A Continental Divide: Who Owns Aboriginal Lands?

Australian leader wants to weaken claims of Aborigines - or call a racially tinged election.

What if the US Supreme Court ruled that native Americans could lay claim to much of the United States?

In Australia, such a real-life drama involving Aborigines and descendants of white settlers has created a national political crisis.

Two high-court rulings since 1992 involving Aboriginal land have led to Prime Minister John Howard threatening to call national elections if the Senate fails to fix the Native Title Act and protect farmers, ranchers, and mining firms from the claims of Aborigines.

Prime Minister Howard says he is only trying to find a middle ground between Aborigines and present landholders. But opponents worry that he is speeding the nation toward an election that will be emotionally charged with racial issues.

With almost two-thirds of Australia's export earnings coming from farming and mining, the issue of who owns rural land - or at least has the right to use it - is important.

The debate has also set many rural Australians, worried about losing their land and livelihoods, against urban dwellers, many of whom would like to see the acrimonious debate over Aboriginal rights end amicably.

The Senate, where Howard's government lacks a majority, refused to pass the amendments last week. And in a rare session over the weekend, the House of Representatives formally rejected proposals by the Senate to change the amendments in favor of Aborigines.

Howard says he would prefer not to see an election fought over racial issues. But he will resubmit his amendments to the Senate in three months. If the Senate again refuses to pass them, the Constitution allows him to call an early election, possibly in mid-1998, instead of when it is required in 1999. Opposition leaders have urged Howard not to do so, saying the campaign would inevitably center on racial issues and prove divisive.

Howard's conservative coalition won a landslide victory at the polls in March 1996 after 13 years of Labor Party rule. But recent polls show the government trailing the Labor Party opposition right now.

Ruling enhances claims

The Native Title Act of 1993 was passed by the previous Labor Party government in response to a historic court ruling that, despite more than 200 years of settlement by Europeans, Aborigines still could claim land rights. The act set out a process for Aborigines to claim ownership if they could prove they had a continuous ancestral link to the land.

Mr. Howard's proposed changes follow another 1996 court ruling in what has become known as the Wik case, brought by Aboriginal people in the northeastern state of Queensland.

In that case, Australia's highest court found that Aborigines could claim title to vast areas of land held by farmers, ranchers, and mining companies under long-term "pastoral leases" granted by state governments. About 42 percent of Australia's land falls under these pastoral leases.

Although the court ruled that in the event of irreconcilable differences, the current leaseholders would have primacy, the powerful "pastoral" and mining industries were in an uproar.

The Howard government responded by drawing up the amendments. In the words of Howard's deputy, Tim Fischer, the proposed amendments provide for "bucketloads of extinguishment" to native title rights.

Charges fly

In the ensuing bitter debate, one Aboriginal leader has accused some government leaders of being "racist scum," while a government politician from a rural area urged churchgoers to boycott churches with leaders who sided with Aborigines in opposing the amendments.

Government ministers also raised the possibility that native title claims also could be made on land held under "freehold title," the usual form of land ownership in urban Australia, where two-thirds of the population lives.

This possibility was quickly denied by most legal experts and was not emphasized by the government, but it undoubtedly helped inflame passions.

The opposition Labor Party agrees with the need for some changes to its Native Title Act to create more certainty over land ownership. Labor Party leader Kim Beazley says changes proposed by his party would make the legislation more practical - and in keeping with the Constitution.

"What we in the opposition have been trying to do in the Parliament is to get right all these things that are wrong with the bill - simply to make sure that it's workable and certain in its operation, and strikes a fair balance," Mr. Beazley says.

"If we want reconciliation between black and white Australians, then the best possible thing we can do is get this bill right, so we don't have this divisive bill over and over again."

Aboriginal leaders remain unanimously and vehemently opposed to amending the legislation, saying the existing act provides the means for Aborigines and others to work together to make use of the land.

According to a recent newspaper poll, 52 percent of Australians fear the issue of Aboriginal land claims could divide the nation over race. The current row has occurred just as the prominence of controversial politician Pauline Hanson had begun to fade.

The prime minister was widely criticized for failing to denounce remarks by Ms. Hanson that were seen by many as racist and counter the damage her comments caused Australia's image overseas. Hanson shot to prominence last year when she said Australia was in danger of being swamped by Asians and criticized welfare programs for Aborigines.

Aborigines lag behind

By any number of measures, Aborigines are not faring well relative to other Australians. According to official statistics, the average lifespan is 15 to 20 years below the national average of 79 years. Only about one-third of Aborigines complete high school, compared with 77 percent overall. And unemployment among Aborigines is four times higher than the national rate of about 9 percent.

"The indigenous unemployment rate could reach 47 percent by 2006 unless there is an unprecedented expansion in job creation," says John Taylor at the Center for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University in the national capital, Canberra.

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