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Thursday, April 2, 1998 Published at 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK



World: Asia-Pacific

Who owns Australia?
image: [ Aboriginal claims include Brisbane ]
Aboriginal claims include Brisbane

The upper house of parliament in Australia is debating the controversial issue of aboriginal land rights. It is an issue proving so intractable that the Prime Minister, John Howard, says he will call a snap election if parliament does not pass the bill before it to let the country decide.


BBC correspondent Michael Peschardt on a country divided (2'25)
This is the second time the the senate has been asked to discuss the bill to restrict aboriginal land rights. Three months ago, it rejected the government-supported legislation, putting it on collision course with Prime Minister John Howard.


[ image: John Howard: has threatened dissolution of parliament]
John Howard: has threatened dissolution of parliament
Mr Howard says the bill is designed to prevent aborigines interfering with mining and farming. If land is in dispute, the rights of farmers and miners would prevail, although aboriginal claimants would be paid compensation by the government.

Huge tracts of land in dispute

Until a few years ago, Australia had never acknowledged any aboriginal land rights. But a succession of court rulings in favour of native rights means that ownership of three quarters of the country is in doubt.

Under the present law, aborigines can claim equal ownership of most of the land used by farmers and mining companies.

Thirty per cent of the vast country is empty and there, aboriginal claims will have limited impact.

But huge areas of farmland are also at stake. Most farmers lease their land from the state and fear they could lose their livelihoods.

Economic implications

The mining industry, which is also affected, says that uncertainty over the aboriginal claims has cost Australia thousands of millions in lost revenue and delayed investment.

Even the most populated areas are affected. Hundreds of claims have been filed. The entire land area of the city of Brisbane has been claimed by one native group.

Other spectacular claims include the Sydney Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef, Bondi beach in Sydney and the Parliament building itself in Canberra.

Debate could last weeks

The vote in the senate could take some time and is expected to be close.


[ image: Aborigines claim ancient affinity with the land]
Aborigines claim ancient affinity with the land
Aboriginal leaders have called on the body to continue its opposition to the legislation.

Mick Dodson, of the Aboriginal Law Council, said it was unfair and discriminatory. "It may have the impact of destroying forever any chance of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Australia."

The BBC correspondent in Australia says that the issue is provoking acrimonious debate, with the governor-general and many church leaders and academics condemning the legislation as cruel, unjust and divisive.


 





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