My stance on Australia Day is well documented. The date as it stands represents the start of the theft of a continent and it needs to move from January 26 to a more inclusive date. Not far, mind, a summery celebration of Australia feels right and the fourth Monday in January would be ideal. Under that arrangement one year in seven that would be January 26, but no one would complain because it would not celebrating white arrival in Australia.
Doing plenty of complaining at the moment is our unhappy Communications Minister Mitch Fifield who is annoyed someone has the audacity to recognise the problem with January 26. He was unhappy with a decision ABC’s youth music radio station Triple J’s management took last week to move the date of its popular Hottest 100 countdown from January after 60 per cent of those polled in a listener survey said they supported the move. Leaving aside the fact the Hottest 100 has been a moveable feast, his intervention had all the hallmarks of culture wars.
Triple J denied Fifield’s assertion the decision was “political” saying the countdown had not always been held on Australia Day. That was disingenuous from the station, Fifield was right – the decision WAS political.
But that was the only way he was right. Of course it was a political decision, following a national campaign to respect the views of Indigenous Australians who see January 26 as a Day of Mourning.
To say it isn’t political is as absurd as saying sports and politics don’t mix. The ABC has a charter to be neutral and unbiased but it takes political decisions all the time with shows like its nightly news service and 7.30 on what the leads are, who they talk to and what angles they take. It was a political decision to remove Lateline from the schedule. Given its funding is from the government, the ABC is inherently political and its leaders face an annual grilling at Senate Estimates.
No doubt the next time Michelle Guthrie is in parliament she will face questions from right-wing warriors about the Triple J decision. And no doubt they will follow Fifield’s line on the topic. “This is just a really bad idea, it’s a dumb idea and Triple J should change their mind,” he told another ABC station. “This is an attempt to delegitimise Australia Day. Australia Day is January 26. That’s not going to change. It’s not going anywhere.”
Again Fifield is partially right. Whether Triple J admits it or not, it WAS an attempt to delegitimise the date of Australia Day. But Fifield refuses to countenance why that might be the case and simply hides behind the non sequitur “It’s not going anywhere”. If follows a long line of white politicians refusing to engage with Indigenous demands and casually dismissing them as ‘dumb ideas” White Australia has had two centuries of practice and shows no sign of easing up as the disgraceful dismissal of the Uluru Statement showed.
Labor’s one line response to Fifield’s comments was a gem. “Mate, fix your second rate NBN” was a good riposte to a minister with oversight of a catastrophic rollout of our communications fibre. But it left Labor off the hook too, implying that the Triple J issue was not worth a response.
It is worth a response. Labor should congratulate the ABC for listening to its audience. Labor should now listen to its own audience and work to move Australia Day away from January 26. It should also make the Uluru Statement an election issue. As the same-sex marriage debate has shown, the Australian people are far ahead of many of its politicians when it comes to supporting the right decision.
The leaked tapes of Donald Trump’s first presidential conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia show the sausage making of international politics in all its gory detail. It is unedifying but it is also not unusual and it is important to be be able to play your cards well in diplomatic negotiation. Many have said Donald Trump comes out badly in these tapes, but while he was typically boastful, I thought he handled both conversations astutely clearly showing he intended to live up to his electoral promises. But there were key differences in the way the two conversations were handled by the other side that show the deep hollowness in the core of Australian democracy.
Imagine for a moment you are a world leader and it is your first conversation with the newly elected president of the US, a president who came from left field and a president that has threatened to tear up the world order in his avowed aim to “Make America Great Again”. What would you want to discuss? Maybe you would want to discuss what MAGA means to world trade, what it means to the global climate accord or what it means to international security co-operation, or what it means to the large American military bases and forces on your soil.
Certainly that is how Mexican president Peña Nieto saw that first conversation. Tensions were high over arguments about who would pay for Trump’s proposed border wall and Nieto had cancelled a planned trip to Washington a day earlier. Yet the call was most calm and productive with both sides getting across their messages.
Nieto immediately acknowledged Trump’s mandate about the wall but said it was politically unacceptable and he wanted “to look for ways to save these differences”. In return Trump brought up the US’s $60 billion trade deficit with Mexico saying tariffs were necessary. This proposal “this won me the election, along with military and healthcare,” Trump said.
Nieto reminded Trump that changing economic conditions would affect migration between the two countries, to which Trump brought up the Mexican drug lords. “Maybe your military is afraid of them, but our military is not afraid of them,” he said. He Mexico was beating the US at trade, at the border, and in the drug war. He said Israeli PM Netenyahu told him a wall works and it would be cheaper than the estimated costs. In the meantime, he advised both sides to stop talking about it and say “We will work it out. It will work out in the formula somehow.” The two sides agreed to continue talking and the call ended amiably.
Contrast this with the Malcolm Turnbull call. Australia is not a direct neighbour of the US and unlike Mexico has a trade deficit with the US. But Australia is a major military partner of the US, part of the Five Eyes alliance, home to a large US military presence in Darwin and home to the secretive spy base at Pine Gap. It shares a lot of cultural commonality as an English speaking settler country and both countries are among the highest carbon emitters per capita in the world.
But none of those issues came out in the call. Instead Trump became increasingly exasperated as Turnbull pressed him on a matter of domestic politics. The Australian Twitterati have made endless fun of the call particularly around the references to Greg Norman and “local milk people” but Trump twice skewers Turnbull on the one matter he chose to bring up.
That issue was boat people, refugees stranded on Nauru and Manus Island which Australia refuses to house on the mainland. That is a serious issue, but not one Turnbull wanted to resolve. All he wanted was for Trump to honour a grubby deal Australia signed with Obama, and unsurprisingly Trump baulked. In November the outgoing US administration agreed to a refugee swap, taking over a 1000 refugees from Nauru and Manus in exchange for a similar number Central American refugees who had escaped violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and were being held in US-funded facilities in Costa Rica. Turnbull wanted Trump to honour the deal. “This is a very big issue for us, particularly domestically,” he said.
Trump said this deal to take 2000 people would be a bad look for him given he was calling for a ban on immigration from the countries the Australian refugees came from. ” It sends such a bad signal,” he said. Turnbull said the US had the right of veto through vetting and none were from the conflict zone. “They are basically economic refugees from Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan…They have been under our supervision for over three years now and we know exactly everything about them,” he said.
So why hadn’t you left them free, asked Trump reasonably. Turnbull blamed the people smugglers “we had to deprive them of the product.” It didn’t matter if “you are the best person in the world” Australia would not let them in by boat. Later on Turnbull admitted the cruelty of the directive, “If they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here”. A confused Trump said “Why do you discriminate against boats?” Turnbull said the problem with the boats was it outsourced the immigration program to people smugglers and thousands of people drowned at sea. Yet Trump had a sneaking admiration for Australia’s hard stance and Turnbull pressed on yes, suggest he (Trump) say “we can conform with that deal – we are not obliged to take anybody we do not want, we will go through extreme vetting.”
Trump got angry again saying he would refuse to say that as it made him look “so bad” in his first week in office. “We are not taking anybody in, those days are over,” he said. Turnbull desperately hung on to the deal in a telling exchange:
Trump: Suppose I vet them closely and I do not take any? Turnbull: That is the point I have been trying to make. Trump: How does that help you? Turnbull: we assume that we will act in good faith.
Again Trump reminded him this deal would make him look weak and ineffectual. Turnbull oozed on: “You can certainly say that it was not a deal that you would have done, but you are going to stick with it.” No wonder Trump was sick of him at this stage and said it was the most unpleasant call of the day. “Thank you for your commitment. It is very important to us,” concluded Turnbull sounding all the world like a call centre operator. Trump was having none of it. “It is important to you and it is embarrassing to me. It is an embarrassment to me, but at least I got you off the hook.”
Off the hook. Not only the did phone call end there but Turnbull thought he had wriggled out of a domestic crisis, only for details of the call to be leaked that very day. Turnbull had used precious capital in his few minutes with the president of the United States to press a very minor issue, simply to avoid bad headlines back home. Almost 400 people remain in detention in Nauru and another 900 on Manus. Maybe they will be settled in the US but it won’t fix the source of the problem, the wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – that both the US and Australia are involved in. People smuggling is a reactive model. Unauthorised travel to Australia is driven by the desperate measures of people fleeing persecution.
I have long been supportive of the need for a Treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia and those that know me know I am writing in what little spare time I have, a book about why I think so. The book is aimed at convincing non-Indigenous people as I know most Indigenous people want one.
Yet I’m pleased that the need for a Treaty is at the centre of the recommendations of the 2017 National Constitution Convention outlined in the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”.
The statement acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign nations of Australia who have lived here in legal terms from “time immemorial”. This was sovereignty in a sacred sense and speaks to an ancestral tie with the land which was never ceded and which co-exists “with the sovereignty of the Crown”.
How could it be otherwise, the statement asks, for people who lived here for 60 millennia which could not disappear from world history “in merely the last two hundred years”?
Changing mere words in the constitution won’t fix that, but substantive change and structural reform might.
Despite not being innately criminal, Indigenous people are the most incarcerated in Australia, showing the “torment of our powerlessness”, they said.
In order for Indigenous people to “take their rightful place” in this country, the Convention has asked for a “First Nations Voice” in the Constitution.
That would take the form of a Treaty, or “makarrata”, a Yolgnu (NT) word meaning “the end of a dispute and the resumption of normal relations” or in the convention’s words “the coming together after a struggle”.
The convention has called for a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement making and “truth telling about our history”.
Harking back to the Referendum, in 1967 Indigenous people were counted, “in 2017 we seek to be heard”.
“We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future,” the final sentence reads.
Agreement and truth sound like a better future to me. I’m walking.
The word budget has a long association with money. It comes from the Latin “bulga” which became Old French “bougette”, as a diminutive of “bouge” which was a type of leather bag. The word originally described a pouch or wallet and later by metaphor its contents. In the mid 18th century, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, in presenting his annual statement, would “open the budget” and only in the last 150 years would the term be extended to other finances.
According to the Merriam Webster definition of the word, the government definition is merely an example of the fourth meaning, namely “a statement of the financial position of an administration (as of a nation) for a definite period of time based on estimates of expenditures during the period and proposals for financing them.”
Merriam Webster’s lack of attention on the government aspect of the budget is due to its American focus, where the budget is not the centrepiece of the political administration but rather administered by Congress. Australia, which follows the Westminster tradition, has kept the budget as a government tool even if unlike Britain it has dispensed with the “bougette”.
Though budgets are ephemeral things subject to huge variation and change within a short period of time, they are analysed to great extent as a health monitor of the government. Australia has been running a current account deficit since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and no government has been able to rein in spending within its means since.
The Rudd-Gillard budgets of 2008-2013 had to deal directly with that crisis, though it was helped by a motoring Chinese economy. Labor were continually castigated by the right-wing commentariat casting doubt on the “credible return” to surplus which Treasurer Wayne Swan would conveniently place in the fourth and last year of forward estimates.
One of Tony Abbott’s many memorable fear campaigns against that government was the “debt and deficit disaster” (swapping three words for alliteration). Labor spending was planting a “debt bomb”, Abbott and his supporters said, which would explode at some future time. This was stealing from the future, which was correct, but which would have had a lot more credibility had Abbott too not stolen from the future by taking a wrecking ball to carbon pricing.
Abbott was eventually turfed out of office as incompetent but those that followed have a lot to do to repair his damage. There is still no price signal in carbon and its lack was the elephant trading scheme in the room of Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison’s second budget last night.
The media has dubbed it a “Labor lite” budget, spending big on health care, education and infrastructure and paying for it by taxing the banks. But its failure to understand the role of carbon in our economy is hobbling Morrison’s equally Labor-like promise the budget was a “credible path back to surplus”. Like Swan, Morrison predicted this would happen in four years but given Turnbull’s recent public commentary against an ETS it is just as difficult to believe about 2021 as 2016.
The fact is that since white occupation, Australia has been the lucky country, living beyond its means. It did that through the wool market and convict labour for the first 50 years , then plundering mineral wealth thereafter while subsidising agriculture with cheap Indigenous labour.
Australia’s last budget surplus was when the price of iron ore, and to a less extent coal, went through the roof. Though the prices for both have increased in the last 12 months, even the government says it is “prudent to assume” neither will return to massive revenues in the future – especially coal -unless they can somehow deal with carbon emissions.
A day before the budget, ABC Four Corners program exposed the energy crisis as a failure in public policy. But a night later its budget analysts in Canberra more or less ignored the issue.
But from talking to small and big businesses I know energy reliability and cost is becoming the single biggest burden on the Australian economy. Government plans such as Snowy 2.0 and putting a reserve price on gas will barely scratch at the surface. Cyclone Debbie was seen as a one-off disaster but one of the predictions of climate change is for stronger and deadlier storms so another Debbie, Yasi or worse in the coming years is hardly out of the question.
Solar and wind barely merited a mention in the budget but they will surely be the key to solving the “debt and deficit disaster”. Australian coal is the best in the world but it must remain in the ground for now. Similarly gas is also just a short to medium term solution and is unlikely to expand out of Queensland given the social licence issues which the government ignores in its mantra to “produce more gas”.
Funding ARENA – the Australian Renewable Energy Agency -and putting over $3 billion of debt and equity to support low emissions projects through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation are great initiatives out of the leather bag. But they merely set the framework. The budget mechanism is carbon trading and until that is brought back Abbott’s zombie energy policies continue to walk the land.
Native Title changes are in the news again on the 25th anniversary of the Mabo High Court case that started it. In 1992 a High Court case was heard for a group of remote Torres Strait Islanders that would have profound impact on land law in Australia, and all settler nations. The case, known as Mabo for its most well-known plaintiff, built on a rich judicial heritage to establish native title did exist in Australia. The story that follows is a greatly condensed summary of Bryan Keon-Cohen’s A Mabo Memoir”. Keon-Cohen was one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs for over 10 years.
Native title, the idea of some form of lease prior to European arrival, was established in other settler countries. The landmark decisions of US Chief Justice John Marshall in the 1820s and 1830s laid the path for native title (and treaties) in New Zealand and Canada. But no case in Australia succeeded until Mabo. The Gove case came close – a legal failure but a pioneering case for land rights never appealed to the High Court. What did exist was the 1836 New South Wales Supreme Court proposition that no law existed in the colony before 1788. That decision was upheld by the Privy Council in London in 1889 (a decision Justice Lionel Murphy called a “convenient falsehood” in 1979) and was never an issue in the constitutional debates of the 1890s.
In the Gove case (Milirrpum v Nabalco) the Yolgnu people of Arnhem Land argued the common law recognised pre-existing traditional rights to land founded on prior occupation, customs and traditions, enforceable even after British colonisation. Justice Blackburn decided no such doctrine was known to Australian law “for want of authority to support it” though he admitted customary laws were a recognisable system of law. The case did eventually lead to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth) which recognised traditional rights to land in the Territory.
In Queensland the authoritarian Bjelke-Petersen government went in the opposite direction proposing to remove the minimal protection of Aboriginals and Islanders to reside on lands gazetted as “reserves” by updating the Land Act 1910 (Qld). The Torres Strait Islanders led the charge against that move.
About 5000 people live in the islands with 500 on the far eastern island of Mer (renamed Murray Island by the white newcomers). Rich volcanic soil allowed Meriam residents to do gardening. The gardening had associated customs and traditions, which became the core of the Mabo case. In particular, cultivation of bananas and yams was associated with a local cult called “Bomai-Malo” and featured prominently in evidence.
Mer was too far east to be in Cook’s 1770 claim of possession of eastern Australia. Between 1872 and 1879 the Torres Strait Islands were annexed to Queensland by Whitehall and Brisbane, with Thursday Island the administrative centre. Because this was much later than the mainland the Islanders had fewer destructive influences though the Queensland system soon affected all aspects of island life. In the first year, Christianity arrived with the London Missionary Society. For 30 years their violent evangelical Christianity profoundly impacted Meriam practices. The arrival of the LMS “The Coming of the Light” is still celebrated every July 1, which Queensland used in court to argue Meriam customs had vanished with traditional rights to land.
The first Government Resident John Douglas was appointed in 1886. When he died in 1904 control passed to the Aboriginal Chief Protector. The Protector’s powers were established under the 1897 Protection Act subjecting islanders to the same restrictive controls as mainland Aboriginal reserves.
In the 1930s Meriam people went on a three-year strike for better conditions but it was ended by the arrest of island ringleaders. A new Torres Strait Islanders Act 1939 vested local control in councils but maintained the repression of prior laws and Queensland “native” departmental control. By-laws made offenses of fornication, adultery, “message-carrying” and domestic squabbling, with penalties including fines, imprisonment and banishment from the island. The Department established “birth-to-death” cards with an ongoing record of most aspects of person’s life. In court Queensland used its knowledge of Eddie Mabo through these cards to great effect to attack his character.
In 1980-81 the Bjelke-Petersen government decided to repeal the 1939 act, revoke island reserves and introduce Deeds of Grant in Trust (DOGITs) in their place. This was Joh’s attempt to head off land rights, but it helped trigger the Mabo case.
Eddie Mabo was born on Mer on 29 June 1936. His mother died five days later and Eddie claimed he was eventually adopted by her brother Bennie Mabo. When Bennie and his wife died without offspring, Mabo claimed to inherit his land under Meriam custom and tradition, a claim contested by his cousin and adoptive sister and eventually denied him at the trial. Mabo seemed set for a good life on the island, educated in Meriam lore, traditional land management, Christianity and traditional beliefs. But in 1956 he pleaded guilty to an offence against the community by-laws which led to fights with Meriam leaders. Mabo left, first to Thursday Island and then to the mainland. In 1959 then a 23-year-old labourer at Halifax he married 16-year-old Bonita, a descendant of Kanakas from Vanuatu.
Eddie Mabo became involved with Indigenous organisations in Townsville and established a Black Community School in 1971. Working as a gardener at James Cook University he researched his background and discovered under Australian law he did not own his traditional land at Mer.
Aboriginal and Islander groups contested the government’s plan to allow trustees to lease DOGIT areas to outsiders. Mabo and Noel Loos organised a lands rights conference in Townsville in 1981 where Mabo spoke about traditional land ownership on Mer. Reverend Dave Passi also spoke of his Meriam land which was threatened by the DOGIT system. The conference discussed a possible High Court challenge which Barbara Hocking of the Melbourne Bar said might prompt political action even if unsuccessful. The Mer delegates agreed to take a Gove-type case to the High Court. This was purely about land rights and not about independence or sovereignty. They knew other cases found sovereignty not justiciable in an Australian court.
In 1982 five plaintiffs came forward to represent the Meriam group: Eddie Mabo, his elderly aunt Celuia Mapo Salee, brothers Dave and Sam Passi and Councillor James Rice. They handed a 32-page statement of claim to the High Court based on relevant facts, law and the detailed testimony about gardening and fishing activities. They served proceedings against Queensland and the Commonwealth. A fact-finding trip to Mer uncovered records of a 1913 sale of a block of land by an Islander to Queensland for use as “Jail House, Court House and Recreation Reserve” and also a Murray Island Community Council and Court which operated from the 1890s.
In August 1982 Queensland issued a summons to strike out the claim as not worthy of consideration. It included an affidavit sworn by Patrick Killoran, Director of Queensland’s Aboriginal Affairs department. Killoran claimed the “former modes of life” of Meriam people were “fundamentally and irrevocably modified by outsiders”. The plaintiffs counter-applied to have the case immediately referred to the full High Court for hearing. Neither application succeeded and the parties compromised on an agreed statement of facts and questions of law to be presented to a single High Court judge. After two years however, Queensland agreed to none of the facts making a complex and lengthy trial inevitable.
A 1984 directions hearing achieved little other than a Queensland request for the plaintiffs to amend the statement of claim, one of many attempts to bury them in paperwork. But with Queensland’s legal options dwindling the Bjelke-Petersen government decided to pass legislation to stop it dead. Claiming the case challenged Queensland’s annexation of Mer (it didn’t), the government passed the Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Bill 1985 to vest the island in the Crown and free it from “any right, interest or claim that the occupants of the land may have claimed to have existed prior to annexation”. Queensland’s lawyers amended their case to rely on the new act as a complete defence to the action.
The plaintiffs issued a “demurrer” proceeding to have the High Court declare the Act unconstitutional. Their grounds were the 1985 parliament could not retrospectively change the meaning of the 1879 law, Queensland did not have the power to pass laws to extinguish traditional land rights, and it did not address the Commonwealth-controlled “reefs and seas”. None of these arguments succeeded. Remaining under High Court jurisdiction, the matter was referred to the Queensland Supreme Court in 1986 to establish findings of fact.
Justice Martin Moynihan opened the case in late 1986 with the plaintiffs suffering blows of illness of judge and lawyers, the death of Mabo’s aunt and the withdrawal of the Passi brothers from the case. That left just Mabo and Rice as plaintiffs. When Mabo gave testimony Queensland’s objections as “hearsay” were so frequent it broke the flow of evidence and the judge deferred all rulings on admissibility until the end of the evidence. Moynihan ruled Mabo’s witness statement inadmissible meaning his lawyers had to rely solely on oral evidence. That was more persuasive. Mabo described the octopus-shaped Malo who designated the eight tribes into eight distinct parts of the island with inheritance passing down the eldest male line.
The court adjourned until early 1987 but was abandoned when the plaintiffs convinced Toohey J to hear the demurrer in the High Court as Mabo (No 1). There was another directions hearing which left the matter of evidence in Moynihan’s hands but established some traditional evidence was valid. Ten days later Moynihan decided to “let it all in and rule at the end”, in other words let the High Court decide on admissibility, a decision the plaintiffs supported and Queensland did not appeal.
Mabo (No 1) was served in the High Court in March 1987 with a directions hearing in April. The parties agreed if the demurrer failed the case would be over but if they did strike down the Declaratory Act the trial must continue. A full High Court was scheduled to hear the demurrer case in 1988. That allowed time to study the case history of “terra nullius”. Australian law was based on the Privy Council 1889 case Cooper v Stuart about English law relating to estates and had nothing to do with Indigenous people in colonies. But did English common law recognise pre-existing traditional land rights when introduced into the Straits in 1879? That would be the core question in Mabo (No 2).
Mabo (No 1) was almost undone on Day 1 when J Gerard Brennan admitted his son Jesuit priest Frank Brennan was an adviser to Aboriginal people but the plaintiffs were relieved when he was not asked to disqualify himself. The plaintiffs argued the Queensland Act was inconsistent with Commonwealth laws especially the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act. Queensland argued native title was extinguished in 1879 when, according to the Solicitor General, “there was a peaceful annexation of people who were, at the time, thought to be uncivilised and who were thought not to have an organised society with an established system of law.” The court did not accept Queensland’s assertion it could not be re-examined by re-assessing historical facts.
Queensland’s lawyers said “they were instructed” (which was code for “they would rather not say this”) there was no record of any by-law approving the island courts. The plaintiffs replied the court nonetheless existed and made decisions signed off by the government. The hearing lasted three days with a nine month delay for the outcome.
The case succeeded 4-3 with Justices Brennan, Deane, Toohey and Gaudron agreeing the Declaratory Act was racially discriminatory. The Mabo (No 1) decision meant the claim could continue. It was an important decision for native title as it meant those interests must be dealt with on an equal footing as all other equivalent property rights.
Preparation for Mabo (No 2) was helped by a successful Indian rights case Guerin, in the Canadian Supreme Court in 1984. However having done little for seven years the Commonwealth hardened its interest in the case’s offshore claims and threatened another demurrer case about proprietary rights on the high seas. After two and a half years the Brisbane Supreme Court trial resumed in front of Moynihan J in May 1989. Queensland used its detailed, intrusive knowledge of Islander family details to undermine Mabo’s testimony especially about claimed inheritance and adoption.
Mabo disputed records that showed him returned to his birth father in 1947 however Moynihan J preferred the written record over Mabo’s evidence. Queensland undermined his testimony to be a descendant of traditional leaders and and he claimed the title “Aiet” which the state said was a personal name. It contributed to the judge disbelieving Mabo’s testimony about his own interests. But while Mabo’s personal claim was jeopardised his evidence on the system was untarnished and compelling. For the plaintiffs’ case his description of the gardening on the island was a system that looked like land law.
On May 22, the court moved from Brisbane to Mer. They arrived in the middle of an industrial dispute with island municipal garbage collectors on strike forcing Mabo and his supporters to cart rubbish away on the Sunday before so the judge would not see the mess. On the first day Mabo showed Moynihan a mound of rocks which he said were boundary markers. That day the court also visited the nearby island of Dawar to see Rice’s claim.
The following morning Moynihan J opened court at the community hall calling it an “historic occasion”. He said being there helped him understand the evidence about Murray Island, its people and culture. The court heard 11 witnesses and then moved to Thursday Island for another five witnesses. Meriam evidence touched on customs and traditions of land and sea, ownership and stewardship, and boundaries and Island Court disputes. It also revealed some islander opposition to plaintiff claims, especially Mabo’s on account of him leaving the island. Encouraged by events, Dave Passi applied to be re-admitted as plaintiff though brother Sam stayed out due to costs fears. Dave Passi’s readmittance was critical as Moynihan’s Determination would later show, because only his claims had a factual foundation solid enough to proceed to the High Court.
Another significant moment came in July 1989 when the plaintiffs dropped the claim against the “outer seas” outside the jurisdiction of Queensland which dismissed the Commonwealth from the proceedings. Evidence concluded in Brisbane with the testimony of Rice and Passi. Rice was a retired school teacher, an island councillor and an Assembly of God official who supported Mabo’s territorial claim but denied Mabo was an island leader. Queensland claimed Rice was subject to a tenancy agreement but Rice could not recall ever paying any rent. Anglican minister Dave Passi was the final witness. Passi said his ministry was influenced by traditional custom “Malo’s Law” which he said was a “law of preservation of land, soil, trees”. Passi said he could see God sending Malo to the island “to prepare the place for the Coming of the Gospel.” For Passi the ancient Bomai-Malo cult with its laws of Malo and the LMS Coming of the Light in 1871 fused in one philosophy. His oral testimony of how land was transferred by the Passi clan was the clearest display of traditional landholding arrangements and when asked how he “inherited interests” to his land, he replied “I am a Passi. I am born into it, and I am born into the ownership of the land.” It did not extend to the women. “If my sister wants to use the land, she may use it, but will not own it.” It was patriarchal but it did establish it was a recognisable system of law.
Among the Brisbane witnesses was Meriam elder Henry Kabere, a close friend and supporter of Rice and a source of traditional knowledge. Kabere told a story his grandmother told him of a gunship that landed with the LMS in 1879, which fitted the plaintiff narrative the area was colonised by conquest not settlement. Kabere testified the Island Courts used Malo law in decision-making, including island adoption of extended families members. Expert witness Dr Jeremy Beckett, who studied on Mer, agreed most social interaction on the island was based on kinship. Dr Beckett said the Malo precepts were a system with “fairly simple principles” but it was “in the majority of cases, effective”.
The plaintiffs withdrew part of its claim for Eddie Mabo on July 3 based in the fact they could not prove he was a leader and Queensland began its defence the same day. Queensland denied the existence of traditional rights to land, and even if they did exist they were extinguished by sovereignty in 1879. Nor, they said, was Mabo adopted by Benny Mabo and had no right to Benny’s land. Their historical evidence included the infamous exhibit 80, 42 massive bound volumes of archival records and the whole of the Island Courts record, which suited the plaintiffs, but the judge called “terrifying”.
Queensland’s most significant witness was former DAIA director (1964-1985) Patrick Killoran. He ran a secretive and defensive government agency exercising total control of Indigenous lives in Queensland. Killoran spoke extensively of the paternalistic administration and tendered the social history cards that governed islander lives. He avoided any concessions that might preserve native-title rights using obfuscation and irrelevancies. Killoran dismissed the Island Court as dealing with “minor stuff” and would not concede it fixed land disputes on traditional island principles. Even where evidence was found of a government land payment for a kindergarten in 1968, Queensland claimed this was an ex-gratia payment to keep Islanders quiet and comfortable. Killoran said it was Crown land and the word “purchase” in the correspondence was merely “intended by my Department to be a convenient shorthand method of referring to those persons’ loss of use of the land concerned.” Killoran dismissed Mabo’s adoption calling it “shuffling of kiddies” to get the maximum child benefit payment.
Moynihan J asked for written submissions on “the crunch issues” – the existence and nature of “the system”. The plaintiffs submitted 150 pages drawing an analogy with the common law system as it evolved over 500 years. “Few of its details are the same… Yet we have no difficulty in dealing with the system as a continuity over such a vast period, and despite vast changes”. Queensland produced a lengthy document disputing the facts which had to be replied to before the judge produced his own fourth version of each numbered fact in his Determination.
Oral submission began in September 1989. Queensland argued the island court records showed no reference to Malo’s Law. It said Britain did not recognise native custom in the Torres Strait Islanders in 1879 because there was no system in place “to deal with the problems of administration”.
Moynihan’s 497-page Determination of Facts was handed down in Brisbane on November 16, 1990. The key chapter was on Murray Islands Society and Land which the High Court focussed on rather than the individual claims. Moynihan J acknowledged the islanders’ strong relationship to their islands saying “they have no doubt that the Murray Islands are theirs” which was later relied on by one of the High Court judges. Moynihan noted the knowledge of boundaries and the shame of trespass were cultural attitudes “rooted in the pre-contact past”. He rejected the plaintiff rights to the reefs and reef flats ruling out the tidal zone from the high-water mark. He also rejected Mabo’s claim of adoption and therefore his personal land claim. However he agreed the plaintiffs’ traditional rights and interest in land founded on Meriam customs and traditions had survived in legally recognisable form.
Neither side appealed the Determination and the case proceeded to the High Court for final appeal. The common law precedent against the plaintiffs was a Privy Council decision on 1889 Cooper v Stuart which purported to confirm the legal assumption underpinning colonisation: Australian colonies were settled not conquered by Britain and the doctrine of terra nullius (land belonging to no one) applied. However while terra nullius provided legal and policy context, it was rarely mentioned in court. Mabo was set for a three-day hearing in May 1991 (and took four), a lengthy time for the High Court and an indication of its importance as a test case. The key issue was what happened to traditional rights on annexation.
The biggest difficulty the plaintiffs had in trial was determining whether the claims were individual or communal. This encouraged Queensland to claim Moynihan’s findings were inadequate to allow legal argument to proceed. Queensland had problems too, its argument no ordered system of land tenure survived annexation did not impress the judges. They accepted Moynihan’s Determination possession existed under an identifiable system. Deane J asked Queensland if the Islanders were trespassers after annexation. After some squirming they admitted Gaudron J’s point “the native population could have lawfully been driven into the sea”. This was not a good look for Queensland which had stressed they had protected the Islanders on a reserve for their benefit.
Queensland mentioned the Irish case of Tanistry, where land held under the Tanistry tenure was inherited by the deceased eldest son. The state argued this custom was abolished by the introduction of the English Common Law to Ireland, as were the customs and traditions of Mer in 1879. Queensland also attempted to show Marshall’s American judgement in Johnson v McIntosh gave the sovereign power right to terminate right of occupancy. When challenged by Brennan J this was not an “enabling doctrine” for the common law, Queensland’s solicitor-general Geoff Davies reluctantly agreed “unfortunately the position seems to have been very much in those days that might was right and that those who controlled the country determined what the rights were”.
Following the hearing Eddie Mabo was diagnosed with cancer and his health declined rapidly. He died in Townsville on January 21, 1992. After his grave was vandalised by unknown offenders his family re-buried him on Mer. His death left just two plaintiffs Dave Passi and James Rice to face the High Court judgement on June 3, 1992. Five judgements were delivered, two joint decisions, two separate decisions by Brennan and Toohey JJ (all supporting the plaintiff) and a dissenting decision by Dawson J. Brennan J’s was regarded as the most comprehensive and influential judgement. The six assenting judges agreed the common law recognised an enforceable traditional property right on provable customs and traditions – native title – which was not extinguished by British sovereignty in Australia or the introduction of common law in the colonies. However being a subsidiary of the ultimate title of lands vested in the Crown at the time of colonisation, native title could be extinguished or impaired by subsequent Crown acts especially in the granting of fee simple titles or commercial leases to settlers. At a stroke this decision saved the commonwealth, states and grantees from Indigenous claims of invalidity and compensation.
Mason CJ later said terra nullius was not central to the decision nor was there any challenge to British sovereignty. He also denied the court was influenced Henry Reynolds’ 1987 book The Law of the Land. The question was whether native title was recognised by the common law at the colonisation of a “settled” country to which the answer was “yes”. He said settlement was appropriate, because “the indigenous inhabitants were regarded as barbarous or unsettled, and without a settled law.” However Brennan, Deane and Gaudron JJ rejected terra nullius as outmoded and unacceptable. Brennan J said it was unjust to characterise pre-colonial Australian inhabitants as “people too low in the scale of social organisation to be acknowledged as possessing rights and interests in land.”
It was this judgement that made Mabo important for all Australia’s Indigenous people. Any group who exhibited systems of custom and tradition had rights and interests in their traditional country. Deane and Gaudron JJ described Governor King’s
1804 actions on the Hawkesbury River as the “first stages of the conflagration of oppression and conflict which was, over the following century, to spread across the continent to dispossess, degrade and devastate the Aboriginal peoples and leave a national legacy of unutterable shame”.
While the Australian’s editorial (January 26, 1993) applauded the decision as common sense saying “European settlers did not occupy a country free of inhabitants”, others were less measured. Historian Geoffrey Blainey claimed the decision could “turn Australia in two separate nations” while Victorian premier Jeff Kennett said “back yards were at risk” (they weren’t). Most hysterical was Western Mining chairman Hugh Morgan who claimed the High Court pandered to “the guilt industry” and gave substance to the “Bolshevik left for a separate Aboriginal state”.
Historian Bain Attwood argued the national crisis provoked by Mabo arose from the challenge some saw the decision posed to Australia’s sense of self. But its enduring legacy was the Keating government’s legislative response. The Native Title Bill 1993 initially had three elements; native title legislation, an Indigenous land acquisition and management fund, and a “social justice” package which never saw the light of day. The land acquisition fund was operated by the Indigenous Land Corporation and by 2009 had acquired 222 properties in a land area of 5.7 million hectares.
States followed with their own legislation but the Native Title Act was substantially amended by the Howard government’s Ten Point Plan in 1998 following the Wik decision. Deputy prime minister Tim Fischer infamously claimed those changes provided “bucket loads of extinguishment” and validly extinguished native title for thousands of land interests granted by the Crown since 1788. It also restricted the “future act” regime stopping claimants from negotiating terms with miners on claimed land prior to resolution of the claim.
From 1994 to 2010 indigenous groups made 1556 applications for native title covering 13% of Australia’s land mass with 458 of those claims still before the court as of 2010. The success of the legislation has been agreement-making with 470 Indigenous Land Use Agreements signed off by 2010, using native title for purposes like energy facilities, health care centres and gas pipelines. The people of Mer negotiated an ILUA in 2010 to permit the building of a new primary school and roads and services.
But the law remains, as Justice Michael Kirby said in 2002, “an impenetrable jungle of legislation” that was difficult to navigate. In 2008 Rudd minister Jenny Macklin delivered the Mabo lecture where she highlighted three areas for reform: the complex and slow claims processes, inadequate representation for claimants, and the flow of payments to claimants and native title holders. Political will remains lacking to make these necessary changes happen. It is unlikely current changes before parliament will in any way help the Indigenous cause.
My cartoonist Bret Currie sent in a cartoon to me this morning as he does every Friday morning for the Saturday edition of the paper. They usually raise a smile but initially I was a bit troubled by this one on Australia Day (which was the day before). My first reaction was dislike, this went well beyond caricature and into stereotype. Normally I put his cartoon straight up on our Facebook page but I hesitated this morning.
Then I looked at it again and smiled and realised Bret had achieved his objective. People will like it, I concluded. Plus he was making a sharp point about Australian cultural values. I immediately put it up on our Facebook page with the caption “Typing this very quietly in case anyone is suffering a ‘reaction’ to Australia Day, as Bret Currie infers in this week’s cartoon.” And 12 hours later there hasn’t been a single negative reaction.
Perhaps because in the end that’s all Australia Day is, a day for partying with food, drink and sport. With those values it doesn’t matter what date it is held. I have long held January 26 is inappropriate and Australia Day should be the fourth Monday in January. It would still occasionally fall on January 26 though it wouldn’t solve the problem Bret points out about fair dinkum sickies the day after. But it is less political charged than having it on January 26 all the time.
Just how politically charged the current date is noted by some of the rot I saw today from government members when asked whether the date should change. Barnaby Joyce was stupid-in-chief. He not only attacked the idea of change but those wanting change. “I’m just sick of these people who every time they want to make us feel guilty about it,” he said. Joyce said the reason people want the date to change is not because it was wrong but simply they wanted the white Brits who still loved January 26 to feel guilty. But having said it’s all about me, he then went Full Metal Barnaby:
“They don’t like Christmas, they don’t like Australia Day, they’re just miserable … and I wish they’d crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit.”
Eh? They don’t like Christmas??
Who doesn’t like Christmas? I like Christmas, Barnaby, and if you mean the vast majority of Indigenous people who support a change, well I couldn’t answer for them, but I’d suspect the answer is a) actually, they do like Christmas and b) it has bugger all to do with Australia Day.
But “they’re just miserable”. It’s obvious that the “they” Joyce is zooming in on is not Aboriginal people but the green inner city left. Indeed they are one constituency that mostly wants the date changed. But they are not alone. Is it just them he wants to crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit or must all of us seek temporary refuge somewhere?
Meanwhile Joyce was warming to his theme. The idea, he said, “of moving the date away from January 26 is political correctness gone mad and those pushing for change should instead go to work on the public holiday.” Political correctness gone mad is a slogan with zero meaning, Barnaby. And just because you might be taking it easy, you forget many of us are already working on the public holiday. Besides, those with the day off would happy swap it for another day. “Today (Australia 26) is a day about celebration,” Joyce concluded, but he never addressed why it had to be that date, because that wasn’t his argument.
This deflection of argument was also perfected by Eric Abetz. Like Joyce, Abetz ignored the Aboriginal arguments to concentrate on his real enemy: “left-wing activists and latte-sipping apologists.” Abetz is simply wrong here, many on the right see moving Australia Day off January 26 is a necessary step on our road to true independence. As Ian Macfarlane “It’s about healing a wound, drawing a line, getting on with the really important issues facing our indigenous communities.” As for the latte-sipping apologists, this is another nonsense phase beloved by the right that somehow implies political menace into dainty coffee drinking.
While presumably sipping something other than coffee, Senator Abetz said Australians “celebrate living in the freest and most aspirational nation in the world”. Well maybe so, but why can freedom and aspiration only be celebrated on that date?
It took Tasmanian Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell to remind why January 26 is the date. “The only significance of that date is the coming to Australia of white people,” he said.
What Joyce and Abetz really hate is they are being made to feel guilty for their triumphalism. It is the usurper’s complex that makes the act the aggrieved one when called out on misbehaviour.
There is no doubt January 26 was an important date for Australians as it marked the beginning of change of ownership of a continent over the next 130 years. If that is what we are celebrating then stop taking a sickie and admit it. In the meantime, change the date.
It was a book on my “to read” list for six months and when I finally did get around to reading Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin, it felt like reading ancient history. Of course, it is barely 15 months since the key event of the book, the overthrow of Prime Minister Tony Abbott by Malcolm Turnbull, in a fashion reminiscent of palace coups of Labor, behaviour the Liberals were so desperate not to be tainted with. But Abbott’s leadership was so terminal in 2015 the party had little option if they didn’t want electoral annihilation in 2016, a point brought out well in Savva’s book.
Though I admire Savva as an independent-ish figure of the right, I wasn’t immediately taken in by the book. The first few pages were endless name dropping, then the first few chapters were endless bitchiness about Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin. There was no doubting Credlin’s hold over Abbott but surely a chief of staff could not hold a nation to ransom in the way Credlin allegedly did? Akin to Kevin Rudd’s office when he was in power, things went into the inbox and never came out, and the focus was on micromanagement of trivial issues at the expense of more substantive issues.
The difference was that in 2009 the roadblock and the micromanager was Rudd himself whereas in 2014 Abbott had delegated those functions, and nearly all other functions to Peta Credlin. The hold she had on him, if Savva is to be believed, was immense, and Abbott was immune to all advice on the topic, even when close advisors told him of the damage caused by the perception of an affair between the two. Abbott’s overwhelming preoccupation, said Savva, was the wellbeing of Credlin and transferred all his power to her, which she used ruthlessly.
Savva skirts (a term I use advisedly) the issue of feminism even when she quotes Credlin telling Australian Women’s Weekly “If I was a guy I wouldn’t be bossy, I’d be strong”. Why was it Credlin’s fault that the wheels of government fell off, given she was unelected? Was it her fault, that Abbott’s first cabinet contained one woman, foreign minister Julie Bishop (a cartoon of the time added “and the good news is that she will be out of the country most of the time”), was it Credlin’s fault that Abbott ostracised Bishop as a deputy leader who owed nothing to him or made stupid “captain’s calls” like knighting Prince Phillip and making Bronwyn Bishop speaker, and was it Credlin’s fault Abbott underestimated the numbers game Turnbull was playing that eventually unseated him (them?) in September 2015?
When Savva finally gets over talking about Credlin, and then the digression about her own stint in politics as a policy adviser for Peter Costello, the book becomes a genuine page turner as she dissects the two spills of 2015. Savva had extraordinary access to Liberal powerbrokers most of whom were happy to go on the record about the problems of the day. The February 2015 spill came too early for Turnbull to show his hand, but Abbott was fatally weakened by only narrowing beating “an empty chair” in the ballot.
After that he had six months to turn things around but Abbott had only one modus operandi. Credlin was supposed to take a lower profile after the spill but remained a screen between him and the backbenchers he relied on for support. When the Bronwyn Bishop helicopter scandal broke, Abbott dithered and let it dominate the news for 18 days before finally throwing Bishop to the wolves after all the damage was done, losing a key ally in the process (her ultimate revenge was to vote for Turnbull in the ballot).
With polls showing a government wipeout in August,the party room was set for another move against the apparently hapless prime minister. Turnbull and his allies counted the numbers and believed the time was finally right to move. Even Abbott hardliners like Peter Dutton had enough and the only questions remaining was what would Julie Bishop do, and whether to move before or after the by-election for Canning in WA (where the Libs were running star candidate former SAS-commando Andrew Hastie). The WA campaign was run on strictly local lines with Abbott kept out of the picture and in the end Turnbull did not wait for it.
As for Julie Bishop, she reserved her support almost to the end and even told Turnbull that as deputy she would vote for the leader, as she had done in every ballot since 2007. But when Abbott confronted Bishop he was convinced she was in the coup and he neglected to ask her who she would vote for. When Abbott panicked and declared his position open, he made a mistake by also declaring the deputy leader position vacant, opening the way for Bishop to change her mind and vote for Turnbull. Abbott also fluffed his lines with Scott Morrison offering him the Treasury at the last minute while also giving assurances to Joe Hockey his job was safe. Morrison rightly saw this as untenable.
After the inevitable defeat, Abbott did not take it well. He was “angry, bitter and vengeful.” But rather than blame Turnbull (or better still, himself) he blamed Bishop and Morrison for their “perfidy”. Abbott does not appear to have absorbed the lessons of his defeat though he harbours hope of a second shot at government. Like Rudd he has suffered Relevance Deprivation Syndrome (of recent PMs only Julia Gillard appears immune) and he remains in parliament as a lonely outsider. Turnbull may suffer his own “30 bad Newspolls” and be turfed, but when he does it will be a Morrison or a Christian Porter looming at the gates, not an Abbott – with or without Peta Credlin. The best thing that be said for the coup is that it ended the Libs holier-than-thou pretense that those kinds of sordid power games were the exclusive preserve of Labor.