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Aboriginal Changing Rights and Freedoms

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    The arrival and settlement of the British in Australia was not peaceful. As the colonies spread across the continent, Aboriginal people were dispossessed and displaced from their lands, killed in battles for their land, or by hunting parties. The settlers often resorted to inhumane techniques such as the poisoning of waterholes. The estimates of the numbers of Aboriginal people who died in frontier conflict vary widely, and it is an area of history that is still very vigorously debated today.

    Aboriginal resistance to the occupation was immediate, with the most renowned early-on being from Pemulwuy, an Aboriginal warrior who led counter-raids against those settlers responsible for the injustices being suffered by his people at the time. In June 1802, in response to the many instances of violence, the Governor issued a proclamation stating: “His Majesty forbids any act of injustice or wanton cruelty to the Natives, yet the settler is not to suffer his property to be invaded or his existence endangered by them, in preserving which he is to use the effectual, but at the same time the most humane, means of resisting such attacks”.

    Shortly after this proclamation was made, Pemulwuy was shot. No one was ever charged for his murder. In addition to the violence, many Aboriginal people died from introduced diseases. Aboriginal people had no immunity to European diseases such as smallpox, influenza and measles. As a result of these events, there was a drastic decline in the numbers of Aboriginal people. In the second half of the 19th Century, Torres Strait Islanders also lost their independence when the Queensland Government annexed the Torres Strait Islands.

    Torres Strait Islanders were not dispersed from their homelands like Aboriginal people, but were effectively denied full citizenship rights until 1967. ‘Protection’ policies & Federation The forced relocation of Aboriginal people onto reserves and missions was part of a national policy designed to ‘protect’ and control Aboriginal people. In fact it was a widely held belief that Aboriginal people would simply die out in time. Until that happened, laws to control the relations etween Aboriginal people and other Australians, including what work Aboriginal people could do, who they could marry and where they could travel, were put in place across the country throughout the 19th century (for more information see the Timeline of Australia’s shared history). The first laws started in 1816, when Governor Macquarie announced a set of regulations that meant no Aboriginal person was allowed to appear armed with any weapon within a mile of any settlement and no more than six Aboriginal people are allowed to ‘lurk or loiter near farms’.

    As a result, some Aboriginal people became fringe dwellers on the outskirts of cities and towns, while others managed a meagre living in the casual labour force of rural and outback Australia. They were no longer allowed to live as they had done for tens of thousands of years, but neither were they able to become equal partners and citizens in the wider society that had taken their land. The expansion of the colony away from the coast and beyond the Great Dividing Range is often celebrated as a crowning achievement of resiliance and a testament to Australia’s ‘explorers’ and colonialists’ skill.

    History should record that Aboriginal people conscripted into service of such explorers provided knowledge of the geography and natural resources needed to traverse and survive this harsh continent. Without Aboriginal guides many of the celebrated explorers would quite simply have perished or been killed by hostile Aboriginal people. As more territory was opened up and new colonies established the violence and bloodshed continued, Aboriginal peoples strongly resisted having their land taken away from them.

    Countless specific examples can be seen in the Timeline, including the Myall Creek massacre, where 28 Aboriginal old men, women and children were butchered. At no stage did the government attempt something like a treaty with Aboriginal peoples. In fact in 1835 when a pioneer, John Batman, attempted to make a ‘treaty’ with Aboriginal people for land at Port Phillip Bay, Governor Bourke did not recognise the ‘treaty’ and the purchase was voided.

    When the colonies federated as the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, Indigenous people were written out of the constitution – they were not to be counted in the census and the Commonwealth Parliament did not have power to make laws for them. Aboriginal people were officially excluded from the vote, public service, the Armed Forces and pensions. The White Australia Policy defined Australia as White. This policy was not abolished until 1972. Assimilation policies

    In the 1930s, by which time it was apparent that Indigenous people would not simply die out of their own accord, the Commonwealth Government adopted a policy which said that Indigenous people ‘not of full blood’ should be absorbed and ‘assimilated’ into the wider population. The aim of assimilation was to make the ‘Aboriginal problem’ gradually disappear so that Aboriginal people would lose their identity to the wider community. Laws had already been passed, similar to protectionist type policies, like the Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (NSW), which gave the State the power to remove Aboriginal children from their families.

    These types of laws created what is now referred to as the ‘Stolen Generations’ – Aboriginal Children stolen from their families and placed under the care of the state. See the ‘Stolen Generations’ Issue page for further information. National Indigenous political movements Despite the many injustices being committed by government and private individuals alike, countless numbers of people continued to work to organise the resistance against dispossession and injustice. In 1925 the Australian Aboriginal Progress Association (AAPA) was established.

    The AAPA was the ‘first Aboriginal political organisation to create formal links between communities over a wide area’. It was important because of the role it played in planting political seeds that flowered in future generations of Indigenous political leaders in south-eastern Australia. The AAPA campaigned for “freehold title to land, the cessation of the removal of Aboriginal children and the abolition of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board (APB)”. In the 1930s the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) was also established.

    The AAL’s first campaign involved organising a petition to send to King George in the United Kingdom. In 1937 the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) was also established, coordinating intense political organising on Aboriginal reserves and communities in the north and west of NSW. In 1937 APA joined forces with AAL to unite behind calls for the abolishment of the Government’s NSW Aboriginal Protection Board. In 1938 the two groups organised a ‘Day of Mourning’ on Australia Day, forming one of the first major Aboriginal political protests against inequality, injustice, ispossession of land and protectionist policies. Land Rights In the 1940s the fight for Indigenous workers rights began to increase and attract publicity. In 1946 there was a large-scale strike of Aboriginal stock workers (many of whom did not receive a wage at all) in the Pilbara in WA, involving an estimated 600 workers and affecting 6,500 square miles of sheep faming country. Due to the courage and strength of those Aboriginal Australians, their demands for better pay were eventually met. In November 1950, there was a strike by Aboriginal workers in Darwin, with the support of the union movement.

    Leaders of the strike were jailed and sentenced to hard labour. In 1966 stockmen and women at Wave Hill led by Vincent Lingiari walked-off in protest against intolerable working conditions and inadequate wages. They established a camp at Watti Creek and demanded the return of some of their traditional lands. The Gurindji strike was not the first or the only demand by Aborigines for the return of their lands – but it was the first one to attract wide public support within Australia for Land Rights.

    It led to the 1972 Labour Party’s policy on Land Rights and the enactment of the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act – the first statutory recognition of the inalienable right Indigenous people have to this land. In 1975 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handed back title of the traditional land back to the Gurindji people. While legislation provided some rights to Indigenous people, the legal myth that Australia was ‘terra nullius’ (see above) continued.

    Indigenous people continued to fight for recognition of their traditional rights, and in 1992 a major land rights victory was won through the courts. In 1992 the High Court of Australia ruled in the Mabo case that native title exists over particular kinds of land – unalienated Crown land, national parks and reserves – and that Australia was never ‘terra nullius’. This single ruling overturned a legal and historical lie that had stood for more than two centuries. For more information on the land rights struggle – see the Land Rights Issues page on the website. 960s-1970s activism In the mid to late 1950s a non-Indigenous Australian, Jessie Street, began the campaign for a referendum for Aboriginal people to be included in the Australian census. Her petition was read in the House of Representatives on 14 May. In 1958 the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) was formed. Its membership included Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and had links in different states. The Council’s main aim was to push for a referendum.

    To do this FCAATSI crusaded tirelessly, obtaining as many signatures as they could to present the petition to Parliament, as a basis to hold a vote on whether there should be a referendum. In 1965 Aboriginal activist Charles Kumantjayi Perkins and Reverend Ted Noffs of the Wayside Chapel organised a “Freedom Ride” with 30 white Sydney University students from the group Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA). The bus went to some of NSW’s most notoriously racist country towns, creating a wealth of publicity at a domestic and international level on the injustices Indigenous Australians were suffering.

    In the mid-1960s after leading the successful Freedom Ride through northern NSW, Charlie Perkins then teamed up with former wharfie Chicka Dixon and set up the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs (FAA) in Sydney. It also provided a political platform for Perkins, Dixon and others to agitate about issues such as the 1967 referendum and land rights. 1967 formed the culmination of the work of FCAATSI and groups like the FAA, as 91% of Australian voters voted YES in a Referendum to count Aboriginal people in the census and give the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal people.

    Although the referendum represented a major victory for Aboriginal activism in this country, there was no time to rest. The failure of this event to lead to any concrete change led to further protest as the Aboriginal political voice strengthened. The Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs became the focal point where the next generation of Aboriginal political activists, inspired by the black power movement in the US, first met each other and became interested and involved in the political struggle. The experience in the US provided a stimulus and a model for the movement.

    They were motivated about all kinds of critical issues around inequality and injustice, including land rights, racism by police and other areas of government, deaths in custody and a wealth of other specific areas. Their work led to amongst other things, the establishment of the first shop-front, legal aid centre in Australia, later named the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service. In the early 1970’s, Paul Coe, a prominent figure in the Aboriginal rights movement, gave an extremely powerful speech at the biggest of the Anti-Vietnam Moratorium rallies in Sydney.

    Coe criticized the protestors for being prepared to turn out en masse in support the oppressed people in another country whilst turning a blind eye to those at home. Coe famously said: ‘You raped our women, you stole our land, you massacred our ancestors, you destroyed our culture, and now – when we refused to die out as you expected – you want to kill us with your hypocrisy…” The work of these activists led to, in 1972, the famous Aboriginal ‘tent embassy’ being established outside Parliament house in Canberra.

    This again placed the struggle for justice and self determination onto the international political stage. 1980s activism In 1987, as a result of the tireless work of Aboriginal activists continually bringing the issue onto the national agenda, Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke finally set up a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in response to the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration and death in prisons and police lockups. It is the most comprehensive investigation of Aboriginal experience in Australia ever.

    The report makes 339 recommendations to change Australian systems at every point of contact with Aboriginal people, and recommends that reconciliation between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in Australia must be achieved if community division, discord and injustice to Aboriginal people are to be avoided. Many governments made commitments to respond to the report’s recommendations, and many changes were made to the way that Indigenous prisoners are treated. 20 years on, the rate of imprisonment of Indigenous people has not improved. Meanwhile, the grass-roots movement continued.

    In the 1980s under the Hawke Labor Government, the ‘Come to Canberra Campaign’ brought joint land councils from the Northern Territory and the States to Parliament House, Canberra to protest against the proposed changes to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act of the Northern Territory and the inadequate provisions in the Hawke visions of ‘Uniform National Land Rights’. In January 1988, the bicentennial, there was a huge march in Sydney on Australia Day where an estimated 20,000 Aboriginal people join their supporters from the trade unions, the churches, ethnic groups and the wider community, in a demonstration of survival.

    A joint statement signed by respective groups calls for Aboriginal rights, including a secure land base. ‘Self determination’? 1972 saw a radical shift in Commonwealth government policy with the election of the Whitlam Labor Government. It immediately acted to abolish the White Australia Policy, and set up the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. It also heeded calls coming from the tent embassy and other Indigenous activists by establishing important legal and health services around Australia.

    In December 1972, the Whitlam Government froze all applications for mining and exploration on Commonwealth Aboriginal reserves. At the time, this new policy was termed ‘self determination’. Self determination in this context is basically the right of Aboriginal people to have a concrete role in making the important decisions regarding their future. Following the sacking of the Whitlam Government a large number of the Indigenous rights initiatives were continued under the Liberal Fraser Government, including the official policy of self-determination.

    Finally, in 1989 the Government supported an elected national Indigenous organisation, with the enactment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission (ATSIC) Act. The Act provided a national elected representative structure for Commonwealth Aboriginal Affairs. It was one of the most amended pieces of legislation in the history of the Commonwealth Parliament. ATSIC existed until 2006, when it was abolished by the conservative Liberal Government. Reconciliation In 1990 the government adopted a policy of reconciliation.

    In 1991 it set up the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR), under the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act. The Council’s job was to “establish a formal process of reconciliation between Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians” by the year 2001. The Council undertook a major program of education, to help raise awareness about Indigenous Australians, and encouraged members of the community to get active to promote positive race relations in their local communities.

    In 1992, the same year as the Mabo decision, Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating launched the Australian celebration of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1993), with a speech accepting responsibility for past mistreatment of Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal Australians and calling for reconciliation. The speech beame known as the ‘Redfern Park speech’. He said: “The message should be that there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include Indigenous Australians”.

    While many people were supportive of the move towards reconciliation, many Indigenous leaders were skeptical. The decision to adopt a policy of reconciliation was seen as a comprise, after the long campaign for Indigenous rights and the protests of 1988 has put increasing pressure on the former Prime Minister Bob Hawke to recognise the rights of Indigenous people. Hawke had famously announced that there would be a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. However, after strong resistance from within his own government he backed down from this announcement and instead a compromise was reached with Indigenous leaders.

    This compromise was to establish the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and to start a process of consultation to develop a national document, which may or may lead to a treaty. In 2000, on the eve of the Centenary of Federation, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation’s reconciliation work culminated in the largest display of Australian public support for reconciliation in the walk over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. An estimated half a million people filled over Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Opera House, to show their support. This simple but very powerful gesture was mirrored in towns and cities across Australia.

    Shortly afterwards the Council presented its final report as promised – the Roadmap to Reconciliation to the new Prime Minister John Howard. Among other things, the Roadmap called for a national apology to Aboriginal people for past injustices. The Howard Government did not embrace the Roadmap or capitalise on public sentiment. In 2001 the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was dismantled and replaced with Reconciliation Australia, a smaller organisation with a narrower focus. A network of state and local reconciliation organisations also continued, though mainly as volunteer groups with minimal funding.

    The Government did not adopt the Council’s recommendations, which recognised Indigenous rights as the basis for reconciliation, and instead adopted a policy of practical reconciliation. For more information about the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and the different approaches to reconciliation see the Reconciliation Issues page. Wik and the 1996 election In 1996, there was an important native title case – Wik. The Wik case was won by the Wik people of Cape York in Queensland and the Thayorre people. In the Wik case the court found that just because land had been leased to farmers pastoral land) this didn’t mean that native title over the same land had been extinguished. Native title rights could ‘co-exist’ alongside rights of pastoralists on cattle and sheep stations. The Wik case opened the way for Indigenous people to make claims over large parts of Australia but the court also said that when pastoralists and Aboriginal rights were in conflict, the pastoralists’ rights would prevail, giving pastoralists certainty to continue with grazing and related activities but not ‘exclusive possession’ of the land.

    Despite that fact that pastoralists did not really lose any rights, the Wik decision led to a hysterical attack from farmers and conservative leaders, who demanded that native title be extinguished, or wiped out, on pastoral leases altogether. The Liberal Party under soon to be Prime Minister John Howard capitalised on that hysteria and insitituted a ‘10-Point Plan’. The plan wound back many of the native title gains of the past. Explaining the government’s position on ABC TV, Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer said the legislation would provide “bucket loads of extinguishment”.

    In the words of Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson the changes “ripped the heart out” of the earlier Native Title legislation, which had been developed by the previous Prime Minister Paul Keating, and massively reduced the rights of Indigenous people. The 1996 election was also marked by ugly race politics stirred up by Queensland MP Pauline Hanson. Ms Hanson had been kicked out of the Liberal Party for racist comments. Ms Hanson claimed that Aboriginal people were getting a better deal than non-Indigenous people through government handouts, and that the Indigenous representative body ATSIC was corrupt.

    She also warned that Australia was “in danger of being swamped by Asians. ” The conservative Howard Government was elected, and began a process of significantly changing the direction of Indigenous policy in Australia. Stolen Generations On 26 May 1997 a report was tabled in Federal Parliament that shook Australia. Bringing Them Home detailed painful evidence of the removal of thousands of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander children from their families and was a result of a lengthy investigation by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

    Exactly one year later, a National Sorry Day – a day for the wider Australian community to remember and commemorate those affected by removal, so that the nation could continue the process of healing together- was launched. The day is a chance for all Australians to recognise the pain thousands of Aboriginal people went through and is marked by hundreds of activities around the country. The Howard Government did not take part in ‘Sorry Day’, saying people who removed Aboriginal children thought they were doing the right thing and people now should not have to say sorry for what people did in the past.

    The Howard Years (1996-2007) The Howard Government was not supportive of the direction that Indigenous policy was moving, and did not support the rights of Indigenous people to their traditional lands, or their rights to manage their own affairs (self determination). Over its term the Howard Government removed an increasing number of powers from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), and in 2004 abolished it, dissolving it as the body with ‘specific functions and responsibilities for matters involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians’.

    ATSIC was replaced with the National Indigenous Council as the Government’s (hand picked) principle means of consultation on Indigenous Affairs. At the time the government said it preferred to deal with individuals, rather than an elected body. The Howard Government continued to refuse to apologise to the Stolen Generations. Its policy of practical reconciliation continued, with a focus on provising practical services and on the ‘responsibilities’ of Indigenous people.

    The shared responsibility policy was a move away from self-determinationm, and resulted in the transfer of funding from many Indigenous organisations to mainstream organisations. In 2007 Australia was one of only a handful of countries that refused to sign the International Declaration of Indigenous Peoples, which recognised the right to self-determination all Indigenous peoples. In 2006 the Howard Government undertook a major intervention into the Northern Territory, in response to shocking reports of abuse of Indigenous children.

    The intervention was critised by Indigenous leaders who complained that the Indigenous communities had not been listened to, and because the actions of government would not help to fix the problems. As part of the intervention changes were made to land rights legislation in the Northern Territory which further wound back rights. For more information about the intervention see the Latest News page. In 2007 a new national Labor Government was elected. During the election campaign the Labor leader

    Kevin Rudd argued that its government would support self-determination, but would maintain a focus on shared responsibility in reconciliation. Elected Indigenous representation Indigenous people have a strong history of activism inside as well as outside of Parliament. The first Indigenous person elected to the Australian Parliament was Neville Bonner (1971-1983), followed by Aden Ridgeway (1999-2005). The representation of Indigenous people at the state and local level has been much stronger, with hundreds of Indigenous people elected across the country.

    In NSW for example more than 2% of Local Councillors are Indigenous, reflecting the number of Indigenous people in the community. In NSW Linda Burney became the first Aboriginal person to be elected to NSW Parliament in 2003. In 2007 she became a Minister and the Vice-President of the Australian Labor Party. In November 2007 Aboriginal Northern Territory politicians Marion Scrymgour was elected Deputy Leader of the Northern Territory Government – the most senior Indigenous politician in Australian history.

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