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Activism and Representation

Fred Maynard founded the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) in 1924 in New South Wales. It organised street rallies, regional and metropolitan meetings, letter-writing campaigns and petitions. Its demands still strike a chord today: Aboriginal rights to land, stopping Aboriginal children being taken from their families, and defending a distinct Aboriginal cultural identity.

Strikes and protests

In January 1936, the Torres Strait Islanders working on the company boats fishing in the Strait went on strike, protesting against the constraints they experienced under the Aboriginal Protection Act. It was non-violent and organised secretly, and led to the Torres Strait Islanders Act 1939.

On 26 January 1938, we observed the first ‘Day of Mourning’. William Cooper encouraged John Patten and William Ferguson, leaders of the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), to organise a protest. A later deputation presented the Prime Minister with a proposed national policy for Aboriginal people but this was rejected. We now remember 26 January as ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Survival Day’.

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Assimilation

In 1939, John McEwen, the Commonwealth Minister for the Interior, announced a ‘New Deal’. This was the first announcement of assimilation as a Commonwealth government policy. The idea was a shift to social and cultural assimilation from the idea of biological absorption.

In 1951, Paul Hasluck, as Commonwealth Minister for Territories, introduced a new policy of assimilation, which was adopted by the states.

In December 1972, the Whitlam government cast aside assimilation as Commonwealth government policy. Self-determination was introduced. This completed the shift in policy development — from protection to assimilation to self-determination.

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Citizenship

After the 1940s various state governments gave citizenship rights to some of us, on condition that we gave up our traditional lives and stayed away from other Aboriginal people. People who received citizenship papers were no longer considered to be Aboriginal.

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The 1967 Referendum

A valiant campaign was fought by Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) and others to encourage the Australian people to accept a referendum to change the Constitution. The change allowed Aboriginal people to be included in the census, and to enable the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It was hoped this would allow the federal government to better protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The referendum was passed in all six states in 1967, with a 90.77 per cent ‘Yes’ vote. It remains one of the most successful national campaigns in our history.

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Right to vote

A few of us could vote before Federation in 1901, and retained that right. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 gave us the right to register and vote, but voting was not compulsory. Full voting rights were granted federally when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were required to register on the electoral roll in 1984.

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New protests and the move towards land rights

The ‘Freedom Ride’ in 1965 was a bus tour of outback New South Wales led by Charles Perkins. It was based on the US Freedom Rides and caused enormous controversy as Australians were shown the true nature of segregation and race relations.

In 1963 the Yolngu people of Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land presented a bark petition to the Commonwealth Parliament. These were the first traditional documents recognised by the Commonwealth Parliament. They combined traditional bark painting with text typed on paper in English and Gumatj. The painted designs proclaim Yolngu Law, revealing the people’s traditional relationship to the land. They didn’t achieve the constitutional change, but the Yolngu helped pave the way for the recognition of Indigenous rights in Australian law.

The following court case, the Gove Land Rights Case in 1971, ended with the court rejecting the Rirratjingu clan’s claim. The judge was bound by early decisions that said that regardless of the facts, as a matter of British law, Aboriginal people had no recognisable system of law.

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The Tent Embassy

Tired of having legitimate claims denied, on Australia Day 1972 a number of Indigenous activists erected a tent on the lawns of Old Parliament House in Canberra. They created a petition: a plan addressing Aboriginal ownership of land, preservation of sacred sites, compensation, and statehood for the Northern Territory.

Despite attempts to dismantle it, the Embassy remains on the lawns of Old Parliament House and is a centre of protest and the starting point for marches to Parliament. It remains as a thorn in the side of the Australian conscience, reminding Australians that the work of forging a treaty has hardly begun.

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Deaths in custody

In 1987 a Royal Commission investigated the social, cultural and legal issues involved in the deaths of Indigenous Australians while in police custody and prison. The 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report provides harrowing reading. Aboriginal deaths in custodial environments are still alarmingly high and few of the report’s recommendations have been carried out.

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Working through organisations

FCAATSI, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, took a leading role in the success of the 1967 referendum. After the referendum win, FCAATSI became an all-Indigenous body.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, ATSIC, was established in 1987 by the Australian government. It combined some existing government organisations and took on the functions of the federal departments of Aboriginal Affairs, the Aboriginal Development Commission and Aboriginal Hostels. Earlier attempts to involve us included the National Aboriginal Conference and, before that, the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee.

Governments created all three organisations, with little input from our communities. They were constrained by government legislation, and funding was generally inadequate.

ATSIC was disbanded in March 2004 without consultation with Aboriginal leaders. Even if flawed, ATSIC was blamed for failures that were outside its responsibilities and obligations.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd abolished the National Indigenous Council created by the Howard federal government and began consultations to establish a new organisation.

Aboriginal Land Councils are regional organisations made up of people elected from the communities. They assist people getting back on country, consult with landowners, help resolve land disputes and protect Aboriginal culture and sacred sites.

Community councils were established on most islands in the Torres Strait early in 1899. Although they had limited powers, they were made up of local people. Today the Torres Strait Regional Authority has twenty elected board members.

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The Mabo case and the Native Title Act

In 1982, Edward Koiki Mabo and fellow Mer Islanders (the Reverend Dave Passi, Celuia Salee and James Rice) launched a case in the High Court. In an historic judgment ten years later, the Court held that Meriam people possess rights to their traditional lands and that these rights should be recognised and protected by Australian law. The Mer Islander action followed the earlier unsuccessful legal action. There are many cases still to be heard and many elders will not see the day their lands are returned.

The subsequent Commonwealth government legislation is called the Native Title Act 1993 and was the result of much negotiation and parliamentary debate. By the end of December 2007, the courts had recognised 74 native title claims, covering a total area of 785 686 square kilometres, with a total of 508 claimant applications still active.

The potential of the native title law to recognise the rights of all Indigenous people has been reduced by judges’ decisions. Alternative forms of resolution have been sought. Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs) have emerged for developing ongoing relationships with government and industry. By the end of 2007, 310 ILUAs had been registered. They include a range of issues like health, education, governance, and land and sea management.

Native title remains a form of ‘justice in transition’. It needs careful review to make it a fairer, faster and more workable system.

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Bringing Them Home: Admitting that generations
were stolen

The Bringing Them Home report in 1997 was published by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. It detailed the laws and practices that allowed our children to be taken from their families, and included many case studies. These contest the claims made by some non-Indigenous Australians that the removal of our children was in their own interests.

Almost all of us have had a relative, including close family members, damaged by this policy. While some children benefited from being removed from dysfunctional families, in general, removal was not in the child’s best interests. The institutions and church missions they were taken to suppressed the children’s knowledge about their own families, language and culture. In some places discipline was often harshly enforced.

Much of the pain continues because of the length of the separation; sometimes up to fifty years. Link-Up is one of several organisations that now provide support to people searching for their families.

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Stolen wages

From the late 1800s and through much of the twentieth century, governments controlled most aspects of our lives, including our wages, pensions and endowments. Often we received only a portion of what was due to us. Much of the remaining money was kept in various trust funds. Often it was mismanaged or diverted to other government programs, a fact pointed out to various governments but ignored. Our families were never shown what was owed them. This practice is now called ‘stolen wages’ and while the Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australian state governments are taking action, for many families it will be a case of ‘too little, too late’. In mid-2006, the Commonwealth Parliament set up a Senate inquiry. To date, no action has been taken on the findings.

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A Treaty?

There has never been a negotiated settlement to transfer lands and sovereignty from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to the British and now Australian colonial state. Various models of regional approaches have been investigated. Constitutional recognition, however, would be insufficient. A treaty, or treaty framework, would be expected to involve a settlement of land and governance issues, and could result in greater involvement of some Indigenous communities in their regions’ governance. It would also be likely to involve a more broad-based approach to settling land issues than the current native title process. This would include compensation.

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Torres Strait Treaty

The Torres Strait Treaty was signed in 1978 between Australia and Papua New Guinea. It defines the boundaries between the two countries and outlines how the sea area may be used. It also allocates over the ‘Protected Zone’, which covers about two-thirds of the Torres Strait.

 

Excerpt fromThe Little Red Yellow Black Book by Bruce Pascoe with AIATSIS.