September 1, 2017

Editor’s Note

Editor’s Note September 2017

By Nick Feik

This isn’t the first and won’t be the last federal government to take refuge in Anglocentric patriotism. When the Coalition passed new laws limiting the ability of immigrants to gain citizenship unless they have near-perfect English, it was harking back to a long tradition of discriminating against foreigners. When it stripped the City of Yarra of its power to host citizenship ceremonies, after councillors voted unanimously to no longer refer to 26 January as Australia Day, it reflected a widespread and ingrained disdain for the rights of Indigenous people.

Nevertheless, few expected Malcolm Turnbull to be waving the Union Jack–bearing flag quite so enthusiastically. The recent Uluru Statement from the Heart clearly hasn’t touched him at all. How else could he insist that our national day must honour the English invasion? By what logic could he claim 26 January to be “a day that should unite Australians”? What an insult to First Nations people, to expect them to celebrate their own dispossession.

Not that there’s much reason to expect more from Turnbull. He and his government (like all recent federal governments, it must be said) have done nothing for Indigenous people.

It’s a good thing, then, that Australia’s legal system is able to see beyond the jingoism and condescension that underpins most government policy on Indigenous affairs. Twenty-five years ago, it was the High Court that made the crucial Mabo judgement, overturning the ludicrous doctrine of terra nullius and bringing about the subsequent native title laws. Last month, in the most significant land-rights judgement since Mabo, the Federal Court demonstrated what the law of native title can mean in practice.

After a decade-long fight, the Federal Court granted the Yindjibarndi people exclusive possession of their ancestral land in Western Australia’s Pilbara region. Fortescue Metals Group, having never offered the Yindjibarndi a fair royalty for access to this land, is now facing a massive compensation payout. Led by Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, the company has long characterised native title–related royalties as “mining welfare” or “sit-down money”. It has also made hundreds of millions of dollars out of paying much less in such royalties than its major competitors do.

In our September issue, Paul Cleary tells the story of the extraordinary leadership of Yindjibarndi man Michael Woodley, and explores the implications of this case for land rights around Australia.

Native title laws will never compensate for historical injustices, of course, but they require – at a minimum – a modicum of respect for Indigenous people’s custodianship of the land. “The one thing my people have never given up on,” wrote Megan Davis in the July issue of the Monthly, “despite forensically documenting in our collective memory the capacity of law to oppress, is the capacity of law to redeem.” At least the law aspires to treat citizens fairly, and makes its judgements on the basis of observable facts, rather than prejudice, convenience or wilful blindness.

Historical truths, as Turnbull would do well to remember, in time have a habit of asserting themselves. Those acting in bad faith are eventually exposed.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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