Hawke, Keating and Aboriginal rights: Labor’s “sorry” history

Hawke and Keating turned their back on Aboriginal land rights, argues Jean Parker

The last official act of ALP Prime Minister Bob Hawke in December 1991 was to hang the “Barunga Statement” in Parliament House. The Statement was a manifesto of Aboriginal demands—self-determination, land rights, a treaty, compensation for stolen land—mounted in the centre of a painting by several Aboriginal artists. Presented to Hawke at the Barunga Sports Festival in June 1988, he had promised to hang the painting as a symbol of his commitment to Aboriginal people.

But Hawke was a hypocrite. Years before, his government had turned its back on Aboriginal rights.

In 1982, as thousands of Aboriginal people and their supporters assembled to march on Brisbane’s Commonwealth Games, ALP shadow Indigenous Affairs minister Susan Ryan told a cheering crowd that an elected Hawke Labor government would introduce national land rights legislation. But within two years of gaining office in 1983, Hawke had reneged on that promise.

Hawke’s promise of national land rights legislation, a Treaty and generous ‘social justice’ spending, was seen as a continuation of the hopes of the Whitlam era.

In 1972 Whitlam had immediately dropped all charges against protestors from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy that, for the previous six months, had defiantly stood in front of Parliament House. Since 1966 nation-wide union support of the Gurindji fight for land and equality had been growing. “It’s Time”, Labor’s iconic slogan for the 1972 election campaign, fitted nothing better than the Aboriginal rights movement.

Whitlam removed regulations that prevented Aboriginal people leaving missions or reserves and from traveling overseas. He created the first Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA), set up a land rights commission, and froze uranium mining in the Northern Territory.

Following his dismissal in 1975, Whitlam’s Northern Territory Lands Rights Act was put through Parliament by Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal government in 1976. The laws set a benchmark and fed the hopes that a future Labor government would go further.

How Hawke killed land rights

But Hawke killed those hopes. The lessons were well learnt by Hawke’s successor, Paul Keating, who replicated the betrayal almost exactly in his treatment of the Mabo case and Native Title in the 1990s.

Hope seemed justified in 1983 when Hawke’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Clyde Holding talked of strengthening the NT Land Rights Act and introducing the improved model nationally. But ominously, Holding backed away from Susan Ryan’s 1982 commitment to use the powers granted by the 1967 referendum and impose national laws.

Holding promised that the views of Aboriginal people would be at the heart of the land rights process. His land rights steering committee included the Chair and Deputy of the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC) and its six state and territory representatives, the Northern and Central Land Councils, and Charles Perkins, the Aboriginal Chair of the Aboriginal Development Commission (ADC). In December 1983 Holding told parliament that the support of NAC, which he described as a “democratically elected black parliament” would be obtained before any legislation was brought to parliament.

This carefully crafted organ of ‘representation’ was, however, quickly pushed aside once the Aboriginal representatives voiced opposition to what became Hawke’s version of land rights.

Hawke’s preferred model was so bad, it was universally opposed by Aboriginal organisations.

Hawke and Holding tried to sell their watering down of the laws by arguing that any more substantial rights for Aboriginal people would fan the flames of the vicious campaign being led by the mining industry.

A hard-line racist campaign against land rights was indeed being run by the peak mining body, the Australian Mining Industry Council (AMIC), supported by the Western Australian Labor government. The Chamber of Mines Western Australia ran a campaign under the slogan “Land rights should be equal rights”. One blatantly false advertisement claimed that the laws would see 94.8 per cent of Western Australia open to Aboriginal land claim.

The right wing RSL (Returned and Services League) weighed in with the racist argument that “servicemen” had died ‘for king and country’, not for Aboriginal people.

Hawke met with Western Australian ALP Premier Burke for two days in September 1984. By October the draft land rights legislation was so weak that it had no support from any Aboriginal organisations. No national law was preferable to what Hawke was proposing. The laws explicitly rejected the demands of Aboriginal people. Crown land would not automatically be claimable as Aboriginal land. National Parks wouldn’t become Aboriginal land without “prima-facie evidence of traditional attachment”, and there would be no compensation for lost land.

By the end of the land rights debate the NAC had been disbanded, and Holding’s “steering committee” was no longer shown drafts of the laws. The final “Preferred Commonwealth Model legislation” wasn’t approved by Minister Holding, the ALP caucus, or even the Cabinet, but was supported by key ALP MPs Paul Keating, Kim Beazley and Gareth Evans.

Hawke’s meeting with Burke was a turning point—a capitulation to the racist fear-mongering of the mining companies, the Liberals and the Western Australian state Labor government.

Hawke won the election, but from then on, his argument was with black organisations, and sections of the Labor Party that he turned sharply against.

When Hawke called an early federal election in December 1984, The Age headline summed up his stance, “PM Axes Blacks’ Veto on Mining.”

Hawke had ignored his power to override the states, and instead allowed the state premiers’ vocal attacks on land rights to set the terms of the debate.

In stark contrast to the present day Northern Territory Labor government, the then Northern Terrritory branch of the Labor Party described the abandoning of the veto over mining as ‘morally repugnant.’

Hawke’s capitulation was part and parcel of the Labor government’s economic rationalism and its determination to run Australia in the national—read ruling class— interest. The Accord with the unions and the drive to privatise, put profitability before jobs and living standards. Investor confidence trumped Aboriginal rights hands down. He re-assured the mining, pastoral and tourism industries that Labor could be trusted to maintain “business as usual”.

The final twist of the knife came when Hawke blamed his own failure to introduce land rights legislation on Aboriginal organisations, painting them as being too picky and too demanding to support the offers on the table.

Hawke’s support for mining interests over Aboriginal rights was a deep and painful betrayal. 1985 saw a national land rights protest of 800 people occupy Canberra’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) headquarters. Invoking the Commonwealth Games protests, Aboriginal leaders promised to ruin the 1988 Bicentenary celebrations.

Hawke had a two-pronged response to Aboriginal anger. On one hand he held out a carrot. He began to talk up the possibility of a Treaty, or “Compact” between the Federal Government and Aboriginal Australia. He also launched a process of ‘national reconciliation’.

On the other hand Hawke took a big stick to the Aboriginal representative organisations. In July 1987 he moved to disband the Aboriginal organisations that had opposed his land rights sell-out.

He wound down the DAA and axed the Aboriginal Development Council (ADC) under the cover of creating a new body—the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). DAA’s Aboriginal workers responded with industrial action and the ADC mounted a court challenge against ATSIC.

ATSIC was part of Hawke’s moves to reduce even further the meager autonomy and powers of the ADC and DAA.

The ADC had included an Aboriginal-controlled development fund, while the DAA was a government department that had made a serious attempt to employ majority Aboriginal staff. ATSIC’s role was never more than providing advice to government and its own special accountability unit had a more arduous standard of reporting than any other government agency.

Despite being almost powerless, ATSIC had only been running for two years when Keating moved to undermine it by setting up the rival Office of Indigenous Affairs within his Prime Ministers and Cabinet Department.

Years later, Labor lost office in 1996 and a new era of stridently anti-Aboriginal policies began. Howard sided with Pauline Hanson’s explicit racism and championed the white blindfold side of the history wars.

But Labor was not going to be outdone. Two weeks before Howard announced the abolition of ATSIC in 2004, then Labor leader, Mark Latham declared that abolishing ATSIC was Labor policy.

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) was bitterly critical of Howard’s move and declared, “For now, any semblance of self-determination has been eradicated.”

But there never had been any genuine self-determination. Hawke and Keating had systematically set about undermining the reforms and the small degree of Aboriginal consultation that Whitlam had put in place.

Reconciliation, not Treaty

The phrase ‘national reconciliation’ had been part of Hawke’s election platform in 1983. But it wasn’t until 1991 that the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was launched. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Robert Tickner had suggested its name include “and Justice”, but Hawke overrode him. ATSIC attempted to ensure that a Treaty was at the heart of the Reconciliation process. But Hawke wrote a telling letter to Liberal leader John Hewson saying he wasn’t wedded to the word “treaty”, but rather, “what I believe is important is that there be a process of reconciliation”.

After replacing Hawke as Labor leader, Keating took the mantle of reconciliation and ran with it. Keating’s famous Redfern speech in 1993 was laden with symbolism but light on promises of land or treaty.

Mabo puts land back on the agenda

In 1992, the High Court ended the lie of ‘terra nullius’ (an empty land). The recognition of Eddie Mabo’s land ownership in the Torres Strait again lifted hopes. But the High Court decision was a double-edged sword.

As well as recognising native title, the court also recognised the Australian government’s sovereignty. Native title was extinguished by freehold title and limited by the grant of other forms of leases.

When Keating announced that his government would legislate to end the uncertainties of the Mabo decision, some Aboriginal people heard land rights. But the business sector heard what Keating really meant—extinguishment of native title.

1993 was the year of ‘Mabo madness’. As in the 1980s, the mining and pastoral industries and the Coalition ran scare campaigns about Aboriginal people taking over people’s backyards. Keating intervened in a crucial struggle between Mount Isa Mines (MIM) and local Aboriginal people to ensure that there could be no Mabo-style legal challenge to the McArthur River mine project, (then thought to be the world’s largest lead, zinc and silver mine).

Keating also approved of the NT government’s proposals to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act to protect the mining company from a future legal challenge.

Crucial to the passage of Keating’s Native Title Act was the role of self-appointed Aboriginal negotiators led by Lowitja (formerly Lois) O’Donoghue, known as the A team. Current pro-Intervention commentators, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, cut their political teeth in the A team, working to drum up support for the Native Title Act.

These Aboriginal voices led the charge against the Greens and the “B team”. The B team were a group of Aboriginal leaders led by Michael Mansell, who hoped the Greens and the Democrats would push for serious amendments to the laws.

The 1993 Native Title Act was a far cry from the movement’s historic demand for “Land Rights Now!” This demand struck at the very legitimacy of Australian capitalism and its foundations of genocide and dispossession. At its height the Land Rights movement fought for land as an act of recognition of prior ownership and of the wrongs inflicted on Aboriginal communities. Some thought land rights could provide the basis for economic development that the Australian state had denied them.

But Keating’s laws entrenched the property rights of companies over stolen Aboriginal land. It offers the weakest form of recognition for the tiny percentage of Aboriginal people who can prove an unbroken connection with a particular piece of land. While a mining company might have to negotiate over access and royalties, native title holders have no right to determine what happens on land they “own”.

Laying the basis

Even this was too much for the Howard government. They went on to deliver “bucketloads of extinguishment” —but that’s another story. It was Labor’s betrayals that paved the way for the savage attacks under Howard. And it got worse. Just as Labor supported the abolition of ATSIC, Labor supported Howard’s Intervention policies in 2007.

In 2008, Kevin Rudd said “sorry” for past wrongs. Yet his government was implementing the assimilationist policies of the Intervention that ensure the wrongs continue.

There is a sorry history to Labor governments. Saying one thing and doing another did not start with Kevin Rudd. On Aboriginal rights, each Labor government since Whitlam has been more right-wing than the one before.

But alongside the sorry history is the history of the working class movement and the struggle for Aboriginal rights. The reforms of the Whitlam government were a direct result of the 1966 Gurrindji walk off that in turn fed the radical policies of the Tent Embassy of 1972. Union action for the Gurindji welded together a fight of black and white for Aboriginal rights.

We must look to that history of struggle so that we can overturn the Intervention and build a movement genuine self-determination.


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