GOING NATIONAL: Too busy surviving to fight for our land

BY AMY MCQUIREJUNE 1, 2011

 Originally published in Tracker Magazine. 

Gunditjmara Traditional Owner Richard Frankland has joined the call for a national land rights scheme. (AAP IMAGE/PENNY TWEEDIE)

NATIONAL: GOING NATIONAL is an ongoing Tracker series which aims to re-invigorate debate around national land rights. This edition AMY McQUIRE takes the discussion to Victoria.

Victoria has the worst land rights record in the country. Under 0.07 percent of land is Aboriginal-held, despite a strong struggle for land rights that has stretched back for centuries.

Aboriginal Victorians have been shouting from the roof tops for land rights since invasion. But the focus on land rights has faded, according to Gunditjmara traditional owner Richard Frankland.

“If I yelled out ‘Land Rights Now!’ no-one (would seem) to say anything,” Mr Frankland told Tracker. “What happened to the days when if anybody yelled out ‘Land Rights’, thousands chanted back?”

It was not until the 1970s that the first land was handed back to Aboriginal people in the state, with the former reserves of Lake Tyre and Framlingham both given back under a Trust via the Aboriginal Lands Act 1970 (Vic).

Land Councils have since been set up and abolished, along with other bodies designed by the state in attempts to satisfy the deep hunger for land rights.

In 1983, the same year New South Wales proclaimed its land rights legislation, Victoria was also considering a parallel act, and had released the Aboriginal Land Claims Bill, 1983 (Vic).

This was rejected by the Liberal and National parties.

The Lake Condah and Framlingham Forest lands were given back to Aboriginal people by the Hawke-Labor Government and since then, small parcels of land have been recognised under state laws like the Aboriginal Lands Act 1991.

Mr Frankland, a successful screenwriter and filmmaker, believes the dream of land rights is still alive, but the fight has been replaced by the fundamental need to survive.

“I don’t think we’ve given up on land rights, but it’s become less of a pivotal point,” he said. “In many cases, our people generally have been a survival mechanism, a survival mentality.

“I think this is really difficult for all of us, we are in a position where we are required to survive as opposed to achieve and contribute.”

Mr Frankland believes conflict within Aboriginal communities is what has shifted the focus away.

“That doesn’t give us the head space, spiritual space, or physical space to pursue the issue of land rights,” he said. “What we end up dealing with is emotional and violent conflict and we don’t have the opportunity to deal with the issues of land rights or other sovereign issues because we are so preoccupied with massive conflict.”

Mr Frankland said there was a big difference between land rights and native title. It took 11 years for his people – the Gunditjmara – to have their native title recognised over 140,000 hectares of land in 2007.

But the burden on Aboriginal people to prove their traditional connections to land in a state where dispossession was extreme has proven problematic.

The determinations by the Federal and High Courts in the Yorta Yorta case, that the connection to traditional lands and cultures had been broken, demonstrated how native title had failed Aboriginal Victorians.

“There’s a great difference between land rights and native title rights,” Mr Frankland said. “…I think the biggest problem with native title is the onus of proof on Aboriginal people where we are required to justify our cultural depth and our longevity.

“We’re required to justify our very existence and we are required to do that to a non-Indigenous judicial process.”

The state passed laws last year to allow native title determinations to settle out of court, in an attempt to clear a backlog of claims which
Professor Mick Dodson has stated would have taken “50 years or so to resolve”.

But there is still a clear hunger for land rights. Mr Frankland said he would support placing land rights back on the national agenda, but that the first step would be getting people talking about it again.

“…One, we’ve got to be talking about it. Two, we have to know what it is we want. And three, land rights is not just about rights to our land, it’s about rights to our culture, to our laws, principles and our own spirituality.”

“…When I think of land rights, I think of it as the issue of sovereignty itself and all the things that go along with sovereignty,” he added.
“The right for me to be culturally safe, the right for me to practice my language and culture, unfettered and uncondemned and in a manner in which I’m able to express myself without condemnations.

“It’s about humanising us. (Recognising) there was a real system here. Aboriginal culture and law is a living breathing entity. That in itself accords us rights to sovereignty.”

He said he believed the new national representative body, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, should make land rights its priority. And he would support a land rights regime based around the NSW model. But it would have to conform to the situations in each state.

“I think I would want to pursue a model similar to the NSW model, but it would have to be pertinent to our cultural shape down south,” he said.

“One of the things I’ve noticed is that during the early days of the native title debate, those in Victoria, Tasmania, lower South Australia and others lost their voice completely in the debate.

“That wasn’t because of any malicious act, it was just what it was. We need to be recognised. At one point we only had 0.01 percent of our land.”

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