Australian politics

Jun 4, 2017

Essential documents from Aboriginal Australia: 3 – the 1993 Eva Valley Statement

At a media conference, an angry Keating attacked the Eva Valley statement and Mick Dodson in particular for a critical speech Dodson had made in Geneva a few weeks earlier. He at the same time praised Sol Bellear and Noel Pearson for their 'supportive comments': Gary Foley, 2001.

Bob Gosford — Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

Bob Gosford

Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

This is the third of a series of posts looking at various foundational documents from Aboriginal Australians that variously call for land rights, constitutional recognition, redress for past injustices and more. It is no coincidence that these documents—the 1963 Bark Petitions, the 1988 Barunga Statement, the 1993 Eva Valley Statement and the 1998 Kalkaringi Statement—all come from the Northern Territory, where a combination of culture, law and political effect meant that NT Aboriginal leaders were best placed to lead these fights.

If you want to understand the background to the Uluru Statement the content and context of these documents provide, for mine, essential reading.

In its 1993-94 Annual Report, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation referred to a meeting of over 400 Aboriginal delegates at Manyallaluk (Eva Valley) south-east of Katherine in the Northern Territory:

Following approaches from Aboriginal leaders in different parts of the country, the Council saw the need to bring together a range of Aboriginal opinion to discuss concerns and to see if a common Aboriginal position could be adopted. This resulted in August 1993 in a meeting of more than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives at Manyallaluk, on Jawoyn land near Katherine in the Northern Territory. Out of the three-day meeting emerged the clear need for a team approach and a commitment to accommodate both those who might be advantaged by Native Title recognition and those who were among the majority who would not benefit from the Native Title legislation, A statement of claims was developed for negotiation with the Government.

Perhaps more importantly, the Manyallaluk Bush Meeting returned to a more appropriate way of developing content and consensus amongst Aboriginal peoples.

That bland summary greatly understates the fervid climate surrounding the Keating government’s proposals for a conciliated response to the 1992 Mabo decision of the High Court of Australia, which involved a proposed Native Title Act. A more passionate—and reasoned—analysis of this period (and much more) is found in a 2001 essay by Gary Foley, titled The Road to Native Title: The Aboriginal Rights Movement and the Australian Labor Party 1973 -1996 available at the Koori History website. 

For anyone with an interest in that turbulent era in Australian Aboriginal politics I cannot recommend Foley’s piece highly enough. For present purposes, Foley sets the political scene by outlining the Keating government’s initial response to the Mabo decision following his re-election in March 1993.

Keating appointed Frank Walker as Special Minister for State, who with [Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Robert] Tickner would be responsible for developing the government response to Mabo. Additionally, a Mabo Ministerial Committee was established which included Ministers Duncan Kerr (acting-Attorney General), Michael Lee (Resources), Simon Crean (Primary Industries & Energy), Alan Griffiths (Industry), John Dawkins (Treasurer) and Ralph Willis (Finance). The Committee was chaired by the Prime Minister.

The Mabo Ministerial Committee then began meetings with the various interest groups, the first with indigenous representatives being held in Parliament House on 27th April. Among the twenty-one indigenous representatives were Gularrwuy Yunupingu, John Ah Kit, Noel Pearson, Lois O’Donoghue, Patrick Dodson, Rob Riley, and Peter Yu. Rob Riley warned the Prime Minister, ‘don’t exclude us from the process’. But one month later, the fear expressed by Riley appeared fully justified when Frank Walker and the Prime Minister gave approval in principle to the NT Chief Minister’s plan to legislate ‘to secure the mining leases of McArthur River mine.’

Foley illustrates the rancorous fervour surrounding the ‘debates’ about native title with a quote from Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Robert Tickner published in his 2001 memoirs:

… it is difficult to convey the extent to which Mabo engulfed Australia during 1993. For much of the year, hardly a day went past when there was not some new development in the debate. The words were often hateful, and the pressure on the key participants was relentless.

In early August 1993 the backlash against the government’s legislative proposals came to a head at Manyallaluk, where:

… a major meeting of indigenous representatives issued a statement in which they rejected the government’s proposed native title act and instead called for ‘legislation to advance Aboriginal rights to land’ and for the commonwealth to exclude the states from involvement in indigenous issues. At a media conference, an angry Keating attacked the Eva Valley statement and Mick Dodson in particular for a critical speech Dodson had made in Geneva a few weeks earlier. He at the same time praised Sol Bellear and Noel Pearson for their ‘supportive comments’. Yet virtually all of the Aboriginal leadership were still hostile to the way in which the government was proceeding, and on 8 October a group that included O’Donoghue, Mick Dodson and Noel Pearson held a press conference in Canberra in which they attacked the Keating government. As a result the Prime Minister began negotiations with Lois O’Donoghue and a small group of ‘moderate’ indigenous negotiators she assembled around her. This elite, self-appointed group, (known as the A-team) included Noel Pearson, Sol Bellear, Marcia Langton, David Ross and others.

On 21 December 1993 the Native Title Act passed through the Senate and on 1 January 1994 the Act came into force. It is fair to say that native title has delivered little of the promise for Aboriginal Australians offered by the Mabo decision. As Foley noted as long ago as 2001 in his scathing assessment of the unrealised opportunities of the Hawke/Keating era:

The Labor Party today is even more conservative than the 1980s, so the indigenous community should have few expectations of Labor in terms of the radical change necessary if Indigenous people are to achieve justice in Australia. The changes made to the Labor Party during the Hawke/Keating era have created a party that is prisoner to ‘electoralism’, i.e. The ‘need for a political party to be cautious. It seeks to instigate change only when it seems apparent that the electorate is at least not actively opposed to such a change.'[62] Any political party that is prisoner to ‘electoralism’ cannot and will not be able to confront the historical challenges of Aboriginal affairs … despite paying lip service to grand principles and an essentialist, romanticist view of Aboriginal Australia, both Hawke and Keating revealed their true allegiance to the status quo and powerful vested interests when the chips were down.

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Eva Valley Statement
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples held their first national meeting at Eva Valley, Northern Territory, 3rd – 5th August, 1993 to formulate a response to the High Court decision on Native Title.

It was resolved to present the Eva Valley Statement to the Prime Minister.

There is an urgent need for this Statement to be considered by all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

We reject the Commonwealth Government’s position on the proposed legislation. We want legislation based on Native Title to advance Aboriginal Rights to land. The Federal Government proposal does not. The Government must only move on this issue with the support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The development of any legislation regarding the Commonwealth Government’s response to the High Court’s decision on Native Title will need the full and free participation and consent of those Peoples concerned.

We want the Commonwealth Government to take full control of Native Title Issues to the exclusion of the States and Territories. We want a national standard for our people not numerous different standards.

We demand that:

  • the Commonwealth honour its obligation under International Human Rights Instruments and International Law.
  • the Commonwealth agrees to a negotiating process to achieve a lasting settlement with and for the benefit of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Since time immemorial we have owned, occupied, used and enjoyed the continent and its islands in accordance with our Laws and Customs to the exclusion of the whole world. Since the arrival of non-indigenous people our political and territorial integrity has been violated and that violation continues. This settlement process must recognise and address these historical truths. It must also redress the impact of our dispossession, marginalisation, destabilisation and disadvantage including financial and material recompense.
  • the Commonwealth take actions in response to the High Court’s decision on Native Title in accordance with the following principles:

1. Recognition and protection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Rights.
2. In response to the High Court finding that the Commonwealth Government acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Title cannot be extinguished by grants of any interest.
3. No grant of any interest on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Titles can be made without the informed consent of all relevant title holders.
4. Commonwealth Declaration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Title in reserves and other defined lands.
5. Total security for Sacred Sites and Heritage Areas which provides for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ absolute authority.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have nominated a representative body to put forward our position in these matters including the necessity to consult and negotiate with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples about these principles.

To ensure there is equity in and ownership of the negotiation process, it is essential that this body be provided with the resources to carry out the wishes of Aboriginal and Tones Strait Islander Peoples.

We call upon the Commonwealth Government to acknowledge what the High Court has stated in the way in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have become dispossessed and disadvantaged.

Further that the resources to be provided to enable full and informed negotiation with Aboriginal and Tones Strait Islander Peoples be over and above and distinct from the limited resources presently provided to address the gross disadvantage which arises from our dispossession.

5 August 1993

Manyallaluk

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Follow the links below to see the rest of the documents in this series.

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