By Melanie Sjoberg
ADELAIDE — There's a joke going around that says Mabo stands for "Money Available for Barristers Only", Kathy Whimp, project officer with the Aboriginal Legal Rights Service told a Politics in the Pub forum attended by 100 people here on August 4. On a more serious note, she described this as the most important Aboriginal issue since the 1967 referendum.
Whimp said that the recent Melbourne Age poll showing 88% of people had no doubt that Mabo would not affect their backyards was heartening. "It indicated that people were not being sucked in by the mainstream media hype", she said.
Whimp explained that the fundamental point was the lack of understanding about the legal system. She said the function of government was to establish laws and the role of the High Court was to interpret those. The High Court has recognised that Australia wasn't terra nullius, i.e., "in the modern world it is not tenable for legal notions to be built on the notion that Aboriginal people are not civilized enough to have a legal system". Native title does not arise from the white legal system but is governed by Aboriginal customary law. From this, it flows logically to the acknowledgment that dispossession is the basis on which to recognise inequalities and therefore the need for reconciliation to redress the last 200 years.
"Mabo didn't define native title therefore the new commission needs to work out what full ownership means and ensure that surface rights should assume the inclusion of fishing, etc", she said.
Whimp stated that the question of whether to offer compensation or relinquish titles relating to mining or resource companies has been putting pressure on the government to legislate in relation to mining rights. "It is clear that this powerful economic lobby has the voice and ear of the press."
She outlined some of the limitations of the consultation process of the last 12 months, where an inter-departmental committee has travelled around the country for discussions with mining, pastoral and land council representatives. In South Australia, for example, they didn't speak to the Aboriginal Legal Service because they are not "part of the community". She pointed out that the Eva Valley meeting was a significant step forward for the Aboriginal community to develop a unified position without the presence of white advisors and legal experts. "Ultimately, the decision around Mabo is only significant if it is taken advantage of," she concluded.
Much of the discussion centred around how supportive non-Aboriginal activists could help build solidarity with the Aboriginal community. More than 35 people indicated their interest in ongoing action. A planning meeting has been called for August 24 at 7pm at the Crown and Anchor Hotel. Call Chris on 231 6982 for further information or to express support.