White Australia feels land shift under its feet: The ruling that Aborigines own Murray Island has prompted more claims, writes Robert Milliken

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GEARING UP for their biggest showdown in 200 years, Aborigines on Thursday lodged a court claim for one quarter of the land in New South Wales, an area roughly the size of Britain. It followed a similar claim six months ago to Aboriginal ownership of the centre of Brisbane, a city of 1 million people.

In both cases, the reaction from the rest of Australia was one of shock, followed by disbelief. The Brisbane claim will not now go ahead, but the point was made. The catalyst for these claims was a High Court judgment that has thrown the whole concept of land ownership into disarray and given Aborigines their most solid recognition in law since the British colonised Australia in 1788.

The judgment a year ago by the High Court, Australia's final appeal court, overturned a legal assumption which had lingered ever since Captain Cook claimed Australia on behalf of George III in the 18th century, that the land was terra nullius, or unoccupied before Europeans arrived. This assumption has been at the heart of Aboriginal battles for land rights and equality ever since. The High Court found not only that terra nullius was invalid, but that Aborigines could claim 'native title' over traditional lands.

It has taken a year for the judgment to sink in. Last Thursday, the first anniversary of the decision, the Wiradjuri people lodged a High Court claim for New South Wales land once occupied by them amounting to one quarter of the state. 'There was no legal or moral right to take the Wiradjuri land,' said Paul Coe, an Aboriginal lawyer acting for them. 'We're seeking more than native title. We're seeking sovereignty.'

That day the federal government, headed by Paul Keating, released a white paper on its response to the High Court's decision. The paper raised as many questions as it tried to address. Some prominent Aborigines condemned it. Noel Pearson, director of the Cape York Land Council in Queensland, dismissed it as a 'slimy, useless document'. Mining companies, farmers and business leaders responded with alarm at the prospect of Aborigines claiming what they have always assumed was their land, especially in vast outback regions where much of the country's mineral wealth is located. They have warned of foreign investment drying up and business confidence collapsing. Under pressure from all sides, Mr Keating will meet the leaders of Australia's six state governments next week to thrash out the judgment's implications. He said recently it had occupied more of his time than any other issue since his re-election in March: 'I'm quite sure the High Court didn't understand the huge ramifications of this issue.'

Nor, no doubt, did Eddie Mabo, the Aborigine who initiated the High Court action whose outcome seems destined to transform the Australian landscape. Mr Mabo lodged the claim 10 years ago on behalf of the Meriam people on Murray Island, 100 miles off northern Queensland. He argued that, although the island was taken over by Queensland in 1879, his people had never validly surrendered their rights to it.

The High Court found last June that the Meriam people were entitled to ownership and occupation of the island. The judges extended 'native title' to the rest of Australia, in cases where Aborigines could demonstrate a continuing connection with the land. Lawyers are working through a minefield of questions the judges left unanswered. Can native title override freehold or Crown leasehold? Are Aborigines entitled to royalties from wealth from the land and, if so, how far back?

In a country where getting rich quick by making a killing from land has been a white Australian route to wealth, the implications could be staggering.