JUNE 1986 - VOLUME 7 - NUMBER 10
I N D I G E N O U S P E O P L E
200 Years of Servitude
by Marcy Burstiner
With plans for the celebration of the nation's 200th birthday already underway, the Australian government is in a tight spot. A boycott of the celebration by Aborigines-who have inhabited the island for more than 40,000 years-could be embarassing for the Labor government of Prime Minister Robert Hawke.
Tribal representatives say the Australian government has little to boast about. In the last 200 years, the Aborigines have been forced from their land and their sacred tribal sites have been destroyed. They live in impoverished conditions. Their suicide and death rates are alarmingly high. And since 1788, the year Australia was founded by European settlers, the Aboriginal population has decreased by almost 50 percent.
When white settlers began arriving in Australia in the late 18th Century, they forced the Aborigines off their land and violently struck down all forms of resistance. Reserves were later established for the relocation of the tribes, but as the population and needs of the settlers increased, the land reserved for the Aborigines decreased in proportion.
Aboriginal groups say that the issue of land rights has yet to be adequately addressed. In October of 1985, 400 Aborigines in Australia's Northern Territory asked the High Court to close the nation's largest uranium mine and force the operator of the mine to re-negotiate royalty rights and environmental safeguards with the Aborigines.
The suit, brought by the National Land Council (NLC) against Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) a week after the company announced its plans to double uranium production at the mine, has been broadened to include charges that former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and other government officials coerced the Aborigines into signing away their mining rights.
The action underscores the ongoing conflicts between the country's indigenous population and the Australian mining industry over land rights. Tribal advocates have argued that, at the very least, traditional inhabitants are entitled to compensation for loss of their land, royalties on anv minerals extracted from it, adequate environmental safeguards, and guaranteed protection of sacred tribal sites.
Predictably, the Australian mining industry says the Aborigine's demands are unreasonable. In 1984, industrial groups began a $2 million advertising campaign against any land rights legislation which included Aboriginal control over mineral exploration. The advertisements claimed that Aborigine tribes sought to restrict Australian citizens from enjoying the nation's parklands and to prevent oil and mineral exploration and development. Land rights legislation was billed as contrary to the national interest.
The industry even attempted to compare Aboriginal demands with the South African system of apartheid by claiming that the "already overprivileged" tribal groups were seeking to discriminate against the majority white population.
The mineral lobby was largely successful. The campaign prompted a reversal of government policy-which previously had recognized Aboriginal land rights, including rights to a mineral veto. In 1985, the government released its "Preferred Model for Aboriginal Land Rights" which retracted the Aborigines' right to veto mineral exploration and mining, and provided no compensation for the value of minerals extracted from the land.
In addition, it stipulated that the amount of royalty payments be determined by the government rather than by tribal councils, and that all claims for land rights be made within a period of 10 years.
The government's model was rejected by all sides. While Aboriginal interests say it does nothing to ensure protection of their resources, the mining industry maintains that the government gave far too much away to the Aborigines.
"The terms upon which large areas of land in the Northern Territory have been granted to Aboriginal ownership... have had a severe and harmful effect on the mining industry which constitutes one of the largest revenue earners for the Northern Territory," stated Jim Strong, executive director of the Australian Mining Industry Council at a conference held in November on development in North Australia.
Land rights proponents reject the industry's arguments. In January, Archbishop Frank Rush, president of the Australian Episcopal Conference, called on Prime Minister Hawke to resolve the issue of land rights before the 1988 bicentennial celebration and emphasized that the bishops hope "that Aboriginal landowners will be accorded at least the same protection from mining without their consent as are similar land-holders."
And in February the Caucus Aboriginal Affairs Committee of the Australian Labour Party unanimously called for legislation which would include a mining veto.
However, in a move seen as a rebuff to the Caucus committee, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Clyde Holdings in May proposed amendments to Northern Territory land rights legislation which would restrict Aboriginal control over mining to a five-year veto, reject Aboriginal rights to stock reserves, permit the Northern Territory government to take Aboriginal land for public purposes, and require all land claims to be filed within a ten-year period.
In February, 1986, Pat Dodson, national coordinator for the Federation of Land Councils, called for a national publicity campaign to match the industry's attempt to sway public opinion. But thus far, the councils have only been able to collect enough money to produce 2000 information packets-barely enough to distribute to government and media representatives.