War of words over land: An Australian High Court judgment has touched off a furious controversy

PAUL KEATING, the Australian Prime Minister, will return this week from a visit forging closer ties with China and South Korea to find bitter divisions between black and white Australians at home.

The cause is a four-letter word, Mabo. It has unleashed a wave of national hysteria over a court judgment giving Aborigines equal land rights with whites for the first time in 200 years. Eddie Mabo was the native of Murray Island, off the north Queensland coast, who initiated a case that ended last year with the High Court of Australia declaring that native land title survived colonisation of the country, and Aborigines had the right to claim such title over unused Crown land.

Mr Mabo did not live to see the historic judgment. But his name has been adopted for a war of words that has convulsed Australia in the Year of the World's Indigenous People.

The latest outburst came last weekend from Tim Fischer, leader of the National Party, the junior partner in the conservative opposition coalition and 'shadow' Deputy Prime Minister. Addressing a party conference, Mr Fischer opposed the Mabo judgment with the view that the dispossession of Aborigines was inevitable. 'We have to be honest and acknowledge that Aboriginal sense of nationhood or even infrastructure was not highly developed,' he said. 'At no stage did Aboriginal civilisation develop substantial buildings, roadways or even a wheeled cart as part of their different priorities and approach.'

He concluded: 'Those in the guilt industry have to consider that developing cultures and people will always overtake relatively stationary cultures.'

Newspapers and church leaders in Australia condemned Mr Fischer's remarks and criticised John Hewson, the opposition leader, for failing to reprimand him. Mr Keating, in Seoul, attacked the speech as 'crude and primitive' and said: 'He is obviously in a position way beyond his capacities in life.'

Other leaders on the conservative side of politics have fuelled the debate with overtones of racial fear. Charles Court, the Premier of Western Australia, said that 80 per cent of the state could be claimed as native title, and this could include the back gardens of suburban homes.

The judgment has also sparked political attempts to rewrite history. In Tasmania, where Aborigines were wiped out by 19th century settlers, Ray Groom, the state Premier, said the deaths were 'very regrettable' but did not amount to genocide. This does not accord with the views of historians. Robert Hughes, in The Fatal Shore, wrote: 'Die they did - shot like kangaroos and poisoned like dogs . . . the only true genocide in English colonial history.'

For their part, some prominent Aborigines have done little to dampen down fears running through middle Australia by lodging claims to large tracts of Queensland and New South Wales. Such blanket claims have little chance of success. But the judgment finally buryies the notion that Australia was terra nullius, or no one's land, when the British claimed it.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor