Are Land Rights, Equal rights or Special rights in Australia?

The issue of land rights for Aborigines has always been controversial. From the very beginnings the ideals of democracy were restricted to the white race. In fact there was much unwillingness on part of orthodox politicians to consider aborigines as people in the first place. Such a despicable state of affairs was to span across centuries. The prejudices and discriminations that such a political stance entails will always remain a taint on this colourful nation’s history.

The 1960’s were a crucial period in the turnaround of fortunes for the aborigines. The “great Australian silence” was becoming difficult to keep and dissenting voices were becoming ever louder. Running parallel to the civil rights movement in the USA, the Australian political landscape was also to be changed for ever. At the forefront of this social justice movement were noted intellectuals like C.D.Rowley and Donald Thomson. They bravely and openly questioned the status imposed on the native people by the recent occupiers. These men were reiterating the stance of their predecessors of the previous generation, which included Reverend All Clint and W.E.H.Stanner (Pilger, 1996).

Although there were some reformist Caucasian intellectuals involved in this campaign for justice, the role of aboriginal people in their own emancipation is significant too. Under the inspirational leadership of Hobbles Danayarri a strike was carried out at Wave Hill Station in 1966. This was to prove a landmark event in recent aboriginal history. Due to various constraints, the aborigines had always found it difficult to organize at a national level. Hence, much of the human rights campaign had to be executed locally and sporadically. Although this tended to undermine the movement in general, some of the victories gained gave hope to the aborigines. For example, the Yirrkala community made a persistent effort to gain land rights and eventually won. The victory may have belonged to a small group of people, but its implications were understood by all natives across the continental landscape. On a similar vein, the efforts of Yolngu, Meriam and Mabo communities in winning recognition for their basic rights was to hold historical significance (The Economist, 1993).

There are misgivings between the natives and the occupiers in relation to ownership of farmlands. To be fair, the natives have been much accommodative and their small demands are easily to fulfil. Yet the nation had to wait till the Wik decision of the 1990’s to see justice in action. The Wik decision emphasized to all parties – the pastoralists, conservationists and aborigines – that peaceful co-existence is the only path open to them. The following is passage explains the nature of this historic development.

“An agreement was signed between representatives of the Aboriginal landowners, cattlemen/women and conservation-wilderness groupings. Aboriginal people were giving non-indigenous people in the northern landscapes of Queensland a unique opportunity to remake (in many cases to continue) their relationships with Aboriginal `first nations’ or communities: to share the land and sea according to different and also overlapping cultural principles.” (Perera & Pugliese, 1997)

Moving toward a mutually acceptable agreement is the only sensible way out at this juncture. For example, Australia’s east coast is home to some of the most diverse and pristine eco-systems. It is in the interests of all citizens to pay heed to the long-term benefits of such eco-systems. While the aborigines are the group most supportive of natural resources, the exclusively white business groups are intent on deforestation – though it is euphemistically called “opening up the country”. It is increasingly becoming clear that any move that would put the natives at a disadvantage is not good for the country as a whole, as the aborigines seem to possess an instinct for sustainable development that the more educated classes seem to lack (Sharp, 1998).

Another important legislation relating to land rights was the Native Title Act. For long, the Native Title Act had been interpreted to support existing business interests by the judiciary. Though the law was enacted keeping the best interests of the aborigines and the natural environment, it had failed to provide the necessary protection for both people and the environment. The ambiguities pertaining to this law need be sorted out so as to make it a valuable instrument of justice (Tsokhas, 1998).

The current trend of business friendly economic policies across continents is acknowledged as the primary deterrent of aborigines’ progress. Under the new world principle of globalization, the most affected are the local and small-time manufacturers, who do not have the wherewithal to compete on the global market place. This sentiment is expressed eloquently thus,

“Along the new frontiers of globalisation, the thrust is towards removing locally based knowledge and cultural creation from its own social space and environment, and rendering it homeless. This is the same force that is de-treeing the forests, polluting rivers and beaches; the force that is shaping consciousness and contributing towards feelings of shame among non-indigenous people at the destruction of native forests. So they perch on high branches or lie in front of bulldozers. The wish of non-indigenous Australians for trees to re-vegetate the treeless plains, which their great grandparents believed elementally were a pre-condition of progress, taps a new sensibility which, different in many ways to that of indigenous groupings in Australia, has nevertheless important points of contact.” (Sharp, 1998)

The fact that the indigenous aborigines make up less than 2 percent of the population gives them virtually no political clout. Hence, any progress toward their equality and justice is purely linked to the collective white conscience. The conservative policy making of the Howard administration has made any significant turnaround very difficult. In this backdrop, the Native Title Act of 1993 has come as a ray of hope. The recognition of indigenous people’s land rights after two centuries of deprivation to them has the potential to restore native traditions and customs. The primary opposition to this legislation, however, is from the influential mining lobby. These businesses have no interest in long-term health of the land they exploit. Nevertheless, due to their strong influence at the highest levels of administration, the lobby was able to force many amendments to the original act. These amendments provide loopholes for business corporations to profit from. Such a development is further insult to the much oppressed indigenous community (The Economist, 1998).

The Native Title Act can potentially act as a deterrent for mining projects. Even with all the amendments, it still adds cost to the miner to set up a site. Although this is a small victory for the native inhabitants, unless a widespread change in consciousness is brought forth the status of the deprived lot will remain the same. The National Native Title Tribunal, which was set up to streamline the enacting of the law, has met mixed success. Again, it goes to show, that social justice in a predominantly capitalist society is not straight forward. So far, the whole issue of land rights has followed the maxim of “might is right”. There is little hope for a brighter future for the people who rightfully belong to this great continent (The Economist, 1993).

The current set of legislation fails on two counts. First, it ignores the symbolic and conceptual contours of the aboriginal tradition. Secondly, it discourages the revival of this tradition. These sentiments are captured in the following passage:

“The dilemma of Heritage Protection Legislation is that all the processes of eliciting, investigating, challenging and denying the ‘sacred’ from Aboriginal communities have the effect of transforming the second sense of tradition into the first sense. The dilemma of anthropologists is that we cannot forestall this process without repudiating the dynamic aspects of culture and meaning that we confront.” (Weiner, 1999)

Apart from vested interests, there are other technical difficulties associated with land legislation that adds ambiguity while determining ownership. Ever since the post World War boom, where Australia benefited by virtue of aiding the allies, the pro-business lobby had gained unprecedented strength. The mining industry is big-business these days. The formation of the Australian Mining Industry Council (AMIC) is another blow to the indigenous population. The council’s objectives include lobbying the government “over changes in the exchange rate, wages and budgetary policy, foreign investment guidelines and tariffs on imports of machinery and raw materials” (Tsokhas, 1998). It is a professionally run organization that is ruthless in its drive for profits. With such an overwhelming opposition to contend with, the forgotten minority of native inhabitants face a bleak future.


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