...Some political ramifications of the decision...
Its political impact has been tremendous. The High Court's acknowledgment of the extent of the injustices and dispossessions suffered by Australia's Indigenous peoples and its recognition of native title carry the seed for a more honest and just relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
On the night before the 1993 election, the then Prime Minister Paul Keating spoke to his advisors about the opportunity that the Mabo decision provides to 'do something with Aboriginal reconciliation'. In his speech at Redfern Park on 10 December 1992, Mr Keating declared that 'Mabo is an historic decision - we can make it an historic turning point, the basis of a new relationship between indigenous and non-Aboriginal Australians.'
Unfortunately, as the desecration of Eddie Mabo's headstone symbolises, the decision has been at least as much a catalyst for division and hostility as it has been for reconciliation. Greg McIntyre reflects on what might reasonably be thought to be an over-reaction to the decision:
'... six months after the decision it suddenly became the topic that every media outlet was talking about, and people were going hysterical about, I don't think I ever expected it was going to be quite like that ... one of the most significant lines I ever heard was from ... the West Australian President of the Pastoralists and Graziers Association who said in a public speech to the Australasian Law Students Association that Mabo was the worst disaster since the Second World War. So I guess in that sense it has hit home and caused a lot of concern to people who think that way ... and they obviously regard it as quite a significant change to the way Australia is. I mean I think that in many respects is exaggeration ... my preferred position ... is to say that it's not such a great change ... it's just that there's another group of people who have rights, who have title to land and you have to take it into account in administering the country ... that seems to have thrown fear and trembling into huge sections of the community ... so in that sense it's had quite a significant effect at the state and national political scene ...and the debate over that Bill [for the Native Title Act] was the longest ever debate in the history of the Parliament, and ... I was going to say vicious or emotional but perhaps one of the most heated and controversial debates. I suppose it ranks with debates about abortion or right-to-life ...to some extent it saddens me in a way because I would have thought that if this was a mature nation that you would more readily take on board what the Mabo decision was about ... there need not be all this fuss about it, and a lot of the fuss is based on fearing, the hysteria that flows from that.'
Other commentators have pointed to the modesty of the decision. In his article '204 Years of Invisible Title' [Mabo: A Judicial Revolution] Noel Pearson remarks that '[t]he truth is that the Mabo decision ... was the minimum that could have been given with any decency. Far from giving Aborigines greater rights than other people, it has left them with less.'
In a similar vein, Hal Wootten has commented that:
'The Mabo decision improved the situation a little. Those few Aborigines who have managed to hold on to their land despite 200 years of expropriation may now have their title protected against anyone except the crown, which can wipe it out with a stroke of the pen, without compensation. The only thing stopping State governments wiping out native title is that it would be racial discrimination which was outlawed by the Commonwealth Parliament in 1975.'
These divergent reactions reveal something about the complexity of the Mabo decision but much more about the intensity of the politics surrounding Indigenous issues in Australia. Sadly, the potential for the decision to be a platform for building a new, more equal and more positive relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia has not as yet been realised.
Keywords: backlash, desecration, High Court judgement, Keating, Paul, Mabo, Edward Koiki, Mabo judgement, McIntyre, Greg, pastoral industry, Pearson, Noel, political reaction, reconciliation
Interviewed by Trevor Graham, 1996; Wooten, Hal 'A Cheer for the Mabo Nudgers', 'Aboriginal Law Bulletin', Vol 63, no.2 at 2.
Author: Kenna, Jonathan
© Film Australia
Source: McIntyre, Greg