Mabo case highlights aboriginal land
Aboriginal leaders in Australia have rejected the Labor Government’s
response to the controversial Mabo land-rights case. The High Court ruling in
the case of Mabo vs Queensland in June 1992 overturned the assumption that
Australia belonged to no-one before white colonization.
The Government’s 33-point response largely overlooks the Aborigines’ own
eight-point charter for reform. Noel Pearson, director of the Cape York Land
Council, described the response as ‘slimy’, attempting as it did to reduce
the debate to an issue of land management. Mick Dodson, aboriginal social
justice commissioner and former director of the influential Northern Land
Council, has called for the debate to be centred clearly on human rights. He
said the oppression of, and violence against, Aborigines had been perpetrated
first by guns and strychnine, then by word-processors and bureaucrats.
The figurehead of the Mabo case was Eddie Mabo – the traditional leader of
the Meriam people of Murray Island in Torres Strait – who died in January
1992 from cancer. Two other plaintiffs also died before the High Court handed
down its ruling.
Central to the Government’s response is the proposal that each state should
establish a tribunal system to decide aboriginal land claims. It would also
validate all mining, farming and tourism leases granted before 30 June 1993.
Aboriginal groups would be able to claim compensation, but would have no right
of veto. Leases signed after 30 June would give Aborigines both native title
claims and the right of veto.
A United Nations draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people, which
went before its Human Rights Commission in July, would give strong support to
the Mabo case if implemented. It proposes the right to self-determination,
autonomy and self-government for indigenous peoples. It also states that
indigenous peoples have the right to restitution or just and fair compensation
where land has been ‘confiscated, occupied, used or damaged without their
free and informed consent’.
Three Australian states have expressed concern that they might have to make
huge compensation payouts, and suggest that economic recovery from recession
could be seriously impaired by uncertainty over investment. Prime Minister
Paul Keating endorsed Northern Territory legislation against an aboriginal
land claim that would have stopped a proposed $250 million McArthur River
mining project in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The conservative National
Farmers’ Federation, as expected, has been strongly critical of the proposal
that native title should be revived once a pastoral lease expires.
Meanwhile a health report released at the same time as the Government’s
response to Mabo caused the Minister of Health, Senator Richardson, to admit
that health standards have not improved among Aborigines, who still contend
today with health problems that disappeared from the white Australian
population in the 1890s.