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  • Blackfellas and Whitefellas: Aboriginal Land Rights, The Mabo Decision, and the Meaning of Land
  • Ronald Paul Hill* (bio)

I. Introduction

This paper examines the most controversial political situation in Australia today, the provision of land rights to Aboriginal people as a result of Mabo v. Queensland. In order to frame this issue, the history of land rights for Aborigines is discussed with an emphasis on the Mabo case, and the literature on the meaning of land to Aboriginal people is described. Next, a naturalistic investigation is presented, which involved participant and nonparticipant observation of Aboriginal people as well as in-depth interviews. The results from this study entailing the Aboriginal perspective of land, that may guide the proposed national legislation on land rights, concludes the paper.

Many decisions of the High Court have resulted in controversy, but few, if any, have given rise to such a diversity of responses, ranging from euphoria to deep anxiety as Mabo v. Queensland. 1

Without a doubt, the most important and contentious political situation in Australia today involves Aboriginal land rights. While momentum had been building for more than thirty years, it reached its apex when the High Court of Australia upheld the claims to tribal lands of Eddie Mabo and four [End Page 303] others from Murray Island in the Torres Strait (off Queensland), overturning the doctrine of terra nullius, which assumed that Australia was unoccupied at the time of British settlement. 2 The report that followed this ruling “documented how the bias in Australia’s judicial system had a fatal effect on fragile lives ruined by alcohol, extreme poverty and marginalization.” 3

During the early years of British settlement (beginning in 1788), Aborigines were considered a problem because of “unsocial acts” such as spearing cattle and sheep as well as direct confrontations with white settlers. 4 Later, particularly after the 1920s, Aboriginal people were considered a problem because of adjustment difficulties related to their domination, including alcoholism, prostitution, and gambling. 5 By that time, many Aborigines had been dislocated from traditional lands to make way for white pastoralists and farmers. They moved to cities, towns, and fringe camps surrounding their former homes, and often were viewed by whites as a people without a culture; they had lost their traditional culture because of dislocation from the land, but failed to come up with an acceptable alternative. 6 Thus, following World War II, the official policy towards Aborigines became one of assimilation in an attempt to better incorporate them into the dominant culture. 7

As a result of the civil rights movements of the 1960s, the view that Aboriginal culture should persist rather than disintegrate became popular, and led to the policy of self-determination for Aborigines. 8 This movement gathered strength in the 1970s, and one of its most important tenets involved Aboriginal land rights. According to Bradford Morse:

It is submitted that the two most essential elements in safeguarding the survival and unique identity of indigenous peoples is respect for their land and their law. Possession of a land base permits the preservation of culture, language, values, lifestyle and law. It further ensures the retention of powers of self-government and the right of self-determination. 9

Prior to the Mabo case, the courts in Australia had failed to support the traditional relationship between Aborigines and the land. However, this ruling opens up the possibility that native title to land on the mainland of [End Page 304] Australia may exist. While this judgment is being cheered by advocates for Aboriginal rights, the impact upon Australia’s economy is unclear. A constituency made up of a variety of business persons and state legislators is concerned that current and future claims by Aborigines on crown lands (which make up major portions of most states—for example, approximately 50 percent of Western Australia—may inhibit investment in at least two of the major revenue-generating industries, mining and tourism. 10 This contentious situation has resulted in increased conflict between Aborigines and white Australians, 11 fueling negative stereotypes of Aborigines as “lazy, unreliable, lacking persistence, and irresponsible” in attempts to portray them as incapable of productively owning land. 12

The purpose of this research is to...

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pp. 303-322
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