NATIONAL: Land rights is a means, not an end, writes ANDREW CHALK.
The Aboriginal Land Rights Act is unquestionably one of the most significant laws ever made in New South Wales.
It carried an acknowledgment of the importance of land for Aboriginal people and the injustices wrought on them by colonisation. And while the land compensation mechanisms in the Act could never live up to the claims which politicians made for them at the time, the Act has been far more successful than many suspected in addressing some of those historic and ongoing wrongs.
Most bills which come before a Parliament have modest objectives. They regulate the amounts of duty payable on property sales in order to raise revenue to enable hospitals to care for the sick. They determine what water a farmer can take from a river to use on their property or the criteria that entitles a person to drive a car on a public road. These are all important things.
But, unlike the Land Rights Act, they don’t bear directly on the capacity of a people to express their identity or the legitimacy of the State’s sovereign claim to its territory.
For many, both black and white, the Act was created in a spirit of justice and reparation. People saw it as the right thing to do.
Some, however, also felt that while these historic grievances remained unaddressed, the legitimacy of European claims to sovereignty were at risk.
If the principle was that those who believed they had a better use for the land, and the means to enforce it, were entitled to come and take it, replacing the existing laws and ways of living with their own, what right would we Europeans have to complain if the same occurred to us; for wasn’t that the sole basis on which this State was founded?
Thus, although never expressed, one key purpose of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was a belated move to build legitimacy in the State.
The 1970s and early 80’s had seen strident calls for the recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty and an open attack on the legitimacy of the State.
While in 2011 it is easy to dismiss the idea that the State needed the endorsement of Aboriginal people, many of the legislators at the time were men who had fought in defence of Australia in the Second World War and had a different perspective on the country’s place in the region to that of post-war generations.
On this view, the Act was not just for the benefit of Aboriginal people. To the extent that it operated as a pressure valve, relieving grievances and improving harmony, it would fundamentally benefit everyone in the State. In hindsight, the Act, in combination with many other measures, appears to have achieved that objective. Claims for sovereignty have subsided and Aboriginal people are now publicly and almost universally willing to work within the framework of the State.
Also, unlike most laws, the Land Rights Act was not the product of bureaucratic policy development. Indeed it was an anathema to the bureaucracy, and to some degree it still is. Rather, it was the product of a political vision; a wider vision that understood both its historic importance and necessity.
What about the spirit of those who had campaigned for land rights and what did they desire?
Aside from the history of armed resistance, the struggle for government bestowed recognition of land rights goes back to the early years of the colony, with Aboriginal people petitioning Governor Macquarie for land to be set apart for their needs.
The Land Rights Act was not the product of unprompted European beneficence but the outcome of a concerted and hard fought political struggle commencing in the 1930s and intensifying from the time of the 1967 referendum.
In an era before TA (travel allowance), poverty was no bar to committed political action. Over five years before the Act was created a body known as the NSW Aboriginal Land Council existed. It was formed by Aboriginal people, using their own resources, and with the object of organising the community in its push for recognition of their entitlement to their land.
The concept of land rights, ill-defined as it was, had become a rallying point and perceived cure for a wide range of grievances.
There was recognition that the land was at the base of culture. People drew their identity from their place and the removal from place was an attack on identity. Where for many years, Aboriginal people had felt pressured to live their culture in secret, a confident and proud spirit emerged during this period that took many Europeans by surprise.
Land was also the basic economic resource. With land, anything was possible, so it was believed. Without it, people risked being forever confined to the margins.
People wanted a future for their children and their communities that did not see them ghettoised in reserves and missions, but where their relationships and their shared history and culture remained the foundation of their social existence.
They held values born of hardship and struggle. They were angry, but they knew hard work, they knew sacrifice, they knew loss, they knew resilience, and they knew joy in shared company, in supportive relationships, in mutual struggle.
Many were people who, despite their poverty and marginalisation, could draw strength from one another and express themselves with undiminished dignity.
The original Act
Not surprisingly, the form in which the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was first enacted now looks fairly threadbare. The fact that there have been at least eight major sets of amendments reflects this. Nevertheless, the original vision looks more farsighted with each year. From my personal perspective, three features, all found in the original Act, stand out:
• A self-governing structure, including local autonomy
• Independent funding; and
• A streamlined land claim system