Native Title is a dodgy conveyance. If it was a car, it would be a late 80s family sedan, belching black smoke, and struggling to exceed speeds of 50kph going down hill. The recalcitrant wreck would refuse to start on cold winter mornings, and spend more time in the mechanics shop than on the road. People would look at it and say “that car is cactus” and things even more vulgar.
It would be stating the bleeding obvious to observe that the machine was moribund.
But native title isn't a car. It's an impossibly tortuous set of court cases, pieces of legislation, courts, bureaucracies, lawyers, anthropologists and assorted other hangers-on.
Sometimes the Indigenous claimants themselves even get a look-in.
Now the legislators are at it again, tinkering with the carburettor on a car whose engine has given up the ghost.
Recently the federal Attorney General, “smiling” Phillip Ruddock released the Federal Government's response to the Hiley report, or more properly the Native Title Claims Resolution Review (pdf 468KB) (government committees of enquiry are not permitted to have titles of less than five words).
Conventional wisdom is that native title operates to get Indigenous groups “a seat at the table”. That is, an entrée to negotiations.
This reduces the expectations of all concerned and creates a scenario where a minimum of progress is all that anyone really expects. With the application of enough spin it can even be made to look good.
The 1992 Mabo decision unleashed a stallion, albeit hobbled by the subsequent Native Title Act. However, the current evocation looks more like a Shetland pony.
It's a gentle animal with little power, plodding around a well-worn track and causing no offence to anyone. But in this circus, it's the lawyers who take the taxpayers for a ride.
The mob with the unfortunate job of having to manage the native title bureaucracy is the National Native Title Tribunal. They have to umpire a game using rules that are not of their writing. It's a tough gig.
Over time, I've had a bit to do with the tribunal. The people that I deal with there are invariably friendly, knowledgeable and efficient. But the scoreboard looms over the whole industry like a tombstone.
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