PM Transcripts

Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 9037


Photo of Keating, Paul

Keating, Paul

Period of Service: 20/12/1991 to 11/03/1996

More information about Keating, Paul on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 15/11/1993

Release Type: Speech

Transcript ID: 9037

When the High Court of Australia handed down the Mabo
judgement last year, it set our generation of Australians
a great challenge.
The Court's decision was unquestionably just.
It rejected a lie and acknowledged a truth.
The lie was terra nullius the convenient fiction that
Australia had been a land of no one.
The truth was native title the fact that the land had
once belonged to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Australians and that in some places a legal right to it
had survived the 200 years of European settlem~ ent.
So here was an issue the country could not ignore
either legally, or morally.
There was another form of title that had to become part
of the way we manage land in Australia.
-we owe it. to Aboriginal Australians, to all Australians,
we owe it to our fair and democratic traditions and to
future generations of Australians to recognise this
native title.
Tonight we are within reach of an enlightened, practical
response to Mabo. This week I will be proposing
legislationi to Parliament which meets both the spirit of
the H-igh Court's decision and Australia's
responsibilities and needs.
The Bill will necessarily be complex, but this evening
want to cut through the complexity to some of its simple
prin~ ciples.
tœ irst we need to get tile background straight.
over tens of thousands of years Aboriginal people had
developed a complex culture built on a profound
attachment to the land.

The land nourished them spiritually a6 well as
materially. In the landscape and the life upon it they
saw evidence of the epoch of creation. Down through the
generations they passed on laws, customs, traditions and
ceremonies reflecting an obligation to care for the land
which went to the heart of their society.
Yet this most remarkable fact about Australia this
oldest continuous civilisation on earth has until now
been denied by Australian law.
The first European settlers declared that the land had
belonged to no-one and the indigenous Australians were
shunted aside, often with appalling brutality.
Much of the despair and degradation, conflict and
disease, and many of the problems which Aboriginal
Australians face today are a consequence of this
dispossess ion.
we have no need nor any use for guilt. This
generation cannot be held responsible for the cruelty ofprevious
But to ignore Mabo would be the final cruelty, and we
wg~ J4 be held responsible -by the world and by future
generations of Australians.
And they would be rih to hold us responsible.
There is much in Australian history of which we can be
tremendously proud for here in Australia we have
created a modern, tolerant, free, prosperous and
democratic society.
But we must understand that Australia's success has had a
price and surely the highest price has been paid by
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. They
often paid with their lives; with their rights, their
dignity and happiness; with their Land.
When the connection to the Jafld was broken their societ~ y
and economy was devastated.
But the connection was not broken everywhere and it is
a testament to the tenacity and resilience of Aboriginal
Australians that so much of the culture so much of the
Aboriginal story -has been passed on through generations
down to this day.
In 1982, Eddie Mabo and four others began action seeking
a legal declaratcion of their traditional land rights in
the Murray islands of the Torres Strait,
Tvn years later onL 3 June 1992, the High Court decided
that his people were entitled as against the whole of !: he

world to possession and I emfphasise Opossessions
occupation, use and enjoyment of these lands.
Thus the High Court of Australia recognised native title
arnd Aboriginal custom and tradition as a source of
Australian common law.
The Court accepted that native title existed where two
fundamental conditions were met:
that their connection with the land had been
maintained, unbroken down through the years
and Lhat this title had not been overturned by any
action of a government to use the land or to give it
to somebody else.
It is probably only where there is so-called vacant Crown
Land, and in remote areas where traditional Aboriginal
life has not been disrupted, that native title exists.
Nevertheless, the high Court's decision posed manyquestions.
Who holds native title over the land, and where?
What rights does native title give to Aboriginal people
to control access to the land, and the use of it?
What rules should govern dealings in native title land,
and how can our vital land-based industries get on with
the business of developing our natural resources.
From the outset the Government recognised that these
uncertainties needed to be faced: the Court had made its
decision but there was not the body of administration and
law to give effect to it.
From late last year the Government has been developing a
framework for such a law and discussing the principles on
which it would be based the first of these principles
being justice for indigenous Australians.
What sort of country would we be how could we claim
respect for the law if, after the highest court in the
land has recognised native title, we denyi it?
How could we say that we stand for a fair go if we were
to wipe away a title to land which has lasted through
thousands of years of occupation of the continent and 200
years of European settlement-How could we explain it to
Aboriginal Australians? How could we explai. n it to the
wo rl1d?
To deny Lhe High Court decision, to deny native title in
Australian common law would deny justice: for it wo-ild
deny indigenous Australians rights to land enjoyed bry
other Australians.

-M I
And the result could only be antagonism courtroom
battles and uncertainty in the commu'unity and in industry.
There is no decent or practical option but to recognise
the High Court decision and make it work.
Which brings me to the second of our objectives.
We must maintain a system of land management in Australia
which provides clear and predictable rules; security and
certainty for people who hold land; and a capacity for
dealings in land to proceed effectively.
So it must be an efficient system of land management, but
it must also be fair.
The legislation which we will introduce this week will
accomplish these objectives.
it will enable us to determine who has native title.
where, and the rights involved.
It will give Aboriginal people holding native title
the right to negotiate about actions affecting their
land a right, but not a veto.
it will permit governments to step in and decide, in
the final analysis, whether an important economic
project should proceed.
It will have the Conrnonwealth Goverrnent play its
proper role in setting clear rules and standards for
dealings which affect native title, but leave land
management to State and Territory governments if
they accept the national standards.
It will set up a system of courts and tribunals, in
effect as an umpire on matters of native title.
It will, to the extent practicable, preserve native
title from extinguishment, and where it is
extinguished, ensure just compensation, and...
It will provide security, so that no one who owns a
home, a farm, a mine, a tourist operation no one
need have concern about their tenure.
No one group will get all they want from this legislation
not Aboriginal people, not industry, not governments.
But the national interest will be served, and only the
Commonwealth legislation is capable of serving it.
As you know, Uit. e moment western Australia disagrees
with r-he Zomonwealth approach and is trying to ago it

Going it alone is not the answer. Ultimately, the
Couunonwealth law will prevail over the Western Australian
legislation and in the meantime uncertainty will only
continue. There is only one way to provide certainty and that is
with a single, uniform, national approach, a fair and
predictable set of rules which everyone can work with.
This is not just my view, it is the view of seven out of
our eight States and Territories, all of whom believe
this legislation can work.
It is also the view of the head of the National Farmers,
Federation and, among other prominent Australians, senior
memnbers of the Opposition parties.
With the challenge of Mdbo effectively met -with native
title efficiently brought within our land management
system, we can move on.
We can move on to see Mabo as a tremendous opportunity -it
An opportunity to right an historic wrong.
An opportunity to transcend the history of dispossession.
An opportunity to restore the age-old link between
Aboriginal land and culture.
An opportunity to heal a source of bitterness.
An opportunity to recognise Aboriginal culture as a
defining element of our nationhood and culture and to
make clear that this Australia, this modern, free and
tolerant Australia can be a secure and bountiful place
for all including the firs. t Australians.
CANSEP November 1993

Transcript 9037