The Guardian 13 April, 2005

Howard moves
to privatise Indigenous land

Dr Hannah Middleton

Prime Minister Howard is certainly thorough with his right-wing agendas. Having destroyed the independent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander political voice by closing down ATSIC and having removed Indigenous influence on services such as health, housing and education by mainstreaming their delivery to Aboriginal and Islander communities, he is now turning his attention to the main question: land rights.

During a visit to the Indigenous community at Wadeye, 250-­kilometres south-west of Darwin, on April 6, Mr Howard said: “I believe there is a case for reviewing the whole issue of Aboriginal land title in the sense of looking more towards private ownership”.

The Howard government intends to destroy the whole concept of collective land ownership by Aboriginal and Islander communities and impose capitalist practices and values on them.

This would undermine the basis for Aboriginal and Islander rights as the original owners and occupiers of this land and the hope for development of their communities through regaining ownership of their traditional lands.

Despite having to fight a war for the land, the British colonisers declared this continent terra nullius — that the land belonged to no-one when they arrived. For over 200 years, the lie of terra nullius was justification for the denial of land rights.

In 1992, the High Court recognised Native Title, stating it had existed before and had continued after colonisation. However, it said Native Title was extinguished whenever land had been sold or set aside for some other purpose.

Northern Land Council Chairman Galarrwuy Yunupingu called this “the final drink from the poisonous water hole”.

Land is a major source of wealth. Its use for sheep, cattle, and farming, the natural resources in and on it (gold, oil, bauxite, copper, diamonds, timber and so on), as real estate and for tourism make the land one of the country’s most valuable assets.

To return some part of this extremely valuable asset to the people infuriates big business which wants to own or lease all the profitable assets of this country.

What is even worse in their eyes is that the land would be owned communally, by a whole Aboriginal community. Private ownership for private profit would no longer be the accepted way things are done. There would be the alternative of collective ownership for the benefit of all the community.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians have supported the reconciliation movement. However, there can be no reconciliation without justice. We need a massive movement to stop Howard’s efforts to privatise Indigenous land and to insist on recognition of communal, inalienable land rights for Aboriginal and Islander communities.

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