Aborigines Under Siege
From the moment of European colonisation in Australia, land was at the centre of the struggle between settlers and indigenous owners. The European myth of terra nullius— that Australia was the land of no-one and its indigenous owners had no rights to land—reigned supreme. This fiction was finally overturned after 222 years in the Mabo High Court judgment of 1992 and enshrined in the Native Title Act (1993) outlined in Chapter 12. Despite native title being vulnerable to extinguishment, and only available to those with a proven continuous relationship to land, considerable areas of crown land were open to claims. Fearful conservatives, used to winning the colonial game for over two centuries, attacked native title relentlessly, buoyed by a conservative political victory in the 1996 federal election. A new era of tension between Australians emerged as other issues, including the truth of tradition, of history and of the removal of Aboriginal children, split the public. Aboriginal people felt under siege. Only a reconciliation movement that gathered grass roots momentum in the late 1990s countered these tensions.
A conservative backlash greeted the Native Title Act and the proposed land acquisition fund. In February 1994, Richard Court's Western Australian Government challenged the Native Title Act in the High Court. Premier Court argued that his state, with 90 per cent of Australia's crown land and a large mining sector, had much to lose from native title claims. His government argued that the Native Title Act was unconstitutional as it undermined his state's own sovereign land law passed in 1993, to extinguish native title in favour of a weaker statutory right to traditional land use. He also argued it discriminated against nonIndigenous West Australians. 1 The High Court accepted the case concurrently with two challenges to the state's 1993 land law from the Worora people and the Biljabu. Meanwhile, in August 1994 Alexander Downer, the Leader of the Federal Opposition, vowed to repeal the Native Title Act if elected. He also opposed the Keating Government's Land Fund Bill with 122 stonewalling amendments before backing down before the threat of a politically unfavourable double dissolution.