A shameful betrayal


Editorial: A shameful betrayal

When Prime Minister John Howard and Senator Brian Harradine announced the compromise that will ensure passage of the government's Wik legislation through the Senate, most media commentary focused on which of the two had conceded more.

Although no-one can be certain until the 300-page compromise bill is resubmitted and examined in parliament, it appears that Harradine agreed to a limitation of Aboriginal native title holders' right to negotiate about mining on pastoral properties, and that Howard yielded some ground regarding the threshold test and "sunset" clause for claims, and on making the legislation subject to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Seemingly lost in the concern over whether Howard or Harradine had "blinked" more was the central point: both negotiators were discussing what to do with someone else's property rights.

"I remain concerned and dissatisfied with the fact that indigenous Australians were specifically excluded from the process of negotiation about our rights", ATSIC chairperson Gatjil Djerrkura said.

Djerrkura is quite right. Just about everyone else imaginable — state and federal politicians, pastoralists, mining companies, farmers, business — was consulted, but the government saw no need even to inform representatives of the people whose rights were to be curtailed. Once again, an Australian government treats Aboriginal people, not as citizens, but as a conquered people.

It needs to be kept in mind what Howard's "10-point plan" was all about. The High Court, in its Wik judgment, had upheld certain native title rights in regard to property subject to pastoral leases. The aim of the government's amendments to the Native Title Act was to reverse as much as could be reversed of the High Court ruling.

The Coalition government had a clear precedent here: the Keating Labor government had done much the same thing with its 1993 Native Title Act, which curtailed Aboriginal rights recognised by the High Court's Mabo decision. It is therefore not surprising that in April the Labor "opposition" in the Senate voted to approve eight or eight and a half points of Howard's 10-point racism.

Ironically however, the inability of the House of Representatives and the Senate to agree on precisely how much to reduce Aboriginal rights meant that no new legislation had been passed. Legally, therefore, the High Court Wik ruling remained in force.

That situation would have been preferable to any version of the government's legislation. But there was no chance of either government or opposition allowing it to continue, because the mining companies were insisting on the maximum extinguishment of the right to negotiate. They will now have their way.

Aboriginal interests have been betrayed throughout the entire dispute over the Wik legislation: by the Coalition, by the ALP and by Harradine. Honest people benefit when thieves fall out, according to the proverb. But in the parliamentary den of thieves, the falling-out is never that serious.

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