Many Australians are still mystified about how the High Court's Mabo decision could thrust Aboriginal land rights to the top of the national political agenda for almost a year They wonder what difference the decision, the legislation that followed and the debate that continues could possibly make to Aborigines. They are perplexed about the limits of special Aboriginal rights and the future of race relations as they contemplate 2001, the first centenary of Australian federation. This book provides guideposts for those seeking a way through the Mabo maze to 2001, when Australia could be "one land, one nation", and Aborigines could be once again secure in their country.
When asked to speak at some of the better-off city schools about Aborigines, I often tell the story of a visit to a remote Aboriginal community in North Queensland at Mantaka, near Kuranda. In the early 1980s, that community of fringe-dwellers who had lived on a church mission conducted by the Seventh Day Adventists were seeking recognition of land title and some government funds for the building of community housing. Some of their people had settled in government housing in Cairns, and others had tried it. But they and their neighbours preferred different ways. These fringe-dwellers lived in derelict army huts left there since World War II. At the end of the visit, an Aboriginal woman pointed across the Barron River to a large house on the opposite bank. She identified the house as the weekender of a prominent Melbourne businessman. She said, "It cost three-quarters of a million dollars. They don't come very often. When they do come, they fly in in their helicopter. See, there on the roof, that's a helipad." "Helipad" is a new word learnt by those who pride themselves on being the traditional owners of country in that area of Australia. The cost of that weekender was almost twice the amount being sought for basic housing for these people, yet she spoke without anger or resentment.
When I tell this simple story in schools, I get asked all sorts of questions that I cannot answer. With each question, the level of anger and frustration rises in the class. There are questions such as, "If Aborigines want houses, why don't they build them for themselves?", "If we didn't come here, they wouldn't even have a water supply, so what are they complaining about?", and "If it weren't for people like that businessman earning money and paying taxes, the government would not be able to pay the Aborigines their welfare payments. So what do they expect us to do?"
I have given up trying to answer these questions. In response, I have only one question to ask the students: "Which side of the river are you standing on as you ask your questions?" There is never any doubt about that answer. There are just as many questions that can be asked from the other side of the river, questions that are likely to make you even more frustrated and more angry. We need to build bridges from one bank of the river to the other. Then, those on both sides of the river might be able to accept and take pride in their belonging to one land, being the people of one nation. In a country with Australia's history, bridge building is a necessary part of nation building. Our perspective on political questions depends very much on where we are situated.
Often, where we stand depends simply on where we sit. The first challenge in confronting racism and intolerance is to provide the opportunity for people to cross that bridge and for those on opposite sides of the river to meet on common ground, as people of goodwill seeking solutions through a political process they are prepared to own……