The Hardest Thing I Ever Did - Keating and Native Title

By Michael Lee

Twenty-five years ago, only two months after being elected Labor Leader, Paul Keating stood in the House of Representatives, to deliver an address that outlined Labor’s economic plan to build infrastructure to grow the nation out of recession.

It was Labor’s alternative to John Hewson’s “Fightback!” plan to introduce a 15% GST, put workers on individual contracts and slash Medicare.

Despite Hewson’s radical conservative agenda, most commentators and many Labor caucus members gave Paul Keating little chance of success at the coming federal election.

As a backbencher, I had a front row seat watching Paul Keating keep his promise to John Hewson to “do him slowly”.

History was against Keating. Every government for 25 years had lost ground the longer it served in office. Bob Hawke had peaked at his first election and scraped home in 1990 with 49.9% of the two party preferred vote. To win, Keating needed a swing back to Labor in the midst of a recession and while leading a party still recovering from a bitter leadership election.

And win he did, achieving 5% increase in Labor’s vote – delivering the historic win for the “True Believers”.

The 1993 election win meant young people like former Attorney-General Michael Lavarch and myself were given the opportunity to serve as Cabinet Ministers for 3 years in the second Keating Government.

One of the biggest challenges of the Keating Government was how it would respond to the High Court’s Mabo decision.

Paul Keating said earlier this year that the getting the Native Title Act through the parliament was “the hardest thing I did”.

It began with a meeting between the Prime Minister and his ministers and a delegation of indigenous leaders in the Cabinet Room at Parliament House. As Resources and TourismMinister I was there and recall a spine tingling moment when the

As Resources and Tourism Minister I was there and recall a spine tingling moment when the first aboriginal speaker spoke in his traditional language before repeating his concerns in English.

A year of Green Papers, a Native Title Premiers’ Conference and draft legislation followed. Some of the debates in Cabinet were very tough, as months of subcommittee work and external consultation and lobbying came down to decisions on the detailed structure of the proposed Native Title Tribunal and its powers.

The Keating Cabinet usually worked by vigorous debate leading to a consensus emerging. I recall one debate where there was no consensus after much discussion. All the cabinet except the Prime Minister and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Robert Tickner were opposed to a particular measure. Paul Keating’s view prevailed and in hindsight he was right.

Proceeding with the Native Title Bill was very unpopular. Rabid media coverage particularly on talk-back radio, promoted scare campaigns about Aborigines claiming people’s backyards and ending investment in mining. The Liberals were circulating a map of Australia showing almost half the nation claimed by native title.

Thanks to Paul Keating’s courageous advocacy, and the persistence of Ministers, including Gareth Evans and Frank Walker, the Native Title Bill was passed at an extended sitting of the Parliament in December 1993.

Liberal Leader John Hewson having done his best to block it, called it a day of shame. Almost twenty-five years on, the passing of the Native Title Act stands as one of the most remarkable achievements of any Labor Government.

And at its heart is the challenge of the toughest dilemma in political leadership. What do you do if you have to choose between doing something that is right, and doing something that is popular? Whether it was recognising Native Title in law, reducing industry protection, opening up the finance industry to foreign competition or privatising Qantas, the Hawke and Keating governments faced many of these choices…doing what’s right or popular.

Because they did what was right, the Keating Government delivered the serious long term reforms our country needed, and that our nation’s prosperity is built upon today.