Backtracking after Mabo
Backtrack: (vb). 1. to return by the same route by which one has come. 2. to retract or reverse one's opinion, policy, etc.
The familiar yet estranged figure of the black tracker has enjoyed a certain longevity in Australian cultural traditions for it easily corresponds with the metaphor of exile and imprisonment in a purgatorial landscape, identified by Graeme Turner as one of the key tropes of Australian fiction. However, with shifts in the Australian social imaginary that accompanied the Land Rights movement of the 1970s, the tracker receded into the background, a result, perhaps, of a critique of racial stereotypes initiated by Aboriginal activists and critics. In 2001-02 the black tracker made an unexpected return to Australian screens in two feature films, Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002) and The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002), and a short musical film, One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins, 2001). Inboth features, an iconic actor ofthe 1970s, David Gulpilil, was cast in the role ofthe tracker.1 His startling, intense screen presence haunted Rabbit-Proof Fence and dominated The Tracker. After a period of relative obscurity (save for smaller roles in Crocodile Dundee, Peter Faiman, 1986; Until the End ofthe World, Wim Wenders, 1992; and Dead Heart, Nicholas Parsons, 1996), Gulpilil's return to the screen in two key films of the post-Mabo era, like the films themselves, can be understood as a kind of backtracking, a going over of old ground in Australian national cinema, a going over which reprises and at the same time retracts some of the seemingly intractable figures of Australian national identity.
In this book, we use 'backtracking' as a key term to describe and interpret Australian cinema (and to a lesser extent, television) in the twelve years since the 1992 Mabo decision overturned the nation's founding doctrine of terra nullius (i.e., land belonging to no one). However, from the outset, we want to be clear that this is not a book about the Mabo decision itself or the representation of Aboriginality in Australian cinema. It is a book about the cultural rather than political impact of a paradigm shift in Australian historical consciousness. The Mabo decision is central to this g shift because it forces Australians to rethink 'race relations' and the colonial js past as integral to what Tim Rowse describes as a morally illegitimate national " identity.2
Australian colonial histories show that, from day one, European settlers/
< invaders recognised the fiction of terra nullius? This is evident in their 2 encounters with Aboriginal clans in possession of land, initially in coastal u areas and later in the interior, which the British had presumed to be inhos-« pitable and therefore 'empty' of human life. Yet, as Henry Reynolds argues
< in Aboriginal Sovereignty, 'the advantages of assuming the absence of people £ were so great . . . that legal doctrine continued to depict Australia as a
< colony acquired by occupation of a terra nullius'.4 Racist assumptions about Aboriginal culture provided the basis for the continued non-recognition of Indigenous ownership of the land. As Reynolds puts it: settlers/invaders saw Indigenous people as primitives 'who ranged over the land rather than inhabiting it'.5 Despite a history of Indigenous resistance to dispossession, supported at different times in the nation's past by a number of non-Indigenous Australians, the story of the nation's origin, in the occupation of land belonging to no one, remained intact until the High Court's Mabo decision in 1992.
This landmark legal decision to recognise the pre-existing property rights of Indigenous Australians created shock-waves across the nation as non-Indigenous Australians were forced to confront the fiction of terra nullius. As Justice Brennan wrote in his summation of the case: 'Whatever the justification advanced in earlier days for refusing to recognise the rights and interests in land of the indigenous inhabitants of settled colonies, an unjust and discriminatory doctrine of that kind can no longer be accepted.'6 Events over the past decade have shown, however, that neither the Mabo decision nor its subsequent enactment has settled issues of land rights between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.7 On the contrary, non-Indigenous Australians find themselves on unsettled ground as we come to terms with the fact that our democratic society has a serious flaw. One public nationwide poll done for the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in early 2000 showed that a large majority of people (80%) feel that the process of reconciliation is important; but they are strongly divided about how the process should proceed. For example: 'In principle, 57% agreed and 37% disagreed that a reconciliation document might help relations between Aborigines and the wider community. But only 28% favoured giving the document a legal status.'8 In 2004, Australians remain divided on a range ofpost-Mabo issues, including: the legal and financial implications of recognition of Indigenous Australians' prior ownership and sovereignty; the idea of collective blame and the need for an official apology for past injustices; proposals for what the Howard government calls 'practical reconciliation' - that is, strategies A for overcoming the startling inequities in Indigenous health, employment, T education and rates of imprisonment. A
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