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W(h)ither the Human Rights of Indigenous Australians (From Wik to Wickedness?)

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The international community is increasingly concerned with indigenous rights. The essence of the claims that international law seeks to accommodate involves the ability of indigenous people to make decisions about social, cultural, economic and environmental matters in their region. This paper looks at some aspects of the human rights of indigenous Australians from that perspective. It contains three interlocking sections. The first section outlines the background to the Australian High Court decision in Wik Peoples v. Queensland in which the majority of the Court said that aboriginal native title to land could co-exist with pastoral lease activity. The second part looks at the furore provoked by this decision, advancing arguments about the media and political treatment of the issue. Here we contend, doubtless rhetorically ourselves, that the Australian government has moved from Wik to Wickedness in dealing with this issue. The third part looks at recent developments and offers some conclusions as to where the legal resolution of native title to land in Australia might have emerged. In our conclusion we also consider the direction of the political and legal debate since the Australian Labor Party led by Paul Keating lost the 1996 election in a landslide, and the increasing narrowness of an economically conservative political agenda. Our overall theme, which stems directly from that, is the paucity of the political debate over Australian indigenous human rights. Rhetoric has abounded and could prompt many questions about the political debate in Australia over this issue, and the obligations of politicians. Law has formed a vital background to this: at time lauded, at times rejected vehemently by the Government.


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Affiliations: 1: Lecturer in Law/Justice Studies, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia; 2: Lecturer in Legal Studies, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia


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