Press "Enter" to skip to content

John Howard’s Address To The Nation On Wik

This is Prime Minister John Howard’s Address to the Nation on the Wik native title issue.

  • Listen to Howard’s Address (9m)

Transcript of Prime Minister John Howard’s Address to the Nation on Wik.

Good Evening. Tonight I would like to talk to you about striking a fair and decent balance in this very difficult debate about Wik or Native Title. You all know there has been a lot of debate and a lot of differences of opinion but I think we all agree on one thing and that is the sooner we get this debate over and get the whole issue behind us the better for all of us.

I think we probably also agree on some other things, for example, the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people of Australia have been very badly treated in the past and we must continue our efforts to improve their health, their housing, their employment and their educational opportunities. And in doing that we should always remember that the Aboriginal people of Australia have a very special affinity with their land.

I think we would also agree on how important the rural and mining industries are to the future of our country. Between them they contribute 63 per cent of Australia’s export income and that helps generate a lot of wealth which in turn enables us to help the less fortunate within our community.

Australia’s farmers, of course, have always occupied a very special place in our heart. They often endure the heart-break of drought, the disappointment of bad international prices after a hard worked season and quite frankly I find it impossible to imagine the Australia, I love, without a strong and vibrant farming sector.

The nub of the problem is that in the Wik case, the High Court of Australia, significantly changed what had been the understanding of most people about the law when the original Native Title Act was passed in 1993. At that time virtually nobody believed that you could make a native title claim on a farm property. Mr Keating didn’t believe it, Mr Beazley didn’t believe it, I didn’t believe it and it was a widely held view in the community. But in the Wik case, most of that was changed and the High Court, in that case, decided that it would be possible to successfully bring a native title claim on a segment of farm properties, known generally, as pastoral lease holdings.

Now this created a very big problem because the original act had been built on a different basis and we obviously couldn’t leave it as it was. And of course it produced a vastly different reaction from the various interest groups. The farmers, not suprisingly, were furious. They said to the Government, look, we were assured by the Prime Minister of the day and by a lot of other people, that you couldn’t bring a native title claim on a farming property, so what you have got to do – and quickly – is to change the law and take it back to where we always thought it was.

On the other hand the Aboriginal people said “no”. We support the decision and we’re happy to have some adjustments at the edges but basically we think it is a good outcome. So the Government had to try and solve the problem. And I had a lot of discussions with all of the different groups and at the end of the day we came up, with what I regard, as a very fair and decent and just outcome.

I said to the farmers that I wasn’t prepared and the Government wasn’t prepared to wipe out the right of Aboriginal people to bring native title claims on pastoral leasehold. But we were prepared to guarantee to farmers, absolutely, that they would be able to carry on their normal farming activities and what they would regard as part-and-parcel of the ordinary operation and development of their properties without having to have any of their activities vetted or approved by any native title claimants and without any interference.

On the other hand I said to the Aboriginal people we will continue and preserve your right to bring claims on pastoral leasehold but they have got to be done within proper parameters. You can’t interfere with or vet what would be regarded by farmers as the normal day-to-day operation and development of their property and most importantly any claims you make had to be fair dinkum.

Can I stress a very important element of our plan and that is that if, in any way, native title rights are diminished then full compensation will be payable to the native title holders and that compensation, in the main, will be borne by Federal and State Governments, never by farmers.

The other thing I’d like to stress is the fulsome commitment of my Government to the process of reconciliation. It is a key goal of my Government that that be achieved as part of the celebration of 100 years of the Australian nation. We may differ and debate as to the correct form of reconciliation but there should be no doubt that it is, I believe, in the spirit of all Australians, whatever their beliefs on other issues, that we have full reconciliation with the Aboriginal people.

Perhaps I could wrap this up by answering some of the questions that have arisen during the course of this very long debate. For example:

Does the Government’s plan preserve in full, principles of native title, laid down in the historic Mabo decision? Yes.

Is it still possible for native title claims to be made over pastoral leaseholds? Yes.

And I might add that the total area of the land mass of Australia, which in theory can be subject to a native title claim, is now 79 per cent.

Does the Government’s plan guarantee that farmers can carry on their activities and what they would regard as normal and proper developments of their properties without interference from native title claimants? Yes.

Has the Government been advised that it’s plan is both legal and constitutional? Yes.

Does the Government intend to preserve the indigenous land fund of $1.3 billion, which is designed to help Aboriginal people who can’t bring native title claims? Yes.

Is the Government’s plan a fair and appropriate balance between the competing interests of different groups? Yes it is.

When I was sworn in as your Prime Minister I took a very solemn oath. The first words of that oath were that I would well and truly serve the people of Australia and that meant all of the Australian people. In a very difficult situation I believe that I and my Government have done that. We have delivered a plan that produces fairness, justice and certainty. I don’t believe that endless amendment and debate is going to produce more jobs, greater fairness or greater certainty.

Do you believe that the Aboriginal community, the farmers of Australia, the mining industry or indeed any other section of the Australian community is going to get a better outcome in this issue through prolonging it. I don’t. I believe that the time has come for us to fix this issue and to fix it now. Thank you and good night.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024