After Mabo: A country's shame

After Mabo: A country's shame
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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It is 1993. Dr John Hewson exclaims to the Parliament that the passing of the 'Mabo Bill’ will be a day of shame for Australia. Titles on the screen summarise the key points of the native title legislation. Cut to shots of John Howard assuming office on 2 March 1996, followed by details of his government’s proposed amendments to the Native Title Act 1993 that will shift the power to miners and pastoralists. CEO Richard Frankland addresses Mirimbiak Nations Aboriginal Corporation, the representative body for native title in Victoria, before they appear before a Federal Parliamentary Joint Committee in 1996. Summary by Romaine Moreton.

The use of historical footage is economically layered and held in freeze frame as another voice and concept is introduced. Using this technique, After Mabo is almost poetic in its piling of concepts upon concepts and issues upon issues, making sure this documentary stylistically conveys the complexity of its narrative in a very direct manner.


After Mabo synopsis

After Mabo gives an overview to the native title legislation, focusing on the amendments made to the Native Title Act 1993 by the Howard Government as part of its 10-point plan.


After Mabo curator's notes

In the Mabo case of 1992, the High Court recognised that original inhabitants had identifiable land rights before European settlement. The film’s title borrows from Tim Rowse’s After Mabo: Interpreting Indigenous Traditions (1993), and gives an overview of the negotiations that took place between Indigenous representative groups and the Howard Government. Filmed during 1996–97, After Mabo uses historical footage to build the narrative, then depicts the responses of Indigenous people to the government’s 10-point plan, which saw the Howard Government amending the Native Title Act 1993 introduced by the Labor Government that had preceded it.

After Mabo does not offer an in-depth explanation of native title nor the 10-point plan, thus making its target audience those who are already familiar with these concepts. It is still highly informative. After Mabo shows how groups such as the National Farmers’ Federation responded to native title, and describes their belief that native title would abolish land tenure held by non-Aboriginal Australians. After Mabo presents land as the physical, symbolic and metaphorical representation of the very different perspectives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures.

After Mabo is an exciting documentary with strong momentum, and much of the dialogue and rhetoric is still relevant, providing a context for the debates around Indigenous rights and land tenure. The most respected Indigenous commentators on native title are featured, giving After Mabo added historical importance.

Notes by Romaine Moreton


Education notes

The clip shows developments over the three-year period from the passage in December 1993 of the Native Title Act 1993 in the Australian Senate to the response to tabled amendments to the Act after John Howard became prime minister in 1996. It includes footage of the parliamentary debate and the main points in the legislation, followed by the proposed amendments. The last section depicts the preparation of the Mirimbiak Nations Aboriginal Corporation for attendance at a parliamentary joint committee regarding native title. Music is included.

Educational value points

  • This clip records the momentous tabling in Parliament of the Native Title Act 1993, which attempted to resolve land management issues left unresolved by the High Court Mabo decision of 1992. The Act also confirmed the rejection of terra nullius, the idea that the land had no owners prior to 1788. While John Hewson, the leader of the opposition at the time, argued in parliament that the Act was shameful, it was passed by a small majority of senators. The extended clapping by Labor members shown in the clip suggests recognition on their part of the Act’s significance.
  • As summarised in this clip the intention of the Native Title Act is to recognise and protect native title rights to land and waters based on the customary law and traditions of Indigenous peoples of Australia, and validate past land grants by previous governments. The Act sets up a system for processing native title claims. The preamble recognises the need for a body to buy back land for Indigenous people who were dispossessed but unable to make native title claims under the legislation.
  • The clip presents the amendments to the Native Title Act proposed in 1996 by the Howard government as shifting the balance from Indigenous interests to mining and pastoral interests. The opposition by most members of the Liberal–National Party when native title was introduced continued when John Howard became prime minister. The clip contrasts his election night speech stating he would govern for all with the amendments to the Native Title Act, which were made only months later.
  • The work of Mirimbiak Nations Aboriginal Corporation is placed in the context of national politics because the proposed amendments would have made it more difficult for people to claim native title in Victoria. In preparing for a parliamentary joint committee, Richard Frankland, the film’s executive producer, is shown leading the discussion as the CEO of Mirimbiak, the then state body representing Indigenous people from Victoria.
  • Indigenous Victorians are revealed in this clip as facing particular problems in seeking native title because their Indigenous identity is often questioned and their consequent rights to culture and land are often denied. This has long been an issue for Indigenous people in Australia whose identity was defined by successive governments until the 1970s. Even today many non-Indigenous Australians judge Indigenous identity by the colour of skin.
  • The filmmaker, John Hughes, has combined footage from parliament and television news with commentary and written summaries to present the broad political account. He then places the experience of Indigenous Victorians within that account. Hughes shifts attention from national politics to a more grassroots organisation, helping to ensure that Indigenous people and their views are the focus of the film.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Produced by:
Debra Annear, John Hughes
Executive Producer:
Richard J Frankland
John Hughes
John Hughes