chapter  8
21 Pages

'From Terra Nullius to Mabo: Land Rights and Self-determination in Aboriginal Australia'

Withitsdecisionof3June1992thatAustraliawasnotterranulliuswhensettledbythe

Britishin1788,theHighCourtofAustraliarewroteAustralia'slawontheimpactof

colonisation.ThecasehasbecomeknownastheMabocase,Mabobeingthenameofthe

Aboriginewhobroughtthequestionofownershipoflandbeforethecourt.Theimplications

ofthischangeinthecommonlawarepotentiallyvastandnolessthanrevolutionary(Sanders, 1994:1).Theprofoundsignificanceofthisdevelopmenthasalreadybeenacknowledgedby governments,bythemedia,byindigenouspeopleandbythepastoralandminingindustries

(ATSIC,1993).TheMabocasehasbecomeaturningpointinwhite-blackrelationsin Australia,asitaddressesfundamentalquestionsabouttheownershipofAustralia,thenature

ofindigenoussocietiespreviousto1788,thelegalityofdispossessionofAboriginallandand

theplaceofAboriginesinthewiderAustraliansociety,nowandinthefuture.InthispaperI

firstgiveabriefhistoricaloverviewoftheAboriginalstruggleforlandinthelastthirtyyears

andexplainthebackgroundandimpactoftheHighCourt'sdecision.Ithenconcentrate

brieflyonsomeimplicationsoftheMabodecisionandparticularlyaddresstherelationship

betweenlandrightsandeconomicdevelopment.FinallyIdiscussthechangingperceptionsof

indigenouskeyconcepts,suchas'people','country'and'traditionallaw'.Iparticularlyfocus

ontheproblemoftranslatingtheseconcepts,whichareflexibleandconstantlyshiftingin

Aboriginalthoughtandexperience,intoatotallydifferentkindoforientation,e.g.Anglo-

Australianlaw,withemphasisootheopposite:fixity,absolutenessandsystemacy(terms borrowedfromMerlan,1997:13).