is the upgrading of pastoral leases to private
ownership in a giant land grab that will benefit large
Howard's proposed amendments would do that, and by doing
so, virtually exclude most native title claims. The 10-point
plan makes it more difficult for Aborigines to register a
claim on crown (public) land, places obstacles to their right
to negotiate on land use, and sets a six-year time limit for
making a claim.
Three rightist National Party MPs joined Hanson and
ultrarightist Australia First MP Graeme Campbell in an October
29 House of Representatives vote to support alternative
amendments that would go further than Howard's in
extinguishing native title.
Important sections of the capitalist rulers are opposed to
outright "extinguishment" of native title, however. Attempting
to end the ongoing political wrangles around the issue, and
with a view to their standing in international politics and
trade, they favor a compromise "reconciliation" with the
This includes negotiation - based on the limited rights
recognized in the current Native Title Act - with Aboriginal
people over land use in areas subject to native title claims.
Three Liberal Party MPs have stated their opposition to
Howard's amendments on these grounds.
The de facto head of state, governor-general William Deane,
has opposed Howard's course, saying November 6 that it was
"essential" that the "hopes of true reconciliation be kept
alive. If they are not I weep for our country." Former Liberal
senator Neville Bonner, the first Aborigine elected to
Parliament, has denounced Howard's amendments as "racist" and
A number of major mining companies, who had initially
campaigned loudly against the Mabo decision along with the
NFF, have taken a different approach following the Wik
decision. The High Court upheld the validity of mining leases
being challenged in Wik, and Howard's amendments further
strengthen the position of the mining companies.
Bosses from both Rio Tinto, formerly RTZ-CRA, and Placer
have declared that native title is "a fact of life" that their
The Australian Labor Party (ALP) has proposed changes to
Howard's amendments that would remove the six-year time limit
on making native title claims, would allow Aboriginal
claimants the right to negotiate over the upgrading of
pastoral leases, and would grant mining companies tax
deductibility for expenses in negotiating agreements with
Sensing the weakness of the Howard government and basking
in the recent defection to the ALP of the leader of the
Australian Democrats, the biggest of the minor capitalist
parties in Parliament, ALP leader Kim Beazley has declared
that he too is ready to go to the polls on the issue.
Meanwhile, the Howard government's problems over native
title were highlighted by South African president Nelson
Mandela, October 26. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government
Meeting in Scotland, also attended by Howard, Mandela publicly
offered to mediate between Aborigines and the Australian
"We sympathize with communities that have been
discriminated" against, Mandela said, "and that have been
denied their basic human rights." ATSIC head Djerrkura has
invited Mandela to visit Australia.
Bob Aiken is a member of the Australian Manufacturing
Workers Union in Sydney.
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