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Australian Leader Clears Up Native Title

HAVING persuaded his Cabinet to accept his Aboriginal land-rights legislation, Prime Minister Paul Keating is now preparing to push the bill through Parliament in the coming weeks.

Litigants have called for federal legislation ever since the High Court, in the Mabo ruling of June 1992, found that native title to land existed prior to white settlement and could still exist on land where the government had not issued title. The ruling set the stage for Aborigines who can prove they hold native title on a piece of land to file claims to it.

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The ruling brought much uncertainty. Mabo did not define what native title is, who has it, or how to get it. Mining and farming groups argued that investment and jobs were at stake unless title could be secured. They wanted federal legislation to settle the issue. They have been pressing the federal government to wipe out native title where it conflicts with mining or farming leases.

In the last few months, Mr. Keating has raised the ire of both Aborigines and the resource industries as he has shifted positions trying to build legislation acceptable to both. After he and six Cabinet members told farmers their leases were safe, Keating promised Aborigines that native title and pastoral leases could coexist. Farmers angrily protested.

Under the new legislation, farming leases extinguish native title. Aborigines, like other Australians, have no right to veto development of their land. But they do have the right to negotiate.

The bill also retains many points Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have lobbied for:

* Aborigines can choose which tribunal they want to have hear their claims. (The federal government tends to be more sympathetic to land claims than some states.)

* The legislation will not override the Racial Discrimination Act as some had worried.

* The bill includes a social justice package and a land acquisition fund to help Aborigines and Islanders who have been dispossessed of native title.

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* Camberra will meet the cost of most compensation for native title that has been extinguished.

While Aborigines and farming groups have been cautiously optimistic about the legislation, mining interests are less pleased. The legislation validates existing mining leases but says that native title, where it can be proved, revives at the end of their leases.

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