The occasion for this speech was one which might discomfort a less experienced speaker than Noel Pearson. He was invited to address a distinguished academic gathering at the University of Western Sydney. His host was his former history professor, the Chancellor, Professor Derek Schreuder. His topic, inspired by High Court decisions and political statements at the time, was Australian history. In particular, the way Australian history presented the historic relationships between the European settlers and the Aboriginal peoples they had found in the country. The topic was very much in the news in l996 for two chief reasons, each of which Pearson alludes to. Firstly, in l992, the High Court of Australia had ruled that the late Mr. Eddie Mabo and a group of people from Murray Island in the Torres Strait owned traditional legal title to the lands they and their families had always lived on. The High Court decision stated that the legal idea of 'terra nullius' (empty land belonging to no one) could not apply to this piece of Australia. Yet the doctrine of 'terra nullius' was the legal concept applied to the rest of Australia. The decision had to lead to a new approach to Aboriginal land rights. In December, l993, the Commonwealth government passed a law making it possible for some groups of Aboriginal people to gain control of their lands. To date, while some have succeeded, many have found it difficult to provide the necessary proof that they had maintained links with their ancestral areas. Their ancestors had many years before been forced off their lands and into missions. In recognition of this fact, a fund to purchase land for Aboriginal use was set up. Secondly, just a few days before Pearson's speech, the newly elected Prime Minister, John Howard, had criticised certain views of Aboriginal history. Mr. Howard had deplored what was called "the black armband view of history". The term referred disparagingly to the work of those historians who saw the...
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