The native title system in retrospect

After fifteen years of the NTA, the NNTT could announce some impressive-sounding figures:

In fifteen years, more than one hundred decisions have been made about where native title exists. Three quarters have found that Indigenous people have native title over their land and waters, with almost eighty percent made by agreement. Agreements now exist all around Australia.

In February 2008 the Tribunal headlined these statistics in a 24-minute film, 15 Years of Native Title, in which an off-screen narrator, Indigenous actress Ursula Yovich, provided a potted history accompanied by mood music, maps, graphics and a range of excerpts from interviews. In addition to archival footage of Eddie Mabo himself, a variety of talking heads provided their overwhelmingly positive testimony of the native title system in operation. Even a Yorta Yorta man was featured, talking about the benefits of the process, as was the claimants’ lawyer in a separate interview. The overwhelming theme of the show was that, no matter how fractious or litigious relations were in the past, the only wise course in the end was to proceed with agreement-making, a now widely shared understanding as demonstrated by the testimonials of satisfied participants featured in the film. The take-away message was that native title had clearly arrived in an age where claims were commonly resolved by negotiation, with the implication that although there was still more to do because many claims remained outstanding, the system could already be considered a success.

Fundamentally, this book argues against the grain of the story iterated in 15 Years of Native Title; not as being wrong, but as the expression of a myth of how consensus was arrived at—an account denuded of politics and the application of power. The view of the history of native title in Australia that the film represents is accurate to the extent that there is now little momentum for fundamental change to the system, near unanimity that agreement-making is the optimal way of resolving matters and in that the number of actual negotiated outcomes continues to increase. In stylised form, it is a narrative of how the various ‘stakeholders’—Indigenous people, governments and industry—have come to ‘accept’ native title. Even the government of John Howard, in those hubristic days of complete Coalition control of the Senate, ‘accepted’ native title sufficiently to revisit the statutory framework with only comparatively minor adjustments, rather than the ‘bucketloads of extinguishment’ promised by then Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer less than a decade earlier. We all ‘respect’ and ‘recognise’ native title now.

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