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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.