Despatches: Aborigines' quest for land forces Australia to the polls

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Aboriginal land rights have returned to divide Australia. After the upper house of parliament yesterday rejected a bill limiting Aboriginal rights, Robert Milliken in Sydney says the country faces an election dominated by race.

John Howard, prime minister of the conservative coalition government, has threatened to have parliament dissolved and to call a general election if he cannot win agreement to legislation which he says would protect outback farmers from Aboriginal land claims. But, after a stormy week of political brinkmanship, the Senate yesterday sank Mr Howard's bill when it struck out key clauses that he says are not negotiable.

The issue has catapulted Aboriginal land rights to the forefront of Australian politics and sparked the country's most fiery debate on race in memory. It has divided city and country against each other and pitched church leaders against politicians. Some churchmen have described the government's proposals as "racist", while government MPs have called on farmers and their families to boycott their local churches.

On Thursday, De-Anne Kelly, an MP in the National Party, the coalition's junior, rural-based partner, claimed that farmers in north Queensland were amassing illegal guns to fight off Aborigines who may lay claims to their land. She described Noel Pearson, a prominent Aboriginal barrister from Cape York, north Queensland, as a "thug". Mr Pearson says the disputed legislation amounts to "legal apartheid" and has described those who drew it up as "racist scum".

Whether they have intended to or not, Mr Howard and his ministers have managed to portray Aborigines - who comprise 1.5 per cent of the population - as a threat from which the rest of Australia, particularly farmers and miners, must be protected. The prime minister raised the stakes earlier this week when he told government MPs that he had entered a "covenant" with farmers and miners from which he would not walk away. "We don't intend to be morally intimidated," he declared. Last Sunday, Mr Howard made an unprecedented address to the nation on prime-time television appealing to the Senate to pass his legislation unscathed.

The dispute has arisen because of a High Court judgment last December over the legal status of pastoral leases. These leases were first granted late last century to allow white farmers to settle on vast outback holdings covering land the size of small European countries. Aborigines, whose forebears had lived on such lands for centuries, were not consulted and were often taken away and put in white-run reserves.

The concept of native land title itself was established only in 1992, when the High Court overturned the legal fiction that Australia was "empty land" when Europeans settled in 1788. That historic judgment allowed Aborigines to make claims only on unused land owned by the state. But in last December's judgment, on a case brought by the Wik people of north Queensland, the court extended its earlier ruling by saying that native title and pastoral leases could co-exist on the same land. It added, though, that pastoral rights would always prevail in the event of any conflict.

The ruling has sent rural Australia into a spin, with farmers demanding that Mr Howard legislate to extinguish native title on farming leases altogether. His bill did not go that far, but it did make it hard for Aborigines to make claims to such land by refusing them the right to negotiate and insisting that they would need a physical, rather than a spiritual, or ancestral, connection with the land to qualify.

When the bill reached the Senate a fortnight ago, after passing the House of Representatives, Brian Harradine, an independent senator who holds the balance of power, joined with the Labor opposition, Greens and Democrats, to amend it in ways that would give Aborigines wider power to make claims.

Now that the Senate has made those changes, Mr Howard can submit his original bill to the Senate once again after three months. If the Senate still refuses to pass it intact, he can advise the governor- general to dissolve parliament and call a general election, gambling that he will win and then call a joint sitting of both houses to pass the bill.

But it is a big gamble. The coalition, and Mr Howard personally, have fallen dangerously behind Labor and their leader, Kim Beazley, in opinion polls. Leading newspapers have called on Mr Howard to abandon any idea of an election fought on land rights, which everyone agrees would degenerate into an ugly focus on race and do Australia irreparable damage as it prepares to host the 2000 Olympics. But Mr Howard is stubborn. The further he digs himself in, the less inclined he will be to back down and to jeopardise his leadership.