Reading 14: Voices: Positive changes and develop-ments

Positive changes and developments

Not all policies and changes were negative for Aboriginal people and nor were Aboriginal people passive bystanders; on many levels they had resisted oppressive government policies and actions. Aboriginal people fought for issues such as equal wages in the pastoral industry, improvements in education and housing, and for land rights (Hollinsworth 1992).

Issues that were regarded as critical included citizenship, land rights and cultural revival. In 1940 William Cooper, as the president of the Aborigines Progression Association, wrote to the governor-general pleading for full citizenship for Aboriginal people (Prentis 2009). Debates about legislation, citizen¬ship and land rights continued until the 1970s when the large socioeconomic gap between Aboriginal people and other Australian citizens became so wide that the government of the time acknowledged that it had to be addressed. The Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA, later FCCATSI) was established in 1958. This national organisation represented Aboriginal people and mounted a range of political campaigns. These included a petition for constitutional change that led to the 1967 referendum, as well as demanding full integration and advocating for land and land rights. In 1965 Aboriginal activist, Charles Perkins, along with Chicka Dixon, led the Freedom Ride movement in New South Wales.

A group of students joined the activists on a bus ride across New South Wales to raise awareness about the levels of disadvantage and racism experienced by Aboriginal people, and to unite against oppressive social policies. The Freedom Ride, which was influenced by the Black Panthers and the American civil rights movement, led to significant publicity about Aboriginal disadvantage, elevating the issue, which quickly became a national political issue (Curthoys 2002). The introduction of some key social reforms from the late 1960s was a turning point for the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia. In May 1967, a consti¬tutional referendum to include Indigenous people in the national census and to enable the Commonwealth Government to make laws on Aboriginal affairs passed with a 'Yes' vote of almost 91 per cent. Before 1967, Aboriginal Affairs was a state responsibility and the Commonwealth Government was only in charge of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. The successful 1967 referendum led to Australian Aboriginals being recognised for the first time as full citizens in their own coun¬try, after 200 years of colonisationl settlement (Neill 2002).

This also meant that Indigenous people could for the first time be counted in the Census. In 1969 Aboriginal stockmen went on strike at Wave Hill, Northern Territory, to protest about unequal wages. This protest turned into the first sustained land rights claim. Having repeatedly rejected Aboriginal claims of equal pay for equal work during the 1930s and 1940s, the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission finally granted these Aboriginal stockmen award wages. The decision had a flow-on effect nationally for other employed Aboriginal people.

Our Voices
Aboriginal and Torress Strait Islander Social Work
Edited by Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert and Down Bessarab

 

The Aboriginal tent embassy

The Aboriginal tent embassy was erected on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra in 1972 by a group of Aboriginal activists. The embassy was established in response to the refusal by the Coalition government of William McMahon to rec¬ognise Aboriginal land rights. The McMahon government had favoured conditional leases on the land on the condition that Aboriginal people made economic use of the land. The government also wanted to exclude all rights to minerals and forests on traditional lands (Ranzijn, McConnochie & Nolan 2009). The Aboriginal tent embassy promotes Aboriginal rights and sovereignty. The embassy continues the fight for land and mineral rights, political control of certain sacred sites and compensation for land that was stolen from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These demands have been denied by all past and present gov¬ernments (Prentis 2009).

In 1995, the site was added to the Australian Register of the National Estate as the only Aboriginal site in Australia that is recognised nationally as a site that represents the political struggle of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The tent embassy has been contentious politically and has been fire-bombed on several occasions. At the site there is a sacred fire that represents peace, justice and sovereignty. It has been kept alight since 1998 and remains a very powerful public symbol for Aboriginal human rights.

Our Voices
Aboriginal and Torress Strait Islander Social Work
Edited by Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert and Down Bessarab

Self-Determination and Self Managemen

In 1972 the federal Labor government led by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam adopted the policy of'self-determination' for Indigenous communities. The aim of the policy was for Aboriginal communities to decide the pace and nature of their future development. Self-determination recognised that Aboriginal people had a right to be involved in decision-making about their own lives. Under this policy the government established organisations such as the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Aboriginal Legal Aid, Aboriginal medical services and housing schemes (Westerman 1997). The federal Liberal coalition government led by Malcolm Fraser, which came to power in late 1975, adopted the policy of 'self-management', which expected Indigenous communities to manage locally funded government projects. Self-management, however, did not necessarily mean self-determination in that com¬munities could influence the type of projects to be created. From 1983-1996 the Labor governments led by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating used both self-determination and self-management as key principles in their Indigenous affairs policies.

Our Voices
Aboriginal and Torress Strait Islander Social Work
Edited by Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert and Down Bessarab

Land rights

In 1976, the federal government passed land rights legislation for Aboriginal Peoples in the Northern Territory. Most other states also have some form of land rights legislation in place, although the degree of control given to Indigenous peoples over the land differs significantly from state to state.

Our Voices
Aboriginal and Torress Strait Islander Social Work
Edited by Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert and Down Bessarab

 

1990s

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was established in 1987 to identity why so many Aboriginal people were dying in prison. Between January 1980 and May 1989, 99 Aboriginal people had died in custody. The Commission made 339 recommendations and addressed issues such as unemployment, low levels of economic development, welfare dependency, health issues and cultural deprivation (Commission 1991).

In 1990 the Hawke government established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).ATSIC was the Australian government body through which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were formally involved in those processes of government that affected their lives. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs and organisations were managed and funded under the auspices of ATSIC. ATSIC was subsequently defunded under the Howard government, who on advice considered ATSI C to be ineffective in representing Aboriginal Australians.

In 1991 the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was legislatively established, commencing a 10-year period of reconciliation across Australia, with 25 Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of the Council appointed by the government. The Council was required to promote reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the wider Australian community. At the end of its 10-year period, the Council was required to make recommendations to the government on actions for achieving reconciliation. The Council developed a declaration towards reconciliation, a Roadmap for Reconciliation, which contained four national strategies and a final report titled Reconciliation: Australia's Challenge, which sets out a comprehensive program of activities to address the 'unfinished business' of reconciliation. The Council's propos¬als relate to four areas: achieving economic independence, overcoming Indigenous disadvantage, recognising Indigenous rights and sustaining the reconciliation process (Reconciliation Australia website, <http://www.reconciliation.org.au/> ).

Our Voices
Aboriginal and Torress Strait Islander Social Work
Edited by Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert and Down Bessarab

Reconciliation Australia was established by the Council in December 2000 to carry forward the reconciliation movement. Not everyone is supportive of reconcili¬ation, saying that it is only a 'tick box' for organisations in particular to meet and then ignore the real process that would be required to achieve stated outcomes.

An outcome of reconciliation and pressure from the wider community to acknowledge the Stolen Generations was the establishment of Sorry Day. Sorry Day has taken place on 26 February every year since 1998 and involves memorial ser¬vices, commemorative meetings, survival celebrations and community celebrations to acknowledge and pay respect to the past and present members of the Stolen Generations «www.nsdc.org.au> 2012).

In 1992, Eddie Koiki Mabo, a Torres Strait Islander man, mounted a challenge to the notion of terra nullius in the High Court of Australia. Mabo's challenge was successful, resulting in the High Court rejecting the longstanding doctrine and rec¬ognising that Aboriginal people were the first inhabitants. Now known as Mabo, this ground-breaking decision refers to two judgments in the High Court of Australia that, by overturning the notion of terra nullius, provided Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the opportunity to pursue Native Title.

The Native Title Act (1993) found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who can prove a continuing connection with their land according to their traditions and customs, can apply for Native Title to have their rights to land under traditional law recognised in Australian law. To do this involves a prolonged and lengthy process of providing evidence to establish continuous connection to land. Aboriginal people have had their Native Title rights recognised under Australian law. There are still many groups who are fighting to be recognised.

Whenever land was transferred by the Crown to other forms of title, Native Title was extinguished at the time. This means that private land cannot be subject to Native Title. However, in the situation of pastoral land, this was still unclear. This issue of whether pastoral leases extinguished Native Title was examined by the High Court in the Wik decision (Ranzijn, McConnochie & Nolan 2009). In 1996 the Wik decision was passed with the High Court of Australia deciding that Native Title could coexist with pastoral rights or leases. This meant that Aboriginal people could claim Native Title over pastoral land. In situations where pastoral rights conflict with Aboriginal rights, pastoral rights still take precedence (Ranzijn, McConnochie & Nolan 2009).

Rights of Indigenous peoples

Since the 1970s the United Nations has increasingly become an international site where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can discuss discrimination and abuse of their rights. The declaration of the rights ofIndigenous peoples (2007) took over 20 years of negotiation by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other Indigenous peoples, human rights experts and governments. This declaration is sig­nificant not only for the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who fought for it, but because they were also involved in the drafting of the declara­tion (Australian Human Rights Commission 2012). The Declaration describes a set of principles that are based on equality, partnership, consultation and cooperation between Indigenous peoples and governments. The Declaration recognises that Indigenous people have the right to self-determination, rights to traditional lands and to Indigenous institutions. Although not a legal document, the principles of partner­ship and cooperation are important for social workers who work for social justice and are committed to challenging systemic discrimination (United Nations 2007).

Our Voices
Aboriginal and Torress Strait Islander Social Work
Edited by Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert and Down Bessarab