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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 Catherine FosterStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 1993



SYDNEY

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.

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"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.

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.