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Judge rejects an Aboriginal land rights claim by the Waanyi People but says there are significant moral shortcomings in the Native Title Act

ELLEN FANNING: The judge who determines Aboriginal land claims sees there are significant moral shortcomings in the Mabo legislation. The President of the Native Title Tribunal, Justice Robert French, made those comments as he rejected a claim by the Waanyi people of north-western Queensland. As Anthony Fennell reports, the Waanyi had failed to meet the conditions for a successful claim for native title over an area of land which takes in CRA's proposed Century zinc mine.

ANTHONY FENNELL: In rejecting the Waanyi people's claim, Justice French stated they had failed to prove that pastoral leases had not extinguished native title and failed on the point of continuous occupation, but it was in his concluding remarks that he let glimpse his personal feelings and frustrations about the way in which native title is determined, comments certain to re-ignite debate.

Justice French wrote, 'The process must seem perverse to those who maintain their association with their country and upon whom indigenous tradition confers responsibility for that country. The operation of past grants of interest to irrevocably extinguish native title regardless of the current use of the land, reflects a significant moral shortcoming in the principles by which native title is recognised'.

Justice French declined an offer to elaborate on those comments last night and the Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Robert Tickner wouldn't buy into it. A spokesman for the Minister said Mr Tickner hadn't yet had the opportunity to read Justice French's judgment and therefore wasn't in a position to comment. Perverse is certainly the way in which Waanyi's spokesman, Murrandoo Yanner, sees the native title process. The Waanyi now have to decide whether to take the matter on to the federal Court.

MURRANDOO YANNER: He obviously recognises the shortcomings of the law and he had his opportunity to make up for some of those shortcomings by accepting the claim. That would have been a positive step to put his money where his mouth is, some action rather than words of goodwill. I think Justice French is politely trying to have a bet each way but he has definitely disappointed a lot of Aboriginal people as far as we are concerned.

ANTHONY FENNELL: Now with Justice French admitting that there are moral shortcomings as he says, in the principles by which native title is recognised, I mean, what does that .. what will that do for the faith that Aboriginal people will have in the Native Title Tribunal in future.

MURRANDOO YANNER: Well, they won't have any faith in the future. Any faith they had in the Native Title Tribunal is probably lost by now if people have any sense, but Justice French didn't have to say it, a lot of Aboriginal people could have told you that the moment the legislation came out. As is said by Noel Pearson, the negotiations of the Native Title Act were a matter of getting down to Canberra and salvaging what little they could of the negotiations, not a matter of constructing and building a strong Native Title Act, but heavy business that puts so much pressure - mining, pastoralism - on the Federal Government, that the moment the Aboriginal team went in, the best they could do was to salvage some of the Act. And obviously it's totally grossly inadequate, but, I mean a lot of people could have told everyone that and they have, a lot of people have been saying it for months. I mean, because Justice French says it, doesn't make much difference to anyone and he doesn't have to say it, he's proven that there are gross inadequacies in the law and he's proven that by his own actions.

ELLEN FANNING: Murrandoo Yanner who is a spokesperson for the Waanyi people of north-west Queensland.