Australia Grants Aborigines Right to Claim Native Title

TWO hundred years after being dispossessed of their land by Europeans, Aborigines are jubilant at the passage of legislation that guarantees, under limited circumstances, their territorial rights.

In the longest Senate debate in Australian history - nearly 50 hours - Minister for Foreign Affairs Gareth Evans pushed the Native Title bill through despite equally determined obstruction tactics by the opposition.

``It is a very substantial moment in our history, and a first step toward eventual, ultimate reconciliation,'' says Noel Pearson, spokesman for the Cape York Land Council, an Aboriginal advocacy group.

``This marks the end of the great lie of terra nullius, a new deal, and a turning point for all Australians,'' said Prime Minister Paul Keating, who has made reconciliation with Aborigines a key issue.

Terra nullius, meaning ``the land was unoccupied,'' was the legal doctrine the Europeans used to lay claim to the continent.

That doctrine was thrown out in the landmark High Court ruling in June 1992 that found that a form of ``native title'' existed prior to white settlement and could still exist on land where the government had not issued title.

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who could prove a longstanding relationship to vacant, unleased Crown land could petition the courts to get their land back.

The Mabo ruling, named after Eddie Mabo, a Torres Strait Islander, was short on practical details, like what native title meant. It raised much uncertainty, particularly in the mining and pastoral industries that were concerned about their leases.

Homeowners, not understanding the ruling, worried that their own backyards were in jeopardy. Land claims by activist Aboriginal groups over the central business districts in Sydney and Brisbane also fueled the fires of resentment and fear.

THE much-tinkered-with legislation establishes a system of courts and tribunals to deal with native title matters. Aborigines and Islanders must prove continuing association with the land claimed to gain native title.

The bill confirms all existing freehold title and almost all leasehold title. Farming leases override native title, but aborigines now have the right to claim land leased to mining concerns once the lease expires.

Where native title has been extinguished, Aborigines are entitled to compensation paid for by government. Aborigines now also have the right to negotiate with mineral leaseholders over development on their land, but do not have the right of veto. And the bill provides for a Land Acquisitions Fund to help impoverished Aborigines buy land to which they have proved native title.

The National Farmer's Federation has expressed satisfaction with the final outcome.

The Mining Industry Council has been opposed to the legislation and is unhappy with the outcome. Chairman Peter Barnett says the legislation creates uncertainty for the industry's investment plans.

``You've spent your money on developing your mine. The mining lease runs out, but you still have mine life there,'' he says. ``There's uncertainty over the terms upon which that operation will continue, because you have to negotiate with the native title holders.''

For most states, not much land is subject to native claims, and remaining unclaimed land is usually barren. Most territory is either populated or farmed, as in New South Wales and Victoria. In some cases, such as Tasmania, the Aboriginal population has been virtually wiped out. The Northern Territory has had its own land-rights legislation and has handed over vast tracts of land to Aborigines.

But in South and Western Australia, there is much vacant Crown land and a population of Aborigines to file claims on it. Those states are heavily dependent on mining and their premiers oppose the Mabo legislation. Western Australia has drafted legislation that would extinguish all native title. The federal bill overrides state legislation, and provincial lawyers are challenging its constitutionality.

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