While the Referendum to vote on the proposal to bring the Indigenous Voice to Parliament is an important moment, we should appreciate that this point has arrived more than 250 years since James Cook claimed ownership of the Australian east coast.
The objectives of the Uluru Statement From the Heart are to pave the way for self-determination and give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the permanent and protected right to participate in legislative and political decision-making.
Many Australian people may be unaware that a treaty between First Nations people and the Australian government still does not exist–making it essential to grasp the timeline that shows how the rights, entitlements, and ownership of the land were stripped from Indigenous people and have yet to be restored.
Understanding Aboriginal Rights in Australia
Before we look at a timeline of the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it is necessary to understand the context behind the Referendum.
First Nations people have lived in Australia for between 45,000 and 60,000 years. Irrespective of the debate between historians, there is no ambiguity that Indigenous people had lived on the land for millennia before the country was invaded.
The Impacts of Colonisation
Thus began an extended period of severe injustice, where Aboriginal people were subjected to massacres, the forced removal of their children, and displacement from the land and their homes. They were refused the ability to practise their cultures and beliefs. When we understand aspects of life such as the yarning circle meaning, it becomes clear how colonisation transformed the lives of so many and denied even the most fundamental citizenship rights.
In 1901, the Constitution of the newly federated Australia removed First Nations people from the census, and they were prohibited from participating in law-making. This remained the case until as recently as 1967.
Next, we’ll look at the timeline from the national Referendum to show how the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been reinstated in a painfully slow process that has yet to make reparations or begin to attempt to restore the many injustices of the recent past.
Australia’s 1967 National Referendum
This Referendum resulted in a vote to amend the Australian Constitution, recognising the existence of Aboriginal people in the census but giving the Commonwealth the power to make laws that directly affect First Nations people.
By 1969, all Australian states had abolished legislation that allowed them to remove Aboriginal children from their families. It took another two years for the first Aboriginal Senator to be sworn in when Neville Bonner was appointed in 1971.
The Racial Discrimination Act 1975
Perhaps surprisingly, racial discrimination was legal in Australia until the Act was passed in 1975, meaning that discrimination against First Nations citizens in employment, healthcare, housing, and education was the norm.
In 1976, parliament passed The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, which recognised the ownership of land by Indigenous people, and gave land rights to around 11,000 people whose land, in many cases, had been under the custodianship of their ancestors for generations. This reform was followed by the first-ever elections in the Northern Territory in 1987, when Aboriginal people were required to vote.
Creation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation
In 1991, the Commonwealth Government established the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. To date, there has been no formal reconciliation process, despite original statements that the Council intended to begin this work by 2001.
Bob Hawke, prime minister from 1983 to 1991, promised that a treaty would be negotiated with First Nations people by 1990–another pledge that has never materialised. However, the Native Title Act of 1993 introduced new laws to permit Indigenous people to claim land ownership in limited circumstances, reclaiming land stolen from them or their family members. The Act was amended in 1998 and continues to place restrictions on scenarios in which claims to land title will be considered.
The Social Justice and Native Title Reports of 2001
These reports were presented to parliament in 2002, expressing deep concerns about the lack of progress in recognising and securing Indigenous rights. The Social Justice Commission publicly criticised the Australian government in 2003 for failing to offer societal and financial reparations for the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In 2008, the federal government at last publicly apologised, following significant pressure, and established the National Congress of Australia’s First People a year later. Over recent years, some progress has been made, including the Act of Recognition Bill in 2012. However, should the Referendum at the end of this year result in approval, it will be the most influential and substantive change in Aboriginal rights for many, many decades.