My first official job was on a task‐force appointed by Queensland Premier Wayne Goss in 1991 – led by his wunderkind head of the cabinet office, Kevin Rudd – to develop Aboriginal land rights legislation. In opposition since time immemorial, the fledgling Labor government dreaded its commitment to introduce land rights legislation in the most conservative of states. In dramatic circumstances, at a national conference hosted by Premier Goss as part of Justice Tony Fitzgerald’s Fraser Island Inquiry, the Premier announced the government’s intention to develop land rights legislation. I was there with a delegation of Cape York elders and colleagues; I had begun my own trajectory in pursuit of land rights for the people of Cape York Peninsula by forming the Cape York Land Council the year before.
Kevin Rudd and Wayne Goss eventually produced miserable legislation – an opinion that I have not changed sixteen years later. The new law provided for a slightly different form of title to replace that previously granted by the National Party government of Sir Joh Bjelke‐Petersen. The practical effect of the title transfer was negligible and did not grant any more land than that already under Aboriginal ownership. Most of these title transfers have still not taken place.
Provision was made for Aboriginal groups to claim lands on the basis of their traditional affiliation or historical association, or economic and social need. National parks and vacant Crown lands were the only land that could be claimed before a specially established Land Tribunal – but only those parcels of land that the executive government had decided were available. This provision, which Kevin Rudd designed, enabled the government to control what could be claimed, and when it could occur. There was no right to claim land other than what government determined. In the sixteen years of this legislation, very few parcels of vacant land were ever gazetted for claim: I know of only one claim that went through the process. Around a dozen national parks were made available – principally in Cape York but also the Great Sandy Desert National Park in the south‐western corner of Queensland – and they were all successfully proven before the Land Tribunal.
I represented the traditional owners in the first claim to the Flinders Islands and Cape Melville National Parks in 1993. The claim was successful. However, the Yiithuwarra traditional owners have still not received title to the park. They have no role in its management, and not one of them is employed by any of the plethora of government agencies responsible for the “natural resource management” of these lands and seas. The managers are all white. Half of the Yiithuwarra who gave evidence in the 1993 claim, including almost all the elders, are now dead. The implementation of the original commitment to hand over title and management of national parks to traditional owners has been in abeyance during the three terms of Premier Peter Beattie’s government. The government fears an electoral backlash if it proceeds with the Goss/Rudd scheme.
I recount this story first to make the point that if I had a dollar for every time I heard that phrase “social justice” fall easily from the lips of a Labor politician in my home state, I would be an extremely wealthy man.
My first experience of the realpolitik of fighting for Aboriginal rights was bitterly hard. The most shameful thing occurred on the day Premier Goss tabled the Bill. It contained nothing to distress the miners or the farmers, whose interests were fully accounted for. Then Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane Peter Hollingworth duly came out and gave the government’s paltry legislation his extraordinary blessing. It was the Premier’s language that was shocking. He and his advisers had determined that the best way to sell the new law to an unsympathetic Queensland public was to make it clear he was not giving any free handouts to the blackfellas. The grab on the evening news was to the effect that the provision for the payment of royalties for mining would not allow any Aboriginal “sheiks” to drive around in Rolls Royce motorcars. It was appalling. True to his promise, the minor provision for the payment of royalties for mining applying to only one of Queensland’s numerous mines – the Cape Flattery Silica Mines owned by Mitsubishi on the land of the Hope Vale community – has not paid one cent of royalties to the community sixteen years later.
I learned a bitter truth through this experience: that Aboriginal people are lepers in the Australian democratic process. I have watched with awe how the progressive lobby turned al‐Qaeda recruit David Hicks into a relentless, irrecusable and finally triumphant national cause – from Taliban terrorist to latter‐day Nelson Mandela of Guantanamo Bay. It has (occasionally) been said that it is not the man, it is the principle. There is a much clearer principle involved in the breach of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by operation of the Australian Government’s Native Title Act, but this could not be made a cause célèbre. In terms of marketability, it is easier to sell a terrorist than an Australian Aborigine subjected to ongoing racial discrimination by the country’s laws relating to native land title. Australia’s democracy is telegenically allergic to blackfellas.
This got me thinking about pragmatism and realism in political leadership. The new breed of Labor apparatchiks running state governments after the disasters of the 1980s were more hard‐headed about the imperatives of holding on to power: no more Whitlam‐esque indulgences, no more socialism. Goss, Rudd and Swan were the new pineapple heads of the Sunshine State. I understood that Aboriginal causes were political hard‐sell. I felt at the time that Premier Goss could have produced more just legislation without cutting his government’s throat in the process. I thought about low‐level, poll‐driven pragmatism versus ideals. Wayne Goss had been part of the Labor lawyer brigade who had spent time working in Aboriginal Legal Aid, yet in two electorally handsome terms his government did nothing to improve the lot of Queensland’s most abject people.
Later the albatross of Australia’s lepers hung around the throat of Paul Keating’s prime ministership in 1996. Never before, and likely never again, would indigenes be invited in from the woodheap to sit at the main table as they did during those Keating years. This just confirmed the opinion that Aborigines are electoral poison. No more bleeding hearts. No more prime ministerial insistence that the blackfellas come in from the cold
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