The Aboriginal struggle for justice and land rights

January 23, 2001
Sorry Walk Elders
Sorry Walk Elders. Photo: Supplied.

By Kim Bullimore

One hundred years ago the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed, heralding in a supposedly new era of prosperity for the "lucky country" and its inhabitants. For Aborigines, however, 1901 marked year 113 of resistance to dispossession and racial oppression. One hundred years later, indigenous Australia continues this fight.

The modern movement for indigenous rights began in the 1920s when the first Aboriginal political organisations were formed including the Australian Aborigines Protection Association, the Association for the Protection of the Native Races of Australia and Polynesia and the Aboriginal Union.

The following decades saw the formation of probably the two best known of all the early groups, the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) and the Aborigines' Progressive Association (APA). These early 20th century organisations played an important role in laying the foundations for the independent Aboriginal movement of the 1960s and '70s.

Within several years of their formation it became plain to both the APA and the AAL that government "protection" polices did not work. Rather than promoting the welfare and independence of the people under their control, state governments and their agencies were effectively destroying Aboriginal communities and cultures. As a result in 1937, the AAL's William Cooper circulated a petition which he tried to present to the English king which demanded the creation of an Aboriginal seat in the Australian House of Representatives.

On January 26, 1938, the 150th anniversary of the British colonisation of Australia, a conference called by the APA declared January 26 a "day of mourning" and protest, issuing a manifesto attacking the myth of white benevolence and saying, "You came here only recently, and you took our land away from us by force. You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to expose the humbug of your claim as white Australians, to be a civilised, progressive, kindly and humane nation. By your cruelty and callousness towards the Aborigines you stand condemned in the eyes of the civilised world."

The manifesto asked neither for charity, nor protection but for justice, citizenship rights and freedom from the restrictions imposed on Aborigines by the various state Aboriginal legislative acts. The APA's William Ferguson went on to tell the media of the day, "we want the right to own land that our fathers and mothers have owned from time immemorial".

Five days after the conference, Ferguson and other members of the APA met with prime minister Joseph Lyons and presented a 10-point plan for achieving Aboriginal equality with white Australians. The plan called for the federal government to take over Aboriginal affairs from the individual states, positive aid in the areas of education, housing, working conditions, land purchases and social welfare (non-existent in 1937 for Aborigines). All of these proposals were ignored by the Lyons government.

In 1939, after a visit by William Cooper, who along with other radical activists who was touring NSW reserves to collect evidence against the Aboriginal protection board and to campaign for citizenship rights, residents of the Cumeroogunga reserve in NSW walked off the reserve protesting their living conditions. For several months they weathered the wintry conditions, supported only by provisions supplied by the APA and one or two other progressive groups.

The agitation by these radical groups did succeed in bringing about a number of changes. These included availability of commonwealth child endowment payments to Aboriginal families, but only if these families were not nomadic. The following year this was extended to those on missions or government reserves, but the payment was to be administered not by Aborigines but by the white staff of the reserves and missions. In 1942, the old age pension began to be paid to those Aborigines outside the operation of the Aborigines acts.

However, while these reforms were important, discrimination against Aborigines was still massive. For example, only those Aborigines who met the criteria laid out in the Aborigines acts were able to access the services and citizenship rights afforded to white Australians.

Under the Aborigines acts some Aborigines were able to "pass" as whites, that is, they could become nominal whites and enjoy the rights accorded whites if they carried a certificate which testified to their "good character". To receive such a certificate, Aborigines generally had to be light skinned, have a number of references from good white citizens, not mix with other Aborigines (other than family), not live on the reserves, be free of disease, speak English and be "industrious". The certificate, however, could be revoked if the applicant was convicted twice of drunkenness or had contracted any diseases.

Aboriginal organisations were formed in all states in the 1950s to press for civil rights as well as land rights. Initially these organisations were co-ordinated by both Aborigines and whites, but as time went by they came more and more under the control of indigenous activists.

Inspired by the civil rights movement of blacks in the United States, in the mid-1960s Charles Perkins and a group of Aboriginal and white students conducted the now famous "freedom rides" throughout the north-west of NSW to highlight the discriminatory practices suffered by Aboriginal people. In 1965 Aborigines were still banned from swimming alongside whites in community pools, entering pubs and RSL clubs (even though many had served in both the first and second world wars), and were restricted to Aborigines-only sections in local cinemas.

The freedom rides were a huge success for two reasons. Firstly, they forced many towns in NSW to change their segregationist policies towards Aborigines. But more importantly, they produced a new awareness of the power of public protest action among Aboriginal people. For example, Lyall Munroe jnr (now with the Sydney Metropolitan Land Council) was one of the children who gained admittance to the local swimming pool after a stand-off developed between the freedom riders and the local white community in Moree. In 1978, Munro remarked that for the first time on that day he "saw the power of direct action".

Later that year, Aboriginal poet and writer Kath Walker (who later reverted to her traditional name, Oodgeroo) toured the country speaking in favour of land rights and calling for payment of million to be paid in compensation for lost lands and demanded that the ACTU begin a three-monthly national stoppage which would cease only when all Aborigines were granted equal pay.

On May 27, 1967 more than five million Australians voted yes to a referendum proposal making two important changes to the constitution relating to Aborigines. This did not include the electoral enfranchisement of Aboriginal people, which had been achieved in all states by 1962. Instead, the referendum repealed section 127 of the commonwealth constitution, which excluded Aborigines from the census to record the population of Australia, and it amended section 51 of the constitution removing the words "other than the Aboriginal race" from the provision that "the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have the power to make laws for the people of any race, other than the Aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws". Prior to 1967, the commonwealth had no power to make laws for Aborigines, all powers to do so had resided with the states.

With the astounding 92% yes vote in the referendum, many Aboriginal groups and their white supporters believed the stage was set for a new relationship to develop between indigenous people and the rest of Australia via the federal government. However, while an office to deal with Aboriginal issues was set up by the government of prime minister Harold Holt, minimal resourcing was given to it and it played little or no role in addressing the situation of indigenous Australians.

In the wake of the Gurindji people's walk off from the Wave Hill cattle station in August 1966, land rights became a prominent issue for not only the federal government but also indigenous Australians.

In 1971, the Yirrakala people on the Gove peninsula in the Northern Territory mounted a land claim to win back control of their traditional land and to stop mining giant Nabalco — which already had a $310 million bauxite project on Yirrakala land — from obtaining a forestry licence to establish a woodchip mill in the same area.

It was the Gurindji's and Yirrakala's fight for land rights which paved the way for a new direction in Aboriginal activism to emerge with the establishment of the Aboriginal tent embassy on the lawns of the then federal Parliament House in Canberra.

In response to the Yirrakala's land claim and to stymie any future claims, the Coalition government under PM Billy McMahon issued a White Paper on January 25, 1972 declaring that it was in the "national interest" and the interest of Aboriginal people themselves that mining exploration on Aboriginal reserves should continue.

The indigenous response was immediate. Four Aboriginal activists, with the aid of the Communist Party of Australia, traveled to Canberra to establish the tent embassy in protest. Soon Aborigines came from all over the country to help staff the embassy.


The Aboriginal Tent Embassy
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy protesters put forward a number of key demands, including calling for Aboriginal legal title to and control of mining rights on existing reserve lands and settlements throughout Australia; the preservation of all sacred sites throughout Australia; compensation monies for land not returnable, in the form of a down payment of $6 billion and an annual percentage of gross national income.

The figure of $6 billion was chosen as the compensation figure, primarily to establish in the minds of the whites and the government that not only did Aboriginal people have prior occupation of the lands from which they had been dispossessed and therefore a right to substantial compensation.

The embassy formed alliances with anyone — black or white — who supported the call for indigenous rights.

It was the tent embassy's reliance on Aboriginal self-organisation and direct public protest action that marked the birth of a politically independent Aboriginal rights movement.

The new-found confidence of the indigenous rights movement was to contribute to the death knell of the McMahon government, and was to be exploited by the new federal Labor government. While in opposition Labor leader Gough Whitlam had promised to confer real land rights and create a conduit for Aboriginal people to negotiate with the government to achieve real improvements in the areas of social justice, land rights, and living conditions.

With the election of the Whitlam government, the first commonwealth Aboriginal affairs department was established and along with it an Aboriginal consultative committee to liaise with the minister and the department.

The National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) was established by the Whitlam government at the end of 1972 for the express purpose of negotiating. The setting up of the NACC was heralded as a new step forward in indigenous/white relations by the Whitlam government. However, once the NACC was set up and arrangements made for periodic meetings once or twice a year, the NACC was paid nothing more than lip-service by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) and the government.

The NACC was never considered as a serious political body by the Whitlam Labor government or Malcolm Fraser's federal Coalition government as it had no actual powers other than to "consult" with the government. Moreover, all consultation with the relevant minister was filtered through the DAA and, as result, the NACC could do little more than pass paper resolutions.

Competition for control of the indigenous agenda became a serious issue between the NACC and the DAA. Within three months, the NACC announced that it would seek to control Aboriginal affairs, pushing aside the DAA and seek to change the committee's name to the National Aboriginal Congress. The Whitlam government's minister for Aboriginal affairs threatened to withdraw funding from the NACC if it persisted on this tack.

As a body, the NACC backed down. This signalled the beginning of the government's co-option of the indigenous rights movement.

Because many of the radical voices still had considerable sway in NACC, the Fraser government launched a inquiry into the committee. Carried out by the chairperson of the NACC, anthropologist H.C. (Nugget) Coombs, the inquiry found that the committee had not ineffective in providing advice, that its members were unwilling to accept a consulting role, that they had not been properly briefed by the government and that there was a state of mutual state hostility between the NACC and the DAA.

The Coombs inquiry recommended that the central organisation of the NACC be incorporated into a National Aboriginal Congress, with a permanent executive in Canberra and state branches. These recommendations would have made the body more independent and less vulnerable to ministerial whims. Not surprisingly therefore, they were rejected by the Fraser government.

Instead, in 1977, the NACC was replaced with the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC) whose consultative powers were even more restricted than the previous NACC. The new body had no general consultative function, but could only advise the Aboriginal affairs minister on specific issues referred to it by government. The NAC was nothing more than a talk shop, a body designed more to enhance the government's image.

With the election of a Labor government in 1983, PM Bob Hawke promised to "develop and make effective the NAC as an advising body to the government" and to "extend its powers as a policy making body". However, within a year, it became evident that little had changed. In 1985, the NAC was abolished and not replaced by a new indigenous advisory body for nearly five years.

The Labor government saved face by commissioning Lois O'Donoghue to conduct a study into the establishment of a new body. By doing this, the Hawke government was able to argue that it retained some commitment to indigenous rights, but could continue in reality to do little. Less than eight months after the abolition of the National Aboriginal Conference, Hawke announced that his government would not proceed, in the face of a concerted campaign by mining companies, with legislation for national land rights.

By the end of 1987, the Hawke government was starting to feel the heat of the beginnings of renewed Aboriginal agitation which threatened to disrupt the bicentennial celebrations the following year.

In an attempt to stymie the upcoming protests, Aborginal affairs minister Gerry Hand announced he would embark on a national consultation process with Aboriginal communities. The manner in which Hand conducted the consultations, however, was criticised by many indigenous communities, with all the major Victorian Aboriginal organisations sending a telex to Hand stating that "It is imperative that the consultation process be a real one and that time be taken over deciding our future".

With the promised 1988 protest marches eventuating and heralding a return to direct public protest action by an independent Aboriginal rights movement, the Labor government sought once again to co-opt the movement. In June 1988 Hawke announced that the government would commit itself to negotiate a treaty with indigenous Australia by 1990. This of course never eventuated. What did eventuate, however, was a new indigenous body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC,) and instead of a treaty being negotiated the "Reconciliation" process was set in motion.

[Kim Bullimore is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party and is also active in the Indigenous Student Network. This is the an abridged version of talk presented at the Democratic Socialist Party's 19th congress in January 2001. Image source (1). Image source (2).]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.