Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

Noongar victory reveals what leaders really value

John Howard has yet to release his definitive list of Australian values, but we can anticipate at least a few of them: respect for Australian law, a fair go for all, upholding the right of minorities, racial equality, rejection of stirring up hatred against any section of the Australian community.

An admirable wish list. Last week his government gave them all the finger.

The Federal Courts finding that the Noongar people can claim native title over some 200,000 square kilometres of Western Australia including the city of Perth was certainly unexpected, but one might have thought that the politicians would have read the judgment as a whole before running to the shock jocks.

If they had done so they might have noticed that Judge Murray Wilcox had pointed out that the decision was in no sense a pot of gold for the Noongar; as always any form of freehold title and most forms of leasehold title had extinguished the claims. The central business district was not threatened, and nor were suburban backyards or public amenities. In fact for areas already occupied by immigrants, which meant just about the lot, there would be no discernible effect.

The finding would enable the Noongar to conduct ceremonies at specific sacred sites, and to pursue some other traditional activities, but this did not mean nightly kangaroo hunts down King George Terrace or regular corroborees at the WACA. Essentially it merely confirmed what the judge found had been going on since European settlement in 1829; the maintenance of the society and a continuous connection with the land.

It was this continuity, highly unusual in urbanised areas, that gave the claim its validity, and the same situation was most unlikely to exist in other capital cities. The law had not changed and native title rights had not been extended in any way by the decision.

There was absolutely no cause for alarm. So, naturally, the government panicked.

As the Western Australian Labor Government said it would consider an appeal to the High Court, John Howard said he would encourage such an appeal. His immediate reaction was one of some considerable concern.

The loathsome Phillip Ruddock was despatched to spread fear and despondency across the land. Backyards might be safe, but access to beaches and parks might be cut off, he gibbered (Wilcox specifically stated it would not), and who knew where else it might lead? It is not possible to guarantee that continued public access to all such areas in major capital cities in Australia would be protected from a claim to exclusive native title, our learned and deeply mendacious chief law officer raved.

Well, maybe not, but you could get odds of at least 100 to 1 against any court granting the claim and 1000 to 1 against any winner being silly enough to try to enforce it. Titles like the one the Noongar have been granted are almost entirely symbolic: they represent a rare and hard-fought win which has little to do with actual property, but an enormous amount to do with morality, and with the self-respect of those whose morale desperately needs a lift.

The sensible thing to do with them is to accept the courts verdict and sit down to negotiate the best mutual outcome from it. This is what Paul Keating did with the Mabo decision, and the result is now admitted by all sides to have been highly successful. Howard always rejected the Mabo process, so it is hardly surprising that he would like to wipe Noongar off the books as soon as possible, and the hell with the law, the fair go, the respect for minorities or anything else that gets in his way.

But it is depressing, though predictable, that Kim Beazley should also support an appeal against the Federal Court verdict. Beazley is at pains to point out that, as a Perth resident, he does not feel that his backyard is threatened, and nor should anyone else. But, he says gravely, we need clarity. We do? The decision looks clear enough to me, and if there is no threat to anybody, why not leave it be?

If Howards stance looks mean and spiteful (and it does and is) surely Beazley has everything to gain by taking the high ground. But no; as with the Tampa in 2001, that would require an act of moral courage above and beyond what the pollsters on one side and the roosters on the other are telling him.

To the Aboriginal Australians who have for so long placed their faith and their votes in Labor, this is a betrayal. Or perhaps, as Noel Pearson suggests, it is just further confirmation that Beazley stands for nothing.

Am I the only one who found the press coverage of the television battle over the West Papuan boy Wa Wa thoroughly distasteful?

Im not referring to the preposterous antics of the television stations as they competed to show the most concern for the hapless 10-year-old; these indeed defied parody, and deserved every word of the merciless treatment they received. But at the centre of it all was a child threatened, allegedly, with ritual murder and cannibalism. This is a genuinely tragic story, but even the quality broadsheets chose to stud their coverage with merry quips about stew pots, barbecues and casseroles.

Given their cheerful lack of compassion in this case, one can only suspect that either their regular sanctimonious outrage over child abuse in Australia is a total confection, or that they still regard the human rights of so-called primitives as not worth protecting. Perhaps Howard and Beazley have read the mood correctly.

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