The Hawke Government's failure to live up its five principles of land rights
In 1983, the Hawke Government's first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Clyde Holding, declared these five principles to be the basis of his government's proposed national land rights bill:
(i) Aboriginal land to be held under inalienable freehold title
(ii) protection of sacred sites
(iii) Aboriginal control in relation to mining on Aboriginal land
(iv) access to mining royalty equivalents
(v) compensation for lost land to be negotiated
Mining interests campaigned against these principles, with advertising that portrayed land rights as a threat to the nation's well-being. This campaign was especially vigorous and effective in Western Australia, a State in whose economy mining is especially important. The Burke ALP government in Western Australia thus became a pragmatic voice within the ALP, warning the Hawke government of the political risks of land rights. In the campaign leading up to the December 1984 federal election, ALP strategists warmed to Burke's prediction that land rights would cost the ALP up to eight Western Australian seats. The Prime Minister found it expedient to announce that, if re-elected, his government would not honour the third of Holding's five principles.
In 1984, the Hawke Government commissioned a study of public opinion about land rights. Delivered in February 1985, Australian National Opinion Polls' report sought to awaken the government to the need to campaign in favour of land rights. However, by pointing out the antagonistic tendencies in public opinion, the ANOP study gave pro-mining elements within the Hawke government a basis for further retreating from Holding's five principles. That retreat was what the public wanted, they asserted. The same voices declared the ANOP's proposed government public opinion campaign to be too expensive. As one commentator has since pointed out: 'By its inaction, the Hawke government let a climate of opinion emerge in which its land rights policy would fail.' One critic of the ANOP research has even questioned the report's interpretation of its own published data. It was possible to read the public opinion data in different ways, according to one's political inclinations. The Hawke government's final abandonment of the national land rights policy, in March 1986, was defended by some and explained by others as a reflection of an Australian 'backlash' against land rights. From that moment until the Mabo decision, the two sides of Australian politics shared the view that Indigenous land rights was an issue for each State to determine.
Sources: L Ryan 'Aborigines and Islanders' in BW Head and A Patience (eds) 'From Fraser to Hawke: Australian public policy in the 1980's', Melbourne, Longman/Cheshire 1989, p 399; Tim Rowse 'Middle Australia and the noble savage: a political romance', in J Beckett ed., 'Past and Present', Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press 1988.
Keywords: Australian Labor Party, Hawke, Bob, land rights, Western Australia, 1983-1986
Sources: Ryan, L 'Aborigines and Islanders', in Head, BW and Patience, A (eds) 1989, 'Fraser to Hawke: Australian public policy in the 1980s', Longman/Cheshire, p 399; Rowse, T 'Middle Australia and the noble savage: a political romance', in Beckett J (ed) 1988, 'Past and Present', Aboriginal Studies Press.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor