A notable early similarity between the Labor governments of Anthony Albanese and Paul Keating is a focus on Australia’s First Nations peoples. Delivering the Uluru Statement from the Heart has been a commitment for Albanese. For Keating, it was embracing the high court’s Mabo decision.
Mabo removed the lie of terra nullius from Australia’s legal narrative and replaced it with a common-law recognition of the title to the Australian continent of its First Nations peoples. The decision was simultaneously hugely profound and yet legally modest. Its significance was a potential recasting of the Australian story and as an enabler of honest dialogue about the ongoing relationship between First Nations and the wider Australian community.
The high court stressed that recognizing native title did not alter the legal legitimacy of British colonization or affect the Australian government system. Its legal consequences were important but limited. Its legal matters were important but limited. The court closed the door to any notion of shared sovereignty of Australia by the settler state and First Nations. Further, the rights enjoyed by native titleholders were subservient to contradictory land rights granted by governments to freeholders, pastoralists, leaseholders, and miners.
In practical terms, Mabo accepted that since 1788 native title had been lost or diminished each time a government permitted someone else to do something on lands and waters. Mabo recognized native titles while also recognizing the largely unfettered power of colonial government, then state and national governments to dispossess Aboriginal and Islander peoples of their traditional lands.
Paul Keating gave his Redfern address on 10 December 1992, ‘arguably the most powerful speech ever delivered by an Australian prime minister’.
Keating seized the opportunity presented by Mabo. At Redfern Park in December 1992, in arguably the most powerful speech ever delivered by an Australian prime minister, he laid bare the brutal reality of colonization on First Nations peoples – the massacres, the taking of the children, the dispossession,, and the impoverishment. Upon re-election in March 1993, Keating personally drove the legislative response to Mabo. In the teeth of a hostile Coalition opposition and strident resistance of powerful voices in the agricultural and resources sectors, the Native Title Act was developed, debated, and enacted in nine months.
Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning.
Thirty years on, the Keating government’s response to Mabo can be judged genuine and meaningful but flawed and insufficient. Critically, the government failed to fully develop and implement its promised social justice package before its defeat in the 1996 election. The social justice package was to fill the gulf between what native title recognition meant and what First Nations needed.
First Nations people have long sought self-determination, local empowerment, and the right to be drivers of their destiny within the demands of the modern Australian state. First Nations people have long sought self-determination, local license, and the right to be drivers of their future within the needs of the current Australian state. First Nations people have long sought self-determination, local empowerment, and the right to be drivers of their destiny within the demands of the modern Australian state. There is a direct line between the missing component of the Keating Mabo response and the Uluru Statement, just as the ancestry of both can be traced to the civil rights activism of the 1970s and the advocacy of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association of the 1920s.
As prime minister Anthony Albanese includes the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands flags in Parliament House press conferences. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
The parallels between the Albanese and Keating government’s ambitions for First Nations are plain. The difficulties prime minister Albanese confronts in achieving those ambitions are reminiscent of, if not more complex than, those flowing from the Mabo decision. As Keating did, the current government will likely face sustained resistance from the Coalition. While the opposition leader, Peter Dutton’s, initial comments about Uluru have been guarded, the omens are not promising.
The bi-partisan aspirations of Indigenous affairs minister, Linda Burney, have lost Ken Wyatt as a Liberal MP partner. Incoming Senator Jacinta Price will be the only First Nations parliamentarian in Coalition ranks; She is on the record as no enthusiast for the Uluru themes of Voice, Treaty, and Truth. Further, Uluru’s Voice to Parliament requires a successful referendum to secure a constitutional amendment. This is a much tougher hurdle than the legislative navigation of the Native Title Act the Keating government achieved.
IDespitenational commitment during the Turnbull/Morrison period, several states and territories have picked up the Uluru objectives of Truth and Treaty. Victoria is the most advanced, with underway processes in Queensland and the Northern Territory. Tasmania has recently received a blueprint report on how to proceed, and the ACT and South Australia have recently committed to treaty processes.
These multiple processes are a good thing, and for treaties to emerge, the governments of the states and territories must be around negotiation tables. But the national and state processes need to align and be mutually self-supporting. The leadership in the state processes, particularly the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, must be respected.
Underlying it all is the understanding and support of the wider non-Indigenous community. TThe Theprime minister’s leadership will be critical, but as the Mabo response showed, this will not be enough. Australians will need to rank Uluru as an important national project,whichs will need the path between Uluru’s objectives and improved First Nations peoples’ life outcomes to be continually reinforced. The opportunity is there, and it is for all of us to seize it.
Emeritus professor Michael Lavarch was the attorney general for Australia in the Keating Labor government between 1993 and 1996. He is a member of the Queensland Treaty Advancement Committee.