At least the South Africans acknowledged the ownership of 400,000 square miles of South Africa by the original native inhabitants. We would regard [Ian Smith, the then Prime Minister of Rhodesia] as going entirely berserk in Rhodesia if he acknowledged no native land rights at all. But the position in Australia is that we acknowledge no native land rights whatever. We took the lot with our proclamations of sovereignty.
That complaint, made by Mr Beazley MP in 1967, was corrected twenty years ago on 3 June 1992
, when the High Court of Australia found that "the common law of this country recognizes a form of native title
", overturning the doctrine of terra nullius that had held since the 1830s.
While there had been earlier laws recognising limited forms of Indigenous land rights, it was not until after the Mabo court case that the Australian Government passed the Native Title Act 1993
, which set out the framework through which Indigenous people could make claims to native title. Around 16 per cent of Australia's land mass is now covered by native title determinations.
The extent to which native titles rights existed, and how these rights should interact with existing property and settlement, was subject to fierce debate
: some public figures raised the spectre of native title endangering the backyards of suburban private property owners
, and miners and pastoralists achieved a variety of exclusions. Subsequent court cases and legislation
served to better define, but ultimately weaken, native title rights.
Some reflections of two decades after Mabo:
Dr Mary Edmunds, Anthropologist: "There is effectively universal agreement that the recognition of native title has delivered neither the bright future it promises to indigenous people nor the catastrophe feared by those whose interests felt threatened."
, Indigenous community leader: "The opportunity of Mabo is not completely lost to the country, but it is in severe decline. It is going to slip from the hands of the country as long as the political and judicial leadership remains as poor as it has been."
Prof Marcia Langton and Prof Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh give a radio interview
on why the high hopes of native title reform have not come to pass.
So where to from here? 27 May to 3 June was National Reconciliation Week 2012
, and this year's theme was "Let’s Talk Recognition": a reference to the report Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution
that was presented to the Australian Government on 19 January 2012. The report calls for the Government to take advantage of a "historic opportunity to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of Australia, to affirm their full and equal citizenship, and to remove the last vestiges of racial discrimination from the Constitution".
Many see constitutional recognition of, and revision of the so-called race powers regarding, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders an important next step in advancing the causes of both native title and broader reconciliation. However, constitutional reform is a rarity in Australia, with only eight of forty-four proposed ammendments being approved, the last occuring in 1977.