Any first year law student could tell you the importance of Wik Peoples v Queensland [1996] HCA 40. The High Court was asked to examine whether statutory pastoral leases extinguished the rights of native title holders. The political fallout led to one of the longest debates in parliamentary history, and almost sparked a double dissolution election based on race and Indigenous rights in Australia more broadly

WIK VS QUEENSLAND is a detailed and engaging account of the lead-up and aftermath of the historic High Court decision in 1996. It is primarily presented through a series of interviews with notable Aboriginal leaders of the time, including Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton AM, Senator Pat Dodson, Frankie Deemal and Peter Yu. Mixed with other news footage and other archival pieces from the Lew Griffiths Minamothu Library, writer/director Dean Gibson weaves a complete story that transcends the dryness of case law.

Yet that’s what Gibson identifies about the Wik case: it means different things depending on where you stand. Following the historic Mabo ruling in 1992, then-Prime Minister Paul Keating invited Aboriginal leaders into the cabinet room for the start of a discussion. “We owned the Parliament House during 1993,” reflects Noel Pearson. Yet with the election of John Howard and the rise of Pauline Hanson’s nationalistic rhetoric, the conversation around land rights in Australia changed to one of protectionism and “taking away pastoralist property.”

As an historical document, Gibson’s film almost pinpoints the moment when the parliamentary discourse shifted from a place of reconciliation to one of anger. Gibson doesn’t make a one-sided argument either, merely laying out the facts that lead to Howard proposing his infamous 10 Point Plan. Wik, argued Howard at the time, “pushed the pendulum back too far in the Aboriginal direction (and) the 10 Point Plan will return the pendulum to the centre.” Senator Brian Harradine’s support of the movement ultimately led to legal changes that rolled back the positive progress of native title. The documentary is quite generous in describing him as lacking the “proper perspective of justice.”

The film closes with a quote from Stanley Ngakyunkwokka: “We’ve got to learn to fight. Not fight with fists but with our tongues. Because everybody has their feelings for their land within their heart.” Which is where the greatest strength of WIK VS QUEENSLAND sits, serving as a reminder that this is not an issue of property rights but one of justice. This is a document that every Australian should see.

Following its Sydney Film Festival run, WIK VS QUEENSLAND screens 8:30pm Sunday July 8 on NITV, and on SBS On Demand from 9 July 2018.

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