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Aboriginal Land Rights:Australia and the Mabo Judgment

A conference organised by the Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, London, 18-19 April 1996

Report by Tom Griffiths

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This major international conference on Aboriginal Land Rights, held at Australia House, London, in April could hardly have been more timely. It was the first full discussion of the issue since the election of the Howard Liberal Government in early March. Hence a conference initially conceived as a forum to explain the implications of the Mabo judgment to a European audience, became also an urgent political occasion where strong anxieties were expressed about the future of native title in Australia. The audience, described in AAP press reports as "Britain's opinion leaders", actually consisted of about one hundred business people, anthropologists, archaeologists, lawyers, activists for indigenous rights in many countries, ex-patriate Australians, and even "members of the British public".

In the week before the conference, the two Aboriginal leaders who had planned to travel to London for the occasion, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, became embroiled in the mounting crisis over Aboriginal affairs back home and were unable to attend. Noel Pearson's prepared speech, which was read to the gathering by Senator Margaret Reynolds, conveyed "the deep sense of panic and dismay amongst indigenous people about the current developments", and reluctantly predicted that "the progress made by the country in forging a legal and philosophical framework for a future relationship between the colonists and the colonised of Australia, founded on reconciliation, will be stalled and likely reversed".

Another notable absence at the conference was any representative of the Howard Government. Although the conference was supported by the Australian High Commission and held at Australia House, its London headquarters, High Commission staff did not have sufficient policy information available to enable any formal federal government representation to be made. By contrast, the Government of Western Australia paid for its Acting Chief Executive of the Native Title Policy Unit, Stephen Wood, to fly to London to explain that "apart from a balanced budget, native title is the number one policy issue" in his state, which is the biggest user of the Native Title Act.

The Queensland Labor Senator Margaret Reynolds described the exciting and tense negotiations which, in 1993, led to the passing of the Native Title Act, and she regretted "the inherent racism" of Australians which she feared was again receiving official encouragement. Paul Wand, who was appointed last year to the new position of Vice President - Aboriginal Relations in the Australian mining company CRA Limited (and who was wearing a black, red and yellow tie), spoke of CRA's determination to change the corporate culture of the mining sector "for the better", and hoped for a time when "Aboriginal people and mining companies would go hand in hand to government".

The conference provided evidence of the enduring moral power of Mabo, but also assessed the judgment's strength as a political and cultural watershed. Historian Bain Attwood, whose edited collection In the Age of Mabo was launched at the conference by Dr Howard Morphy, analysed the backlash to Mabo, particularly that on the Western Australian frontier. He scrutinised what he called "the dreamtime of conservatives", their "failure to imagine sharing the country" or to come to terms with the deep historical challenge thrown out by the High Court's judgment. Henry Reynolds warned that extinguishment of native title on pastoral leases would be a devastating blow to small communities across Australia and would complete the process of dispossession. It would also deny the original Colonial Office intentions for pastoral leases, as well as the profound contribution of Aborigines to the Australian pastoral industry.

Archaeologist Tim Murray studied the impact of Mabo on notions of heritage and national identity and questioned the implications of an Aboriginal ownership of heritage. The London audience was shown the land claims process in action, as anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose described the experience of wading across crocodile-infested rivers with the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, and evoked the dignity of dusty outdoor "courts". She explained some of the images of "Big England" held by Aboriginal people. Anthropologist Bob Layton described the differences between claims under the Northern Territory Land Rights legislation and those under the Native Title Act.

Although the political nature of the subject matter dramatically shaped and enlivened the conference, the occasion was also notable for gathering together an unusual range of expertise and perspectives, and for enabling rare dialogue. Sometimes it is easier to discuss sensitive issues from afar; sometimes it is easier to gather in the one room in London (albeit an imposing and imperial one) people who might avoid one another at home. In any case, as Henry Reynolds powerfully reminded the conference, Britain is a most appropriate place to hold such a meeting. It is in London, in the Colonial Office records, that many of the secrets of the Australian frontier are to be unearthed. It is those records, for instance, that hold the key to an accurate historical understanding of whether or not pastoral leases extinguish native title. It is in "Big England" that Reynolds' final question really hurts: "Will Australians of the late twentieth century have less respect for Aboriginal rights than the aristocratic Englishman who ran the Colonial Office 150 years ago?"

Tom Griffiths is the author of Hunters and Collectors: the Antiquarian Imagination in Australia, Cambridge University Press, 1996. It is reviewed by Ken Inglis in the September issue.

In Australian Humanities Review, see also Tom Griffiths Ecology and Empire: Towards an Australian history of the world
and responses to the Wik decision by both Tom Griffiths and Peter Read.

Please feel free to contribute to this discourse.

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