Mabo case highlights aboriginal
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
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
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.