Garry Hiskey gives an insider's perspective of Maralinga Land Rights Act

Garry Hiskey's book charts his involvement with the Maralinga people's pursuit of native title in the early 1980s. In 1981, the solicitor with the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement began acting for the traditional owners of the Maralinga lands in South Australia in the negotiations that led to the passage of the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984. It was hugely significant case, and Hiskey's book offers an insider's perspective of what transpired in the years prior to the passing of the act. We're told this is "a story of intrigue, divided loyalties and political controversy". Of course, it's also a story about Australia's colonial past and our mistreatment of Aboriginal people.

Years before the native title case made headlines, the word "Maralinga" was commonly associated with the atomic tests that were conducted there in the 1950s and 1960s. Beginning in 1953, the British government began conducting nuclear weapons tests on lands the traditional owners had occupied for thousands of years. But before the Brits could detonate their bombs all over the Great Victoria Desert, the local population had to be moved. The Anangu of Maralinga were transplanted to Yalata, a few hundred kilometres south, where they "found themselves strange people in a strange land".

It wasn't long before the makeshift community on the Great Australian Bight was beset by problems. A sense of hopelessness coursed through the displaced community and alcohol-fuelled violence only made things worse. Eventually, a representative of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs decided that the community could benefit from independent legal representation. The idea was that the prospect of a return to Maralinga might act as a panacea to the social ills that were afflicting the community. Enter Garry Hiskey.

Over the opening pages of Maralinga, the retired magistrate recalls his initial encounters with the lands' traditional owners, taking us inside a community the likes of which most Australians will never get to experience, much less be a part of. The culture shock is palpable. In the early 1980s, the Yalata settlement consisted of only a handful of buildings. Most of the community lived in what was known as Big Camp, a gathering of several family groups that moved every seven to 14 days and could be situated anywhere from one to 20 kilometres from the main buildings.

But Hiskey's book is a fairly dry chronology of the legal manoeuvrings that led to the eventual granting of native title. The narrative throws up the occasional conflict of interest and political contretemps, but unless you're a constitutional lawyer or a native title buff, chances are you'll find Maralinga informative, but ultimately unsatisfying.

This story An insider's perspective of Maralinga land rights first appeared on The Canberra Times.