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Aboriginal leaders accuse the Prime Minister of sacrificing human rights to States' rights in the Mabo legislation.

ELLEN FANNING: In Canberra this afternoon, an emotional Aboriginal press conference has accused the Prime Minister of selling out to the States over Mabo. The Aboriginal leaders say human rights have been sacrificed to appease what one of them called decrepit State politicians, an outcome they say is racist and a tragic result for the nation. The chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission says it's now highly unlikely that the vision outlined by the Prime Minister last year in Redfern Park, can be fulfilled and claims Paul Keating's words will come back to haunt him. From Canberra, Michael Brissenden reports on the most significant setback yet for the Prime Minister's hopes of reaching a compromise between the States and indigenous Australians.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: This afternoon, at an extraordinary press conference at the ATSIC headquarters in Canberra, it quickly became apparent just how emotionally charged the last few days have been. Noel Pearson from the Cape York Land Council, one of the chief Aboriginal negotiators, was moved to tears. Human rights, he said, had been sacrificed to State power.

NOEL PEARSON: I've got to say that I speak with a great deal of personal distress about the fact that my organisation, the Cape York Land Council, Kimberley Land Council, Northern Land Council, Central Land Council, New South Wales Land Council and a number of legal services have been down here on and off for some months now, trying to give this process a bit of a tilt, and this entire debate has not been conducted at a very lofty level and it's quite apparent that we've now reached the stage where we're going subterranean.

We've given this historic issue a big tilt over these last two months and particularly over the last couple of weeks with those organisations that are hanging out for achieving some kind of justice for our constituents, and unfortunately, we've reached the lowest common denominator set by Wayne Goss and the Queensland Government, unfortunately. If there's anybody who should feel proud today, for this miserable result, it should be the Labor Government in Queensland.

We've had some of the most decrepit politicians from the conservative side of politics running the various regional governments and it is to their bottom line that we have been dragged.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The position now had been reached where, he said, either the States had to walk away from the table or the Aborigines did. Cabinet, he said, had bowed to the political realities of the moment and they had made it clear who they wanted to stay.

NOEL PEARSON: This deal, this national deal, in their minds is more important to get the States in at the expense of racially discriminatory laws than keeping us in and keeping in place the only protection that the High Court has put in place for our rights. So, you know, I've done my share of the vaudeville here over the past few months, and I've done my share of cajoling and reasonable argument and sleazing around the corridors, but I think we've reached a stage where the ball's in the Prime Minister's court as to whether it is that the States are going to be party to this national reconciliation or whether the indigenous people of this country are going to be party to the national reconciliation.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Noel Pearson isn't the only one who's been sleazing around the corridors of late. The last few days has seen some frantic lobbying around Parliament House with State bureaucrats, premiers, miners and Aborigines all coming and going for one meeting after another. At the centre of it all is the Racial Discrimination Act and whether, as Wayne Goss and the others say, it needs to be suspended in part to validate title or whether, as the Aboriginal groups say, it can and must be left intact. Aboriginal groups have maintained their opposition to any breach of the Racial Discrimination Act and today Social Justice Commission, Mick Dodson, suggested such a breach would never be contemplated for any other group in Australia society.

MICK DODSON: One of the things that I think needs to be said about the Government's approach is that, the Racial Discrimination Act wasn't passed for Aboriginal and Islander people, it was passed for all Australians. They wouldn't dare -the likes of Goss and Kennett - wouldn't dare suggest that this be done, this interference with property rights, be done to the Chinese community, to the Croatian community, to the Greeks, to the Jews, but it's all right to do it to Aboriginal people, and that is the disgusting thing about this proposal. It's a return, it's a reaffirmation of the shame that this country's gone through over the 200 years of the existence of white people on this continent and they want to repeat that bloody history and no Australian should accept that.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The Aboriginal groups say that if what they believe is the Commonwealth's preferred position is adopted, the validation of past title will mean the largest mass extinguishment of native title in Australia's history. ATSIC Chairperson, Lois O'Donoghue, has written today to the commissioner to express her deep sadness and pessimism about the likely government outcome. In the letter she says: 'Aborigines have sought a reasonable, workable and principled solution and it now looks as though they've failed'. She says they've been willing to give a great deal in the search for a legislative outcome that would still meet the spirit of the High Court's decision. They have already agreed, she says, that there needs to be validation of past title; that native title holders will not have a veto over development; that the consent right of native titleholders can be overridden in the national interest and that State and Territory jurisdictions could have a significant role in determining native title grants.

It now seems, she says, that the Prime Minister seems to have decided that State rights are more important than human rights, and she says that the Prime Minister, mindful of his statements at Redfern Park last year, will have to answer for his actions.

LOIS O'DONOGHUE: I think's that really a matter for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people out in the community, how they judge the Prime Minister in relation to his Redfern statement. In all the meetings that we've had with him over the last weeks, many of us have quoted back to him his words in terms of his speech in Redfern and other places, because that's not the only speech he's made, and so they will come back to haunt him.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The emotion displayed today, bodes ill for the Government. And the response of Peter Costello, an elderly Aboriginal at this afternoon's press conference, is likely to be repeated time and again if the expectations of the Aboriginal community are not met.

PETER COSTELLO: Racial discrimination is nothing new. You, perhaps, may think that it's really new. Some of you youngsters here talking about racial discrimination -it was happening in my time. I was bashed. I was chained up with my mother's wrists and all this pain which I have today. I'm talking about reconciliation, talking about consultation. I never went to high school like you or went to university, all of you, sitting round here but I know reconciliation for the land title under the Eddie Mabo's High Court decision, that's already proved right, and then we follow this reconciliation and another word they call consultation. All these words are really binding us together in relation to human rights not racial discrimination. Under the Eddie Mabo High Court decision it's already proved for us both black and white. Now, what time 200 years is up whenever the Government can listen.

ELLEN FANNING: Aboriginal representative, Peter Costello.