Land Rights

The land rights debate in the 1970’s was a tough and hard-fought journey for the Aboriginal people. In the 1967 Referendum, Australians showed their support for the Aboriginals, by voting to change the Constitution to include the indigenous in the Census and giving overriding authority to the Commonwealth government regarding Aboriginal affairs. Ralph Hunt, of the National Coalition Party and Federal Minister in 1971 stated ‘To just set aside land because Aboriginal groups and tribes believe they have a special right to it tends to only perpetuate the tribal system’, explaining that Indigenous people did not have the power nor authority to regain land that they believed belonged to them. However, by this stage, Aboriginal people were ‘less inclined to have white politicians deciding upon their best interests’. The quotation particularly reflected the ‘Assimilation’ policy in reference to the Indigenous people. In 1970, the Aborigines Advancement League had sent a petition to the United Nations, requesting that the union use its powers to uphold Aboriginal rights to the land. This strategy also failed.

On Australia Day 1972, Prime Minister McMahon also supported Hunt’s views in publicly stating that Aboriginals did not have a right to any land or compensation, while also declaring that mining was permitted on Aboriginal reserves. On that same day, an Aboriginal ‘Tent Embassy’ was established on the front lawn of the Parliament house, protesting to secure land rights. The embassy became the focal point for protests against denial of rights for Aboriginal people. Regaining control of the traditional land was crucial to the Aboriginal people, as all means of their identity, spirituality, and the Dreaming shared an inextricable link with the land. The government was surprised by the amount of public support for the Aboriginal cause.

A significant point in the lands right debate eventuated following the Labour Party’s Gough Whitlam’s reign as Prime Minister. Whitlam supported the land rights of Aboriginals and believed people should ‘contemplate what a British government would do’. Within Whitlam’s years as Prime Minister, he produced ‘one successful land claim’: by legally ‘handing back’ the deeds to Vincent Lingiari of the traditional Gurindji lands at Wattie Creek, NT in 1975. This however only provided the people with ‘leasehold of their tribal land’. Most of the actions regarding Aboriginal Land Rights in the 1970’s were symbolic, however no real ownership was achieved. Question 2:

The introduction of the ‘Mabo Judgement’ and the ‘Wik Decision’ were pivotal in the development of the Land Rights movement. The Mabo Judgement, named after Eddie Mabo, recognised the native title of the Merriam people to their original land, the Murray Islands. Up until the Mabo Judgement in particular, the government had decided Australia was not occupied prior to European settlement for legal reasons, or what has become known as Terra Nullius, meaning land belonging to no one. The High Court’s Mabo decision of 1992 acknowledging Native Title was based on the recognition of the spiritual links between the people and the land, and may continue to exist provided Indigenous groups continue to observe their traditional laws and customs. The Mabo decision also made clear that native title had been extinguished over freehold land.

This meant that there was no risk of suburban homes affected from land claims, as most private land in urban Australia is freehold. The Mabo judgement was the initial step in recognising the Aboriginal’s link to their traditional lands, and became the first positive push for the Land Rights movement. The ‘Wik Decision’ of 1996, developed after the Wik people had sought Native Title over traditional lands which were under pastoral lands leases in north Queensland. The Wik decision meant that Aboriginals and native title may coexist with pastoral leases. However, if conflict arose, pastoral leases would prevail over native title. As approximately 42% of Australia was covered by pastoral leases, the decision gave many Aboriginal citizens the right of access to traditional lands, provided they did not interfere with the landowners. The Wik decision was a significant phase in the Land Rights movement, which, for the first time, provided Aboriginals with a legal position to claim their traditional land. In 1997, the Liberal Howard government reacted to white Australian protest, referred to as ‘white paranoia’, by introducing the 10 Point Plan, which would greatly restrict the rights of Aboriginals.

This Plan made it much harder for Aboriginals to register a claim for native title, due to the tougher registration test. The 10 Point Plan developed into the inauguration of The Native Title Amendment Act of 1998. In reference to Frank Brennan, the act ‘allowed at least the rights to hunt, fish, camp and have ceremony’, which reflects the view that Aboriginal rights had been minimalised. The amendment act, initiated by the Howard Government expelled the right of Indigenous people to negotiate on pastoral leases, giving leaseholders the ability to carry out a range of activities, under the category of ‘primary production’, on the land without consultation with the Aboriginals. After all the progress of both the Mabo and Wik judgements, this was a significant setback in the development and growth of the Aboriginal Land Rights movement.

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