After Mabo: Fiction of terra nullius

After Mabo: Fiction of terra nullius
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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Peter Yu of the Yawuru and Bunuba, Kimberley Land Council, talks about Indigenous relationship to land and the High Court decision in Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (1992) 175 CLR 1. Paul Keating stresses the chance to legislate away the fiction of terra nullius, offering a truth rather than a lie as the basis for policy. Images show Indigenous people on the land and in the meeting room. A title states, 'From September 1992 until December 1993 Indigenous people entered intense negotiations with the Federal Parliament to incorporate Native Title into legislation’. Summary by Romaine Moreton.

After Mabo quickly establishes the parameters of its narratives: the movement between Western and Indigenous perspectives on land. The documentary provides a good comparison between the different approaches to the treatment of Indigenous native title by the Labor Keating Government and the Liberal Howard Government that succeeded it in 1996.


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 Indigenous leaders Peter Yu and Noel Pearson discussing Indigenous rights to land and the native title legislation that was introduced by the Labor government under prime minister Paul Keating after the Mabo decision in 1992. It includes the government’s rationale and a discussion of the effect on pastoral leases. There is black-and-white archival footage of the parliamentary explanation by Keating and of Rick Farley speaking on behalf of the National Farmers Federation about the new law. The clip includes music and sound effects.

Educational value points

  • The clip emphasises that the native title legislation, in recognising traditional ownership of land and waters, was a major positive change in Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships in Australia. The then chairperson of ATSIC, Lois (now Lowitja) O’Donoghue, is quoted as saying that the legislation gives a new political voice to Indigenous people. Keating describes it as an opportunity to base relationships on truth rather than on the fiction of terra nullius, which claimed that the land had no owners before 1788.
  • In this clip Indigenous leaders prior to the native title legislation describe their fears of losing rights due to the proposed suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, which had been passed in 1975. Noel Pearson and Peter Yu explain their opposition to the proposed suspension, saying that no Indigenous leader was authorised to surrender the protection of that Act. Such input is presented as leading to the Keating compromise, which left the Racial Discrimination Act intact.
  • The clip emphasises the effect of the proposed native title legislation on pastoral leaseholds as discussed in the lead-up to the legislation in 1993. Archival footage shows Paul Keating stating in parliament the advice that pastoral leases would extinguish native title ‘to the extent of any inconsistency’ between pastoral rights and Indigenous rights. National Farmers Federation executive director Rick Farley expressed support for the legislation as giving greater certainty regarding land tenure.
  • This clip begins with an ongoing Indigenous perspective on land that is independent of any Western perspective embodied in legislation. Peter Yu, a Yawru man and Kimberley Land Council member, states that the land is always ‘our land’, and prime minister Paul Keating’s use of the word ‘truth’ acknowledges the truth of this. This emphasis on an Indigenous perspective sets the tone for the film, which contributed to the Wik debate in 1997.
  • Paul Keating’s pivotal role in promoting the native title legislation is highlighted, and the clip uses archival footage of Keating addressing the parliament in 1993. He speaks of legislating terra nullius away, presents revised draft legislation and discusses the effect of the proposed legislation on pastoral leaseholds. Keating’s Labor government also set up the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.
  • The clip includes a range of techniques to present the debates over the Native Title Bill. Montages of images of rock, soil, water and corrugated iron are used to evoke a sense of a recognisable and diverse Australia. Natural sounds such as bird song and storm sounds are combined with music to add drama and tension. Colour overlays help convey a sense of the many Indigenous people whose experiences lie behind the legislation.

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