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Bush Families and Native Title

By Lindsay MacDonald - posted Thursday, 15 July 1999

Life in Australia's inland has never been easy. Bush families struggle with many challenges – unpredictable and extreme weather; prices for the world’s best quality apparel wools and clean, green rangelands beef that seem always lower this year than last; and stringent environmental, health and other regulations. All this accompanied by the retreat of government and private sector services.

The survivors of these times have taken whatever desperate steps they could to stay with the land they love so much. The land they purchased in good faith represents their life's work, past and future. It becomes a culture all its own. It shapes them in ways few of today's city dwellers understand. So in between essential stock management work on property, hard-pressed men take whatever work off-farm they can - labouring jobs, driving heavy machinery, shearing. And the women, often property-bound teaching their children with the help of distance education, turn to all sorts of things to earn extra money. They paint landscapes to sell. They gather grass seeds and fashion all nature of bush plants into dried arrangements. Surplus produce from the vegetable garden can be sold.

Few have superannuation. All income from better years was reinvested for survival in the harder years.


In December 1996, the High Court threw the bombshell of the Wik decision into this landscape. In horror, bush families tried to grapple with its meaning. Worst-case scenarios dismissed by the leading lights in the 1993 Mabo debate were suddenly all too real. The tenure upon which bush families had based their lives had turned from rock to shifting sands.

Our family was faced with two claims on our son's lease at Charleville and one on our Blackall property. We struggled to understand the effect of the Wik decision. The essence of it is that our common law rights on our own properties no longer exist. They now belong to others. There would be no compensation because according to the Court, the rights had never existed. 100 years of exclusive and unchallenged possession counted for nothing.

Surely the nation would understand what an impossible situation we were in? Once a claim was lodged with the Native Title Tribunal, Keating's Native Title Act 1993 required that the parties enter into mediation, with a view to reaching agreements.

Surely people should have to prove that their claim is legitimate before others are required to engage in the process? But no. And this is still the case, with the amended Native Title Act.

We looked for understanding from the rest of the Australian population. Instead, for the first twelve months following the Wik decision, we were met with a virulent campaign of vilification. We were portrayed as 19th century 'pastoralists', guilty of unspeakable crimes. We begged to be heard with our concerns about the impact on our tenure, which could affect our ability to stay on the land we loved. We tried to make the case that if we are morally responsible for redressing past wrongs, then so is every single Australian. The burden should fall equally on all, not on the few.

Surely the Churches would listen with Christian tolerance and understanding? Far from it. All we got from them was breathtaking hypocrisy. Priests lectured from their pulpits about ‘wicked pastoralists’, but none ever suggested that the church institutions should share the title to their vast real estate holdings with claimants. Many claimants are seeking economic empowerment from native title – something coexisting title on high-value urban land could have contributed to. Conveniently, Church leaders stayed silent about the role the Church institutions played in dispossession and loss of culture. Many people associated with the mainstream churches actively led the charge against leaseholders. There was a determination to judge present-day leaseholders guilty by virtue of their tenure. Leaseholders quickly discovered that innocence of past crimes is no defence.


During that long and terrible first year we watched the 'Stolen generation" report brought down. Repeated stories of Australia's early settlement with all its violence and unhappy beginnings ignored coastal settlement, now safely freehold. It all concentrated on the inland. Gradually, all of the indigenous issues were rolled into one - Reconciliation, the stolen generations, the nation's atonement for past wrongs - and made to equal native title on pastoral leases.

Today, many city people believe the moral responsibility for past wrongs rests solely with leaseholders. That the moral responsibility of freehold landholders consists of putting their hands up in favour of the imposition of native title on pastoral leases. But few understand what this may mean for the future of the inland.

The recent (November 1998) precedent-setting Miriuwung-Gajerrong decision (now being appealed before the full bench of the Federal Court) in the Kimberleys is now being used by the Tribunal to apply the registration test. That decision said that all that was necessary to establish native title was that there had been a tribe in the area at the time of settlement, and there was descent from that tribe, though not necessarily biological. Claimants are using the Miriuwung-Gajerrong decision as their base to describe their alleged native title rights and interests. The judge found that these, subject to the interests of others, were the rights and interests of the common law holders of native title derived from, and exercisable by reason of, the existence of native title, in particular:

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About the Author

Lindsay MacDonald is a partner in a family grazing business at Blackall and Charleville in Queensland. She has been active in local community organisations over many years. She has had a particular interest in communications issues as they affect Rural and Remote Australia. As a member of the Regional Women's Alliance, she is a spokesperson for bush families affected by native title.

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