Aborigines seek compromise on volatile land rights issue

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s Aborigines pushed Wednesday for immediate talks with ranchers and miners in a national land dispute, working toward a compromise that would keep racial issues from becoming the focus of a national election.
In another sign that a deal may be possible on a government bill on native title rights, a senior Aboriginal leader confirmed that Prime Minister John Howard had approached him seeking a compromise.
Most of the ancestors of Australia’s 353,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were driven off their tribal lands after white settlement began in 1788.
The High Court recently ruled that native people do have title rights to land in some circumstances, and that the rights can coexist with government-granted leases under which many of the nation’s ranches are run.
In response, the government drafted a bill winding back Aborigines’ limited rights to claim title on some government-owned land. Currently, Australia’s two houses of Parliament are deadlocked on the bill.
Howard, echoing lobbyists for farmers, ranchers and miners, believes the court rulings are unworkable.
The National Indigenous Working Group, the leading aboriginal lobby group, wrote to farm and mine organizations Wednesday, urging last-ditch compromise talks.
Gatjil Djerkurra, a member of the group, confirmed that Howard had approached him informally about the possibility of a compromise.
Legislator Warren Entsch indicated the government was unlikely to give much ground on the bill, saying it has already accepted 217 amendments to the proposed law.
Peter Yu, another member of the group, said Howard has a responsibility to back the talks and seek a negotiated compromise to avoid a socially divisive election.