Australian Farmers, Miners Fight Land Claim

While addressing lost property rights of its indigenous people, the government is trying not to harm mining and farming interests

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AUSTRALIA'S farmers and mining companies are troubled by uncertainty over land ownership arising from the claims of the nation's indigenous people to their ancestral territory.

"If the government doesn't put practical rules in place, it's going to have an impact on foreign investment, and will also have an impact on Australian companies making decisions on whether they continue exploration at the same rate or go outside the country," says Geoffrey Ewing, assistant director of the Australia Mining Council in Canberra.

An historic High Court ruling a year ago opened the door to Aboriginals and Torres Straits Islanders to file land claims under certain conditions. The "Mabo" ruling recognized a new class of ownership, native title. But it did not define what that meant.

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The uncertainty had mining and pastoral groups, concerned about their leases, calling for clarification. They worry that they might be forced to pay compensation to Aborigines under the federal Racial Discrimination Act of 1975, even though the leases were made before native title was recognized. Redressing wrongs

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who make up 1.5 percent of the population, want the land back that white Australians have occupied for nearly 200 years. The Australian government wants to redress the wrongs. But it does not want to harm mining and farming interests, especially in a recession.

Some conservative premiers of resource-rich states, which have the most to lose, have warned of stark consequences of the ruling. Richard Court, premier of Western Australia, said Mabo would create an "apartheid" situation. The Queensland premier, Wayne Goss, warned that investors would launch a "capital strike."

At a Council of Australian Governments meeting that began June 8 Prime Minister Paul Keating, who publicly supports the Mabo ruling, debated state premiers and territory heads over creating a national strategy to help clarify Mabo. Among the issues were a definition of native title, whether Aborigines could veto development, and the question of compensation. The marathon meeting did not come to a conclusion, but one thing was clear: Mabo could not be overturned by legislation, as several premiers hoped.

This meeting is the latest effort by the government to resolve some of the uncertainty over the ruling. In November, Prime Minister Keating set up an 11-month consultation, which he is chairing, among all groups who have an interest in the decision.

On June 3, the one-year anniversary of the Mabo ruling, the government issued a 100-page discussion paper that aimed to clarify the issues and provide a basis for discussion. It calls for a tribunal to determine native title and funding for Aborigines appearing in it. It validates existing leases until June 30. It also says that land reverts to native title when leases expire.

The discussion paper was seen as a goodwill gesture, aimed at placating both sides. But right before its release, the goodwill factor was compromised by a hasty deal between the Northern Territory and federal governments to secure mining leases to enable a huge $A250 million (US$360 million) lead-zinc-silver mine in the Northern Territory to go through.

The move outraged many Aborigines, who said the move extinguishes native title. New potential

While the Mabo ruling did not give native title precedence over existing freehold title, it did create a new potential for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders to claim land under Australian law.

"From our point of view, the delay by the government in producing principles has had two consequences: unnecessary apprehension among landholders and unrealistic expectations among Aborigines," says Rick Farley, executive director of the National Farmers' Federation.

Aborigines say the whole debate over land rights is being done without their input and ignores the real question of human rights that Mabo raised. (Indigenous people's series, P.9)

"The discussion paper couches the debate in terms of real estate and land-management issues," says Mick Dodson, federal Social Justice Commissioner. "It's not really a question of the nature of the title, it's a question of whether this nation is prepared to respect and defend Aboriginal and Islander interests in land."

Several land-rights claims by Aborigines have done much to exacerbate the tension. The Wiradjuri people have filed a claim to traditional lands amounting to one-third the pastoral and grazing lands of New South Wales. Another claim would encompass the central business district of Sydney. Claims won't stand

Legal observers say those claims would never stand up; they do not meet dictates spelled out in the ruling. Mabo only allows native title to be asserted over vacant, unused Crown land. And Aboriginals must prove a continuous relationship with the land. In New South Wales, with its prime coastal and agricultural land, Aboriginals were early driven off or killed.

The lawyer heading the Wiradjuri claim, Paul Coe, chairman of the National Aboriginal and Islander Legal Service Secretariat, says: "Native title is defined by the Aboriginal groups which possess it; and that means you have to sit down with Aboriginal groups for them to delineate the nature of native title and their understanding of it. The same question could be asked by Aboriginal people what does sovereignty mean?"

Farming and mining spokesmen agree it is important for all groups to sit down and discuss the issues.

"At the moment, the debate is being conducted at arm's length, by the press," Mr. Farley says. "We accept and recognize that Mabo is here to stay. You can't put your head in the sand, you've got to deal with it. There needs to be a national approach. The political challenge to the Prime Minister is to garner agreements between states, Aboriginal groups and industry."

Financial markets, mining and pastoral groups, and the tourism and real estate industries are anxiously awaiting the government's clarification of a historic high court land rights decision.

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