A long, long time ago, there was an area called Boorloo, inhabited by a peoples that knew themselves as the Whadjuk Noongar. In 1829, all that changed. That year, colonists moved into the area and dubbed it “Western Australia”. They founded the settlement of Perthshire.
In their goal to keep the French out of this forgotten part of Australia, the British had already established a port in what is now known as the city of Albany a number of years prior, but they never ventured far inland. This had now changed. Repression of the existing aboriginal tribes had started, and would continue for a long time. When chief Yellagonga, heading amongst others the Whadjuk Noongar, died, the tribes moved away from the area into the surrounding swamps.
Today still, there is a large amount of distrust between the aboriginal people of Australia and its more recent inhabitants. Every academical institution in Australia has an “equity and diversity” unit that maintains a reconciliation statement. You can find ECU’s here.
While this is ofcourse a step in the right direction, it is difficult to miss the point that indeed, the lands of the aboriginals were taken away in an abrupt manner. Whether or not anyone is at fault here, it cannot be denied that the actions that have taken place abruptly shook many people’s lives. Remembering that it took until 1967 for the aboriginal peoples to secure the right to vote in Australian federal elections, this is quite significant.
The effects of this are also still visible today. For one, aboriginals have been demanding an apology from the government for many years now. This has been always been denied to them by the Labor party and its Prime Minister John Howard. It did not consider the policy of past government to be its responsibility.
Last week a milestone decision was made in Australia’s federal court. Judge Murray Wilcox ruled that the Noongar people have a valid claim of ownership to Perth’s metropolitan area. This means that officially, the Perth lands are not really “owned” by its inhabitants, nor by the Australian federal government. They are Boorloo, property of the original Aboriginal inhabitants. Within Australia, this is the most extensive repudiation of the Terra Nulius treaty that considered Australian land to belong to no-one, not even aboriginals, during the initial settlements.
Many Perthizens have responded in fear of what may happen because of this: would land prices be affected (did I already mention the housing market is extremely hot in Perth?), would there be any change in how the city operates ? One particular popular newspaper, the West Australian, profited from this by running scaremongering headlines, “WA faces native title nightmare” for multiple days. The federal government immediately announced it would take the decision into appeal.
This is all a bit strange. In June of 1992 the famous “Mabo” decision was made in the Australian High Court , which specifically introduces the concept of ‘native title’: land that belonged to a community prior to colonization remains in its ownership even afterwards. In essence, this makes sence: western laws recognize property rights and as such should respect them even if they choose to ‘invade’ a certain country – or pay the price.
And that price is exactly what needs to be paid here: the decision made in Federal Court last week does not suddenly make the Noongar people direct owner of all of the underlying properties that Perth consists of. These properties were introduced by the whites when they moved in, and are recognized under their laws. However, the decision recognizes that the expropriation of those lands was not legal. Does this invalidate all later arrangements made ? Not necessarily, such decision would have to be made in courts separately.
It is far more likely that the recent decision will assist the Aboriginal communities in demanding compensation from the government. Perhaps that is what government is truly worried about, and why so little is done to discourage the virtually nonexistent issue of expropriation from being promulgated. The practically zero response by government only aids in providing more background for racism. But more on that later.