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Call for the Government to clarify the question of Aboriginal land titles in the wake of the Mabo case decision

ELLEN FANNING: Western Mining Chairman, Hugh Morgan, came under fire this week for his comments on the recent High Court decision to recognise a form of native land title for Aborigines and Islanders in Australia. Mr Morgan said the judgment in the Mabo case undermines Australian sovereignty and he defended the concept of terra nullius, the idea that Australia was uninhabited when whites arrived. And while Hugh Morgan has been widely criticised, there are others in industry and in Aboriginal groups who want the Federal Government to clarify questions of land title raised by the High Court finding. One is Pat Dodson, the Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Michael Carey asked Mr Dodson why he believed the Mabo ruling was a step towards unity, not division.

PAT DODSON: It provides an opportunity now for a restart in the way we view each other as Australians, and an acknowledgment that at last Aboriginal people are able to stand as equals in this discussion and debate, not as some recipients of largess or welfare or of some do good-type attitude, that there's now a question of right that has to be faced up to.

MIKE CAREY: The Council was set up prior to this decision being handed down. To what extent has it changed what you'll be doing?

PAT DODSON: Well, it doesn't change the fundamentals that we really need to provide a lot of information to other Australians about - Aboriginal culture, land, sea - the reasons that give rise to the disadvantaged positions, the need for greater levels of control that Aboriginal people want over their social and cultural affairs. None of that's changed. What does change is the requirement now to look at those matters in line with the decision of the common law. It provides a greater emphasis on how best to bring about a formalising of our relationship. How can we avoid, I suppose, a war of attrition through courts to try and establish these rights? Why not find a way of negotiating an agreement that would recognise what these rights are about and have them clearly before the nation.

MIKE CAREY: So when, for example, the mining and pastoral industries call on the Government to clarify the situation regarding legal title within Australia, you are not completely opposed to that suggestion?

PAT DODSON: Well, I am not opposed to that suggestion, but what I would expect is that the Aboriginal people be given the resources, the financial resources, the opportunity for consultation, and an ability to formulate their positions, to make sure that there's no extinguishment of their title for the future and that their birth rights aren't negated in any way, that we actually take on a proper and fair way of responding to this and not simply responding out of one or other sector of our society's interest.

MIKE CAREY: So the idea of the High Court determining policy case by case and the issues solely being left to them, that doesn't necessarily strike you as the best way to proceed?

PAT DODSON: Well, I think it's a very difficult way, it's a costly way. It's a longer path, ultimately, if there's no other avenues of negotiation and accommodation, when the High Court is there to decide on these matters. But it's got the potential to create further divisions as well as to clarify what the law is.

ELLEN FANNING: Pat Dodson, the Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.