The traditional owners of a vast territory in Cape York, Northern Queensland, Australia have seen a “great injustice” righted. Those were the words of the conservative Queensland premier, Campbell Newman, at a ceremony on Monday where ownership of a 75,000-hectare property was handed over to the Wik people.
In 1974, only 7 years after Aborigines had finally been recognized as Australian citizens in a constitutional referendum, Wik leader John Koowarta tried to buy the Archer River cattle station for the benefit of his people, but was thwarted by then-Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen on the grounds that “Aboriginal people already have enough land.”
Koowarta won a landmark High Court case in 1982 which hinged on a constitutional argument over the validity of the Commonwealth’s Anti-Discrimination Act, but Bjelke-Petersen, in an act described as one of “spite and prejudice,” had the land turned into a national park.
Law professor Sean Brennan told ABC TV:
The Koowarta case proved that Australia could have a national law about human rights or prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race or some other ground. Without that outcome there would have been, for example, no Mabo case in 1992 ten years later.
In the case won by Eddie Mabo, from the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait, Australia’s highest court rejected the doctrine of “Terra Nullius” (empty land), in favor of the common law doctrine of Aboriginal Title. Subsequently, the Australian government set up a procedure by which indigenous Australians could win back ownership of their land, such as the famous landmark Uluru (Ayer’s Rock).
Campbell Newman said:
Thirty-five years ago a great injustice was done. Today we put that right. So again, my apologies to those who have suffered.
He said that his government intended to make more freehold land available to indigenous groups. Over the past decade, since former Prime Minister John Howard’s divisive and fractious handling, particularly of an apology for past injustices, indigenous affairs have become a largely bipartisan political issue. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the ‘Stolen Generation’, those taken from their parents and brought up in institutions, succeeded in bringing the whole nation together in a watershed collective act.
Koowarta died in 1991 but his widow, Martha Koowarta, who kept up the fight, attended the hand over ceremony alongside her 16-year-old grandson, named John after his famous forebear.
After hearing the apology, Martha Koowarta said: “I’m really proud. Big surprise for me.”
“My husband, before he died he told me: ‘If there was ever something wrong with me you have to stick up for our children and grandchildren, you have to be strong’; so I did,” Mrs Koowarta told the Cairns Post after the ceremony.
I had to keep the promise to my husband; that is the Aboriginal custom. I loved my husband for a long time… I still tell (my grandchildren) a story about my husband at night so they won’t forget.
Wik Mungkan elder Victor Lawrence said it was time for his people to look to the future. He said in an emotional speech:
For a long time we have been fighting for this land, today we can look forward now. Today, I am happy … we made a hole through this brick wall today.
As well as the land handover, the government created the new 381,650 hectare Oyala Thumothang National Park to be managed by the local Wik Mungkan, Southern Kaanju and Ayapathu people.
Koowarta lives on with a law scholarship named after him for budding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
Photo credit: Aboriginal flag, image source Wikipedia
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