The previous chapter, written in 1980, ended with optimism for future black–white Australian relations: despite continued racism, a lack of social justice, pressures from mining companies and failure to gain national land rights. Aboriginal affairs have been stormy since then, creating many ambivalent outcomes. The Bicentenary of white settlement in 1988 produced particular disruptions. However despite great tensions, there are renewed grounds for optimism in 1994, concerning those longest and deepest of all disputes between Aboriginal and other Australians: rights to land, autonomy and equity.
In 1976 the Northern Territory Land Rights Act gave Aboriginal people with traditional and ongoing relationships to land, a means to claim crown or reserve land, and to control mining. By 1980 Aboriginal groups owned a third of the Territory under communal–freehold title and more was under claim. They had also exerted some control over mining developments. This new Aboriginal power spawned vigorous white opposition.
In 1981 the Territory's conservative government, acting for pastoral interests, lobbied fellow conservatives in the Fraser federal government to amend the 1976 Land Rights Act. White pastoralists opposed the right of Aboriginal groups to convert their pastoral leases to freehold title, and make claims over stock routes. Aborigines sought parts of stock routes as the Act prevented small claims for Aboriginal living excisions from white pastoral leases. Aborigines, who had been turned off pastoral properties after losing their jobs in an industry restructuring, wanted living areas on or near their traditional lands. Although road transport had rendered most stock routes useless, the pastoralists challenged such claims. After several High Court battles in the 1980s, the Territory government under federal pressure, created a tribunal in 1989 to consider small excisions. Parallel to these disputes, the Territory government in November 1981 sought to alter its Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act, to enable Cabinet and not the Aboriginal Sacred Site Authority, to determine which sacred sites could halt development. At the same time there was a dispute over development and sacred sites