Mabo and Reconciliation

Article excerpt

In his powerful essay 'The New Sovereignty', the black American writer Shelby Steele discusses the way in which the noble goals of the civil rights movement became corrupted by ideas of a collective entitlement to compensation for past injustice. sup 1 He decries the attempts by black and other minority organizations to perpetuate their influence and position by fostering a perpetual sense of grievance, and remarks that their agendas have often been determined more for their grievance potential than for the improved welfare of their supposed constituency. Steele notes that the points at which there is the greatest resistance in the wider society to the group's demands "will usually be made into top priority issues, thereby emphasizing the status of victim and outsider necessary to sustain the sovereign organization." He also comments that it is no surprise that the beneficiaries of the separatism this inevitably entails are usually the people who least need help.

Steele's observations have long had some relevance to the way in which Aboriginal issues are dealt with in Australia. The Federal Government is likely to make them even more relevant by attempting to make such a strong link between its response to Mabo and the broader issues that are being addressed by the reconciliation process. Its Mabo Discussion Paper raises the possibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-government, and a compensation package for all Aborigines to make up for past dispossession. The Government is raising Aboriginal expectations well beyond anything that could be justified by the High Court's decision, or that is likely to be politically acceptable to the majority of Australians.

Objectively, the terms of the High Court's decision suggest that few mainland Aborigines will be able to claim native title successfully. Nevertheless, there are great uncertainties about the circumstances under which extinguishment may have taken place and a number of other crucial matters. The moral indignation which seems to have animated some of the judges - at least if their language is any guide - could lead to radical decisions in native title cases that may come before it in the future. It should also be noted that the apparent inability to assign any rights and interests "outside the overall native system" (in the words of Justices Deane and Gaudron) would make it extremely difficult to obtain direct economic benefits of any magnitude from land held under such title.

The Government also recognizes that a prerequisite of success in its reconciliation process is the realistic promise of an end to the social and economic disadvantage that many Aborigines suffer. This is going to be very hard to achieve, because despite all the resources that have been directed towards improving Aboriginal welfare in the past two decades, there are few signs of substantial progress.

So it would be wise to keep the complicated and uncharted questions of native title as separate as possible from the seemingly intractable problems that surround reconciliation. Otherwise both issues are likely to turn out badly; grievances will multiply on all sides; and the prospect of achieving anything worthwhile from the reconciliation process will recede ever further beyond the horizon.

The Government would probably respond that it has no choice, that the two issues have been linked from the start. Its Discussion Paper on Mabo asserts that dispossession from their land is "central to the social, economic and physical problems experienced by Aboriginal people since colonization." Certainly, the claim about dispossession is made frequently by supporters of land rights and echoed by government reports such as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. But where is the rigorous evidence that would support this claim? Where is the research that demonstrates that Aborigines who have been granted land rights have better health and fewer social and economic problems than Aborigines who lack these rights? …