Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Oct 29, 1993
Published on: Reuters
1 min read
Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson

By Wilson da Silva

SYDNEY – An aboriginal leader, who this month struck a landmark deal with the Australian government to solve a land ownership crisis, said on Friday many whites still believed Aborigines were physically and culturally inferior.

White Australians were still deeply racist about Aborigines, whose newly established right to reclaim traditional lands was bringing the worst of this to the surface, Noel Pearson said on Friday.

“There is baggage on the shoulders of every Australian that is steeped in the 1840s and 1850s that is fundamentally antipathetic to Aboriginal people,” Pearson told a luncheon. “Australia is going through a real identity crisis, about how it is that we come to terms on a new planet where that kind of ideology has no place,” he said.

“We’re all cheering the breaking down of the Berlin wall, we’re all cheering developments in South Africa – how is it that we can be labouring in this country, with deep ambivalence, about (reconciliation) with aboriginal people?” Pearson said.

Pearson, a young lawyer who is the director of the Cape York Land Council in remote north-eastern Australia, said Australian history was littered with racism towards Aborigines.

Aborigines last year won a long court battle to overturn the untested Australian legal principle that because Aborigines were nomadic, the country was empty when white settlers arrived two centuries ago, and all land could be rightfully claimed.

The High Court ruling, named Mabo after a plaintiff, established the principle of native title, granting some rights to Aborigines over large tracts of land that are state-owned.

Miners and farmers, most of whom operate leases on land that may now be owned by Aborigines, threatened to halt investment and warned the ruling could damage investor confidence in Australia, imperilling the fragile economic recovery.

Pearson took part in talks to solve the mounting crisis, striking a deal to validate freehold and most leasehold titles.

The agreement also created a land-buying fund for dispossessed Aborigines and will require some miners to negotiate with Aborigines for new developments.

Pearson praised Prime Minister Paul Keating as exemplary in the native title issue, saying he had been “educating a public that has a deep-seated racism”.

But some white Australians were maturing in their attitudes to Aborigines, he said.

By recognising Aborigines had prior title to land, Australia was starting to wipe from its history the inglorious stains of racism, he said. Native title has been a fact in the United States since 1823, in New Zealand by 1859 and Canada from 1971.

There are about 300,000 Aborigines in Australia’s 17 million population compared with an estimated 750,000 to two million before European settlement in 1788.