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Hawke's Law: The Politics of Mining and Aboriginal Land Rights in Australia.

In Volume 5 of the National Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991: 50-51), the Commissioner states:

Western Australia ... remains the State which has stunningly bad statistics with respect to arrest and detention rates and grossly excessive numbers of deaths in custody.

I do not pretend that there is a simplistic correlation between the absence of land rights legislation and the high rates of arrests and detentions and deaths in custody in Western Australia. I can not say that such a nexus exists at all, or has been demonstrated to be probable. I can, however, say that my inquiries have satisfied me that the |land rights~ legislation in the Northern Territory is a very important basis for the optimistic picture which I believe is presented in the Territory.

This statement sums up perhaps one of the most important findings of the Royal Commission -- that is, that provision of land rights for Aboriginal people has implications reaching far beyond the narrow concerns of resource development and economic rationalism. Land rights -- and the political and economic base that it offers to Aboriginal people -- lie at the heart of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

For this, and other, reasons, Libby's account of the defeat of land rights legislation in Western Australia in 1985 and of the federal government's proposed uniform national land rights legislation by 1986 is a welcome and useful contribution to our understanding of the dynamics of the land rights debate and of the position of particular interest groups - in this case the mining industry -- who have opposed such legislation. Libby, to the envy of other researchers, had the privilege of 'unrestricted access to industry sources and documentation'. His study is an account, based on such sources, of the Western Australian Chamber of Mines' campaign against the Burke Labor government's proposed land rights legislation in the wake of their election in 1983. The study, however, is not limited to the Chamber of Mines' campaign. It also covers the involvement in the debate of the Australian Mining Industry Council (AMIC), the West Australian Liberal party, and, importantly, the various factions of the federal ALP.

Libby's main contention is that 'from 1983 to 1987, the political arena or context of national land rights policy was dominated by internal factional conflict within the governing Australian Labor Party'. His thesis, which is constructed as a challenge to both dependency theory and the interest-group theory of capitalist democracies, is that 'conventional approaches to understanding the political power of the mining industry in Australia do not adequately explain the outcome of the national land rights issue ...'. He argues that the dumping of land rights legislation at both the state level in Western Australia and at the national federal level owed more to the internal factional conflicts of the ALP than to any pressure from the mining industry or other interested parties. He suggests that there were three stages to this process. The first, from 1983 to mid-1984, was a time when consensus within the ALP on the party's land rights policy was high ... The mining industry's influence on the government's land rights' policy during this period was negligible.

The second phase was from late 1984 until early 1986. This was when

the mining industry's influence on national land rights policy was magnified by virtue of the fact that a major faction of the ALP had aligned itself with the position taken by the mining industry.

The third phase began in 1986, when 'the party restored much of its former consensus on the lands right issue' and 'the mining industry's influence on government policy correspondingly declined'.

Libby's presentation of these factional conflicts, at both federal level and between the federal and state parties, is persuasive. Nevertheless, the material that he presents in the study as a whole does not really support this thesis. On the contrary, the account that he gives of the various interest groups who took positions in the Western Australian and federal debate about land rights indicates that the protagonists were more varied than those involved at the level of ALP politics. While he downplays the influence of both the Western Australian Chamber of Mines' and of AMIC's political influence, his account indicates that the outcome of the various interactions was that the major goal of the mining industry -- the dumping of the unified national land rights legislation -- was in fact achieved.

In describing this process, he documents with an enviable thoroughness based on his extensive sources, the various stages, at both state and federal levels, of the input of the different players. In chapters one to three, he indicates the different roles played by the Western Australian and federal governments. In Chapter 4 he describes the campaign -- involving both the print and audio-visual media -- undertaken against the state's proposed land rights legislation by the Western Australian Chamber of Mines. He indicates the extent to which this campaign, in the name of equal rights for all Australians, unblushingly invoked deeply racist attitudes and fears in the state. Chapter 5 deals with the state Liberal party's role and chapter 6 with the involvement of AMIC and of some of the Aboriginal organisations.

Libby's account is thorough and covers the documentation produced by the various levels of government involvement -- minutes of meetings at both state and federal levels; of mining industry negotiations, both internal and with government; of the minuted or recorded response of Aboriginal organisations and representatives. In this book, the records of meetings and the transcripts of speeches reign supreme. Libby presents them with minute concern for accuracy of presentation. What is lacking is a necessary critical analysis of their impact and of their meaning. In his conclusion Libby points out that his study:

examines the political strategies of the mineral industry from the point of view of the industry itself. This provides insights into the miners' political motives and efforts to influence government policy. It is the first major study of the industry's influence on government policy which has had the benefit of unrestricted access to industry sources and documentation.

This is both the strength and the weakness of the study. On the one hand, the account given by Libby of the complex interactions of the WA state government, the federal government, the mining industry, the WA Liberal party, are a comprehensive and fascinating source of first-hand information. On the other, Libby allows the reports to speak for themselves. The reader is not given cues about how to receive the reports. When Hugh Morgan or James Strong speak, we are not given a critical analysis that allows us to assess the import of what they are saying. There is no indication that the response of the mining industry to the question of land rights is to appropriate the concept of the national interest -- to identify the mining industry's interest with the national interest.

Moreover, in discussing the convolutions of Brian Burke's responses to the question of land rights, Libby gives us no historical context in which to judge a Labor Premier's position. He describes the immediate context in which Labor party politics are dominant, but not the historical context in which all governments in Western Australia have, in the interests of resource development, ceded their control to development interests. In other words, much of what Libby attributes to Labor party factional politics can be explained just as easily in terms of the relationship in WA between governments and development interests -- perhaps the position taken by dependency theorists. In a sense, the Liberal party's opposition to land rights in 1984 and 1985 was unnecessary. To be in government in WA, whatever the political party, virtually requires subordination to development interests. In the 1980s, the Labor government took this position to new heights, as subsequent events involving WA Inc. have shown.

There is little Aboriginal presence in the book. Even those chapters that deal with Aboriginal responses appear to be second-hand. Perhaps the most obvious result of this distance is Libby's virtual dismissal of the Seaman inquiry and what it meant to the Aboriginal people of Western Australia. In Libby's presentation, the Seaman inquiry is simply a minor aspect of the Burke government's strategy in dealing with their promise to deliver land rights legislation. For Aboriginal people in WA, the government's rejection of the Seaman recommendations -- after perhaps the most comprehensive consultation with Aboriginal people that the state had ever offered -- was the cruellest blow. Further, while Libby recognises the centrality of the issue of Aboriginal veto over mining on their land, he never really explains why it is so important -- that is, that without the power of veto, land rights are not rights but grants.

In terms of content, then, Libby's study offers new and important material to an understanding of the role of the mining industry, of the political processes, and of the fate of Aboriginal land rights in Australia, particularly in Western Australia. In terms of analysis, the presentation of this material lacks a necessary critical distance. In the end, we are left to assess the impact of the mining industry's and of the Labor party's positions in terms of their own discourses rather than through a critical analysis that places the various players in their broader historical and social contexts.

MARY EDMONDS Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Studies
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Author:Edmonds, Mary
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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