Slippery solution

Mabo case highlights aboriginal land rights.

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. 

George Fisher