The Senate and Wik


The Senate and Wik

Parliament resumes sitting this week, so the government's Wik bill, the 10-point plan to undermine and destroy native title rights, will shortly again be before the Senate. The Senate's expected insistence on amending the bill is being talked up by the government as the trigger for a double dissolution election.

Aboriginal rights or interests seldom take a high priority in parliament. The connection of the Wik bill and a possible election makes it even more likely than usual that Aborigines will be the losers if the matter is left solely to the parliamentarians.

It must be remembered that the government and the opposition are arguing about only two of the government's 10 points. The Senate, as Senator Brian Harradine stated at the time in December, passed about 90% of what the government had asked for. Kim Beazley has publicly agreed with him.

The Senate blocked the government in only three areas: softening provisions to make it harder to register native title claims; rejecting a six-year sunset clause on claims; rejecting abolition of Aborigines' right to negotiate with mining companies on pastoral leases.

These points are important. But they have been allowed to distract attention from the bill's equally important attacks on Aboriginal rights that the Senate passed. These include validation of mining leases granted unlawfully by states following the High Court's Mabo ruling; extinguishment of native title over many leases; and abolishing the right to negotiate on national parks, internal waters and offshore waters.

Ironically, Aborigines have benefited, if only for the moment, from John Howard's insistence on having everything: if he had accepted the Senate's version of his bill, he would already have substantially reversed the rights recognised by the High Court in its ruling on the Wik case.

However, Howard was evidently banking on the possibility of the ALP agreeing to a "compromise" — at the expense of Aboriginal people. This possibility should not be discounted when the ALP has already given away so many Aboriginal rights.

In this regard, it has to be said that not enough has been done by supporters of native title since December to create the kind of mass campaign that can make dirty deals appear suicidal to any senators who might be tempted. If public opinion is rallied, and made vocal and visible, senatorial opinion will follow.

And that opinion has to be rallied for real native title rights, not the 90% extinguishment passed by the Senate in December. Our demand should be that the Senate reject Howard's Wik bill completely. Anything less would allow the government to get away with a further theft of land rights.