Campbell Newman was applauded as he handed over 75,000 hectares of Cape York land to traditional indigenous owners in a ceremony last week. It’s another milestone in the history of Aboriginal land rights. The land has been fought over for almost four decades, one of the state’s longest land rights battles.
But, as Campbell Newman addressed the crowd, little was mentioned about the Bligh-led Labor Government’s negotiation of the land handover. The previous government announced the deal in 2010 but a handover ceremony was unable to be held before the March 24 election. Shadow Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Curtis Pitt, was not invited to the ceremony.
As much as the act of land handover is a positive step in the direction of Aboriginal land rights, there is more than a whiff of publicity stunt around Campbell Newman. It’s disappointing that on such a momentous occasion that means so much to the Wik Mungkan people who have fought for so long, Newman couldn’t even acknowledge his predecessor’s role in the handover.
Newman also neglected to explain his conservative predecessors’ history with the site. In 1977, aboriginal stockman John Koowarta applied to buy the Archer River Bend cattle station, his original land, but was denied by the Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen-led conservative government of the time. Refusing to sell the land, Sir Joh designated it a National Park. In 1982, the High Court found that this action had breached the federal Racial Discrimination Act.
After the ceremony, when Newman was asked if he was apologising for the actions of Sir Joh, he said that he did not want to dwell on the past. "I was apologising to the people here, the traditional land owners for what they’ve been through, and I’m not going to get into any more detail than that," he said.
Although, he did acknowledge in his handover speech that "35 years ago a great injustice was perpetrated. Today we are here to put that right".
However, "a great injustice" fails to realistically describe the actions of the Queensland conservative government in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was Bjelke-Petersen who described aboriginal land rights as "pure Alice in Wonderland". Calls to boycott the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games followed, and attracted international attention to Australia’s race issues of the time.
Although no boycott eventuated, Bjelke-Petersen tried to deflect national and international scrutiny by granting "land rights" in the form of Deeds of Grant in Trust where Aboriginal and Islander land titles would be transferred to elected community councils who would then manage them. But his government could revoke these deeds at any time, boundaries could be changed and security of tenure wasn’t guaranteed. Therefore, the illusion of land rights was given but there was no restriction to developers or mining companies. In this way, the proposal failed to meet the federal government criteria for land rights and Bjelke-Petersen was condemned for his attempt to confuse the issue.
Bjelke-Petersen had earlier ejected Fred Hollows and his team from state-controlled Aboriginal land where they were working on treating trachoma. His reasoning was that Hollows was encouraging aboriginal people to enrol to vote prior to an upcoming election.
The Bjelke-Petersen government also deemed Aboriginal land rights marches illegal, which only made public opposition to the government stronger. A "Rock Against Racism" concert was held in Brisbane during the Commonwealth Games and popularised the national fight for indigenous rights.
This, along with the discovery of countless cases of government and police corruption within the state, culminating in the Fitzgerald Inquiry, eventually led to Bjelke-Petersen’s resignation as premier after he lost the support of his party.
With this tumultuous history of LNP/indigenous relations in mind, it’s easier to understand why Newman wouldn’t want to acknowledge the Labor government’s role in the present-day Cape York land handover. Newman needs the win for himself, to start amending the conservative side of politics’ reputation on Queensland Indigenous affairs.
The Cape York land handover is another stepping stone in a 100-year history of Aboriginal land rights gains. Since English settlers claimed Terra Nullius and colonised Australia, Aboriginal people have been fighting for the right to their traditional land. After the Mabo case in 1992, huge steps forward have been taken but countless cases remain, including the negotiation of Lake Eyre area land rights, currently before courts in South Australia.
This week is National Reconciliation Week. It’s a time for all Australians to reflect on our brutal, complex history and how far we’ve come towards reconciliation in the last 20 years. It’s not, as Campbell Newman may believe, a time to smile for the cameras and win the false reputation of a history-making revolutionary.
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