Issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are often poorly reported, seemingly reflecting handy pre-prepared narratives kept in a journalist’s back pocket. This was well demonstrated in Jennifer Mills’ incisive 2011 piece “How to write about Aboriginal Australia”.
Explorations of the native title system are a small subset of this tendency, and the scaremongering about losing one’s backyard is yesterday’s news, but reporting continues to entrench unhelpful myths. Firstly, with dreary predictability, almost every news story covering a “win” refers to the grant of native title.
Native title is never “given” but is a set of rights held under traditional law and custom — judges don’t hand out presents but simply recognise pre-existing rights (such recognition, not incidentally, being extremely limited). This distinction may appear one of mere semantics, but correct terminology would help counter perceptions of native title as some sort of freebie. As Paul Keating noted in last year’s Four Corners special on the Mabo decision:
“When the High Court decision came down I thought, this is the crack of light one should crawl through, because this has got the truth about it; whereas they’re a set of rights as distinct from a gift… a set of rights earned by way of traditional association.”
References to a “grant” of native title are not the only way in which the system can be connoted with largesse. Consider reporting of agreements under the Native Title Act, which elide payments made pursuant to such agreements with welfare, with an undertone of concern at the thought that claim groups might actually get some money. (In a somewhat similar vein, a 2012 ABC report noted dramatically that the WA government had “begun distributing millions of dollars to Aboriginal Western Australians who had wages withheld until the 1970s”, before acknowledging that individual payments totalled a mere $2000.)
Linked to this emphasis on money is the popular argument that mining is intrinsically good for indigenous people. The recent SBS documentary Dirty Business fell prey to this tendency; although it covered injustices perpetrated in the name of economic development, the program appeared to conclude that struggles over land were now a thing of the past, that at some point during the 1990s non-indigenous Australians had decided to be “decent”. This would, as some current disputes demonstrate, be news to many native title claimants.
Native title is of course not unwaveringly portrayed as a rich source of benefits and can also be viewed as a theatre of conflict. Discussions will often evince a prurient interest in disputes within and between claim groups, or a kind of surprised disappointment that Aboriginal people (like other human beings) might disagree with one another over property rights; witness Q&A host Tony Jones’ statement, regarding the proposed gas hub at James Price Point, that: “We’ve got two completely competing positions on this.”
Finally, consider the inevitable response to any mooted changes to the Native Title Act which might favour claimants and holders, rather than mining, pastoral or government interests. Already, in response to Nicola Roxon’s brave, long-awaited proposed amendments, which include clarification of the definition of “good faith” negotiations and would give parties the ability to disregard extinguishment, the old familiar call has been heard: these changes would reduce “certainty”.
It is safe to predict that we will encounter this tune again over the coming months, and it should be borne in mind that in the mouths of non-native title interests, “certainty” is often code for the comfortable knowledge that they will emerge triumphant from most disputes under the Act.
We can’t quickly stop inaccurate reporting on native title. We can, however, learn to listen carefully.