Dreamtime's place in history

April 26, 1996

Australian historians writing since the 1960s have helped create the climate in which a landmark judgment on aboriginal land rights became possible, says an academic expert in the field.

Bain Attwood, senior lecturer in history at Monash University, was speaking at an Australia House conference organised by London University's Menzies Centre for Australian Studies on the Mabo judgment.

This decision by the federal High Court in 1992 upheld a claim of ownership by Eddie Mabo, who lives on Murray Island, Queensland, against a counter-claim by the state government of Queensland. The state argued that the land was owned by the crown, while Mr Mabo asserted rights based on ancestral occupation.

The judgment overturned previous Australian law and with 25 per cent of Australia's land classified as "unclaimed crown land" like Mabo's plot and a further 50 per cent on pastoral leases, the implications are immense. The judgment led on to the Keating government's Native Title Act of 1993.

Dr Attwood, editor of a new book, Australia in the Age of Mabo, said: "The ruling was greatly influenced by history, in the sense that history is a series of shared stories that represent the past. It was the outcome of revolutionary change in the writing and speaking of Australian history, and it is hard to conceive of without it."

This new history, itself in part a consciousness of greater aboriginal activism and awareness, took note of aboriginal accounts and the discoveries of archaeology.

He argued that earlier periods were characterised by what the anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner called "The Great Australian silence", a version of history that excluded aboriginal accounts and ignored the reality of their treatment by settlers.

This view of Australian history began with Captain Cook. It assumed that the aboriginals were primitives with no notion of property rights and equated colonialism with progress. "It created a number of myths: that the dispossession of the aboriginals was peaceful, that their destruction was an unintended consequence of disease being imported and that conflicts were handled in a humanitarian manner consistent with British justice."

Newer versions by historians had a dramatic impact on received wisdom. Not least was that noted by the archaeologist John Mulvaney, that the period since Captain Cook represents 0.5 per cent of Australia's human story. Colonisation was regarded as an invasion characterised by violence and racism rather than discovery and settlement. This was acknowledged by two of the High Court justices who spoke of "a national legacy of unutterable shame" while then-premier Paul Keating talked about "a great opportunity to transcend the history of dispossession".

Dr Attwood said that the direct economic impact of Mabo was limited - few aborigines would be able to produce the proof of a long-established relationship with the land needed to substantiate a claim.

But the psychological impact - demonstrated by reactions like that of the mining company boss who said Mabo was the greatest threat to Australia since the Japanese in 1942 - was considerable. This was because it challenged the accepted versions of history to which people cling to create an illusion of order in confusing times.

"What it has done is upset the dreamtime of Australian Conservatives," said Dr Attwood.

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