After Mabo: Law stick

After Mabo: Law stick
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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John Howard responds to the High Court’s decision on the native title of the Wik and Thayorre peoples in Wik Peoples v Queensland (1996) 141 ALR 129. News footage shows a summit held by Aboriginal Land Councils. Wik elder Jean George calls for justice. Summary by Romaine Moreton.

In this clip we hear many powerful Indigenous voices declare the validity of a law that has existed for millennia. The testimony of the representatives declares that Indigenous law still exists as it always has.


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 the Howard government’s response to the Wik decision of 23 December 1996 and Indigenous responses to the government’s signals that there would be further amendments to the Native Title Act 1993. It shows part of the Aboriginal Land Councils’ Wik Summit in 1997. Wik Elder Jean George calls for justice and another Wik Elder Denny Bowenda holds up a law stick as he explains Indigenous lore. Northern Land Council Chairman Galarrwuy Yunupingu asserts continuing Indigenous law. Background music and Indigenous people singing are included.

Educational value points

  • This clip shows John Howard expressing his concern about the role of the High Court in the Wik decision that native title rights were not extinguished on pastoral-leased crown land and that such rights could coexist. Howard asserts the role of government in making laws, and states that the role of the High Court is only to interpret laws. This contradicted his earlier public acceptance of the outcome of the High Court’s decision on Wik.
  • This clip records strong Indigenous responses during the Aboriginal Land Councils’ Wik Summit, held in January 1997, to the government’s proposed amendments to the Native Title Act. This meeting was held before the Howard government formulated the ten-point plan that was the basis of debate and eventuated in a loss of rights under the Native Title Amendment Act 1998. Later meetings formulated a national response arguing for coexistence of rights.
  • In the clip Wik Elder Jean George asserts that justice for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples comes from the Wik judgement that native title can coexist with other forms of land use even while precedence is given to non-Indigenous interests when these rights conflict. In June 1993, one year after the Mabo judgement but before the Native Title Act became law, the Wik people made a claim over pastoral leases on Cape York and were joined by the Thayorre people.
  • Wik Elder Denny Bowenda contrasts Indigenous law, symbolised by the law stick, with non-Indigenous law. As he speaks he holds a piece of paper in one hand and a law stick in the other, comparing laws that are written on paper with the role of Indigenous law to protect Indigenous people in the past and in the present. He links Indigenous law to power and the Dreamtime and asserts the continuing presence and importance of Indigenous law for Indigenous people.
  • Galarrwuy Yunupingu, chairman of the Northern Land Council, speaks poetically about the law and about Indigenous relationships to land. The filmmaker has edited in images of the bush as Yunupingu states that Aboriginal law remains intact even if it is not seen. Yunupingu says: ‘When you change the law in Canberra, that means you steal my land’. The clip concludes with him speaking about the continuing presence of the law and Indigenous responsibility to care for the land.
  • The filmmaker, John Hughes, uses a range of techniques to represent responses to the High Court’s decision. He combines news reports with symbols of colonisation such as a statue of Captain Cook with one hand outstretched in salute but the other on his sword. As Wik Elders emerge from the Summit, they are superimposed on visual representations of Indigenous connections to country such as a river, water and bush.

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

Transcript of Intertitle

Intertitle 1:If the High Court of Australia brings down a decision which is different from what had been the previous understanding of the law naturally I will accept that decision.