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Date: Sat, 13 Dec 97 21:28:22 CST
From: bghauk@berlin.infomatch.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 native title.

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 of Australia.

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.

Ground retaken

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 mid 1960s.

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 state governments.

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 forces.

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 leaseholders.

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 Aboriginal peoples.

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 "detrimental."

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 companies "accepted."

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 Aboriginal communities.

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 government.

"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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