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1982 Koowarta versus Bjelke-Pertersen, Queensland

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In 1976, John Koowarta convinced the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission to purchase a lease of land in Northern Queensland. The lease was to enable an Aboriginal community to start a cattle property. Permission to lease the land was refused by the Queensland National Party government led by Bjelke-Petersen, the party was opposed to Aborigines buying leasehold land.

The Koowarta group took the case to the High Court, arguing that the Queensland government's decision breached the Commonwealth 1975 Racial Discrimination Act. This Act implemented the terms of an international treaty that sought the abolition of all forms of discrimination based on race. In opposition, the Bjelke-Petersen government insisted that the Act should be declared invalid on the grounds that it extended the Commonwealth's external affairs power beyond that intended by the Constitution. Indeed, the Commonwealth did not have the Constitutional authority to legislate on racial discrimination in the States.

In 1982 the High Court ruled, by the narrowest of margins (4-3), that the Racial Discrimination Act was valid and that it could override State laws using the external affairs powers under section 51 (xxix) of the Commonwealth Constitution.


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Alan Moir
The Courier-Mail, 13 May 1982
Courtesy Alan Moir and State Library of Queenland