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Aborigines win right to claim their land

AFTER 18 months of tortuous national debate, the Australian Parliament finally passed a historic law yesterday that gives Aborigines the right to claim title to their traditional lands for the first time in 200 years. Aborigines and their supporters clapped and cheered in the packed public gallery when the legislation was ratified in the House of Representatives yesterday after a marathon debate in the Senate, the upper House, which narrowly passed it at midnight on Tuesday.

They hailed the legislation as a new beginning in relations between black and white Australians because it recognises the basis of their long and bitter land-rights struggle. Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, embraced Aborigines who had gathered in Canberra for yesterday's vote and said: 'We should take this legislation to be a victory for the Australian nation because it is a profound event. This will be a great day for indigenous Australians, and I hope a great turning point in their history.'

The Native Title Bill follows a landmark judgment by Australia's High Court last year which overturned the legal notion that Australia was terra nullius, or unoccupied land, when the British settled it in 1788. It became known as the 'Mabo judgment' after Eddie Mabo, a native elder of Murray Island, off the north Queensland coast, who launched the court action 11 years ago. Mabo died before the judgment, but it made him a national hero and he was named Australian of the Year last January.

Adopting the main premise of the Mabo judgment, the legislation sets up a system whereby Aborigines can claim ownership to land based on traditional or historical association - a right they have never had in most parts of Australia. It gives them the right to resume native title over land once a mining lease has expired, and protects their hunting and fishing rights over pastoral land. However, the homes, farms and commercial land that non-Aboriginal Australians own will be protected: the bill enshrines the priority of existing freehold and leasehold grants over native title.

In practice, therefore, the new law will apply to very limited parts of Australia. But its psychological impact has been huge. Lois O'Donoghue, head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and the chief Aboriginal negotiator over the bill, said: 'We hope you will all rejoice with us at the end of what we see as a historic day.'

Mr Keating had turned the passing of the Native Title Bill into a personal crusade against strong opposition from some state governments, and from the pastoral and mining industries which argued it would deter foreign investment.

The law still faces a stormy future, particularly in Western Australia whose vast outback, much of it vacant Crown land, could be the focus of many title claims. The conservative state government recently passed a law invalidating native title claims, and this is bound to face a constitutional challenge.

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