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This second part of the statement addresses the struggle for self-determination, some of the principal government decisions, High Court judgements and Inquiries and the “Price of Disempowerment” including the outcomes of marginalisation.

Struggle for Self-Determination by First Nations Peoples and Government policies

Indigenous people began organising and advocating for their rights in the early 20th century. The first national Indigenous organization, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, was formed in 1928 and the Aborigines’ Advancement League in 1932. The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) was formed in 1958 to repeal discriminatory legislation at state and federal levels, amend the federal constitution to enable the Commonwealth Government to legislate for Aborigines, improve the lives of Aboriginal people through housing, equal pay, education and adequate rations in remote areas and advocate equal pay for equal work.

In 1965 a group of students from Sydney University led by Charles Perkins travelled through regional New South Wales. The 15-day bus journey, the “Freedom Ride”, drew national and international attention to the appalling living conditions and racism faced by Aboriginal people

The 1967 referendum amending the Constitution to allow Indigenous people to be counted in population censuses was passed by about 97 per cent of voters after a strong campaign achieving bipartisan support.

The struggle for land rights increased in the 1980s. In 1988 Prime Minister Hawke promised a treaty between the government and Aboriginal people on behalf of all Australians. But it never eventuated. The promise informed the Yothu Yindi song “Treaty”.

1n 1996 Gurindji stockmen and families, led by Vincent Lingiari, walked off the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory owned by Lord Vestey. The strike became known as the “Wave Hill Walk-Off”.  The primary demand was for return of some of the traditional lands. It was not simply a strike against working and living conditions.  The Whitlam Government brokered an agreement with the Vestey Group and in August 1975 Prime Minister Whitlam was able to give the rights to the claimed land back to the people in a famous ceremony as he poured soil into the hands of Lingiari who responded, “We all mates now”. The events are the subject of the song, “From Little Things Big Things Grow” written by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody in 1991. Traditional owners were granted native title over 5,000 sqkm of Wave Hill Station in 2020.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was established by the Commonwealth Parliament, with unanimous cross-party support, as a statutory body under the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act in 1991. A number of Committees to consider reconciliation have been established in the last 30 years.

Landmark judgements on land rights were given by the High Court in the 1990s. (See below.) Those resulted in Native Title legislation specifying conditions under which land would be returned to Indigenous ownership.

The Mabo judgement in the High Court[1] recognised the fallacy of Terra Nullius that no title to land existed at the time of first arrivals of Europeans. After the subsequent Wik judgement[2] which addressed pastoral leases and native title rights, every effort was made to wind back the gains achieved for Indigenous peoples by guaranteeing certainty for pastoral interests.

In 2000, 250,000 people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of reconciliation. There were subsequent walks in other parts of Australia.

The Coalition

The Coalition has had great difficulty with these issues. Prime Minister Howard refused to apologise for the impact on Indigenous Peoples of occupation of Australia because it all happened decades ago; he coined the phrase “black armband history” to refer to accounts of massacres. He disbanded ATSIC and the CDEP program in remote settlements which had been introduced as a progressive and mixed community development, employment creation and income support scheme. The decision impacted arts, Protected Areas and Caring for Country projects.

Just before the Howard government was defeated in 2007, the Northern Territory Emergency Response was enacted. The justification was “The Little Children are Sacred” Report commissioned by the Northern Territory Government dealing with protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse.[3] The action was not consistent with the recommendations of the Report, involved the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, compulsorily acquired Aboriginal land, subjected Aboriginal children to mandatory health checks without consulting parents and required Aboriginal children to be taught in English for four hours at school. Army troops were sent into the Territory. There were no references to child or children in the NT Emergency Response Act. Subsequent criticism included the observation that action should not be centralised but “local”. The serious detrimental affects of the Intervention are still apparent.

Prime Minister Abbott at one point asserted that living remotely was a luxury: that completely ignores one of the absolutely fundamental features of Indigenous life, the connection to Country. Prime Minister Turnbull, on receipt of the Uluru Statement, claimed the Voice would represent a Third Chamber: constitutional lawyers pointed out that was incorrect. Turnbull had been informed in writing by the organisers of the consultations leading to the Voice after every one of the meetings: why did he make that statement?


Two major inquiries were held between 1987 and 1995. The findings of the Royal Commission into Indigenous Deaths in Custody[4] and Inquiry into the Forced Removal of Aboriginal Children from their Families[5] have been largely ignored and most of the recommendations have not been enacted. The number of deaths in custody have increased and children continue to be “placed in care”.

Australian Indigenous people are the most incarcerated people in the world as the Uluru Statement notes! The imprisonment, and excessive punishment, of young children aged 10 and up breaches the UN Convention on Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: the visit in 2022 by the responsible UN committee was terminated because several Stares refused to all prisons to be inspected!

Objections to the Voice

Support for Indigenous People is vitally important. Some opinions have been expressed that improvement of the First Nations situation is important but that the Voice is not the way. This cuts across the fundamental basis of democracy. That people affected by policies and actions know what is best for them is accepted by everyone who advocates democracy.

The Uluru statement has been described time and again as generous and modest. The commentary by those at the forefront of the campaign since 2017, such as Professor Megan Davis, are calm and considered, lack “radical” accusations and seek to carefully address various issues. The response by those opposing the referendum has mostly been the opposite.

The claim has been made that the proposal for the Voice undermines the principles of Australian democracy and is racist. The claim is nonsense. The racial discrimination is in the original Constitution of 1901 in the failure to recognise Indigenous people for the purpose of counting the population yet allowed the Government to make laws affecting them. The right to vote was only achieved in recent decades. Special recognition of Indigenous peoples is entirely appropriate as First Peoples and distinguishes them from all subsequent arrivals including those from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific. To suggest later arrivals are entitled to special recognition in the Constitution is disingenuous.

The Price of Disempowerment

There is an incredible lack of general understanding of the fact that disempowerment which leads to a perception of loss of control of life causes great stress. That has profound psychological and other outcomes as demonstrated by, amongst others, one of the World’s leading epidemiologists, Professor Sir Michael Marmot; it is found in warehouses for instance and in the gig economy.

Profound trauma is heritable and the contributing events are remembered over generations. The outcomes are severe antisocial behaviour amplified by new restrictions. That is not to excuse some of the behaviour which is so frequently mentioned. But it is to assert strongly that punitive measures are counterproductive and ignore the nature of human society and the problems which arise from severe disadvantage.

The criminal behaviour of some Indigenous adolescents, especially in Alice Springs and Queensland, has gained substantial publicity. The community response to criminal behaviour in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland is to imprison those responsible in response, to be “tough on crime”. The outcomes have been substantial recidivism.

Antisocial behaviour of adolescent youth is not confined to Australian Indigenous kids but is found all over the world: the successful response is the design and implementation of programs which involve them and give them a sense of self-worth and reinforce identity.

Punishment does not lead to behaviour change. Imprisonment, temporary detention, especially of children, is precisely the opposite of what would make a difference. These outcomes are typical of socially and economically disadvantaged people all over the world and in many parts of Australia. The most effective solutions are in the areas of social policies, in other words, government.

[1] Mabo v Queensland (No 1), in December 1988 the High Court of Australia found that the Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Act 1985, which attempted to retrospectively abolish native title rights, was not valid according to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.The Native Title Act 1993, provided the framework for all Australian Indigenous people to make claims of native title. In Mabo vs Queensland (No 2) judgements in December 2022 the High Court recognised that Indigenous peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs.

[2] In Wik Peoples v The State of Queensland, delivered on 23 December 1996, the High Court of Australia found that statutory pastoral leases did not bestow rights of exclusive possession on the leaseholder and that therefore native title rights could co-exist depending on the terms and nature of the particular pastoral lease. Where there was a conflict of rights, the rights under the pastoral lease would extinguish the remaining native title rights. The Howard government responded by formulating a “10 point plan” to give certainty to land ownership which was used to diminish the effect of the Wik judgement.

[3] Among the 97 recommendations  of “The Little Children are Sacred” report were that sexual abuse be designated an issue of national significance, that a collaborative partnership between the NT and Commonwealth governments be established and that genuine consultation with Aboriginal people take place in designing relevant initiatives. On the day the intervention was announced Howard had been Prime Minster for 11 years. In that time there had been 13 official inquiries into sexual abuse of Aboriginal children, 3 of them federal [10] – enough opportunities for him to act. (Source: Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) – “The Intervention” – Creative Spirits.)

[4] The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) 1987-1991, chaired by Federal judge James Muirhead, QC, was established in 1987 in response to growing public concerns that First Nations deaths in custody were far too common and poorly explained. The commission examined 99 deaths that occurred in custody between January 1980 and May 1989. It reported in April 1991. Among the 339 recommendations were that imprisonment should occur as a last resort and that a process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians be initiated and that in the future every death in custody, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, should be subject to “rigorous and accountable investigations and a comprehensive coronial inquiry”. A 2018 review found that only 64% of the recommendations had been fully implemented, and the rate of imprisonment of Indigenous Australians had almost doubled during the 27 years since 1991.

[5] The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. was established in 1995 and reported (Bringing Them Home) in 1997. President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Sir Ronald Wilson chaired the Inquiry. The Inquiry found that at least 100,000 children had been removed from their families. Among the recommendations were that funding be made available to Indigenous agencies to allow Indigenous people affected by the forcible removal policies to record their history, that reparations be made to people forcibly removed from their families, and that Australian Parliaments offer official apologies and acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies, and practices of forcible removal. Formal apologies were tabled in various parliaments and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd tabled  a formal apology on 13 February 2008 which was passed unanimously. (Then Opposition front bencher Peter Dutton abstained.)