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Issue #1777      May 17, 2017


“Receivers of stolen property”

May 27 marks the 50th anniversary of the national referendum of 1967 which gave the federal government power to legislate on issues relating to Aboriginal people. The referendum was carried by a ten-to-one majority, the largest “Yes” vote ever carried in an Australian referendum.

The 1967 Referendum was a landmark achievement for Indigenous Australians. Following decades of Indigenous and non-Indigenous activism, over 90 percent of all Australians voted in favour of amending two sections of the Australian Constitution:

Section 51 (xxvi)
The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to: ... The people of any race, other than the aboriginal people in any State, for whom it is necessary to make special laws.

Section 127
In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted.

These sections were originally included in the Constitution because of the widely held beliefs that:

  • Aboriginal people were “dying out” and, hence, would soon cease to be a factor in questions of representation.
  • Indigenous people were not intellectually worthy of a place in the political system. A Tasmanian Member of Parliament (MP) dismissed the need to include Indigenous people in a national census: “There is no scientific evidence that he is a human being at all.”

Following the 1967 Referendum, the words “… other than the aboriginal people in any State …” in section 51(xxvi) and the whole of section 127 were removed, allowing for Indigenous people to be included in the census, and giving federal Parliament the power to make laws in relation to Indigenous people.

Prior to the Referendum, making laws for Indigenous people was the responsibility of the states, and laws varied greatly from state to state. For example, Indigenous Australians could own property in New South Wales and South Australia but not in other states.

Some common misconceptions

The right to vote: Indigenous people’s right to vote in federal elections was secured by changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act in 1962, not the 1967 Referendum

Citizenship rights: By 1967, Indigenous people were already legally considered citizens, although many experienced discrimination in their everyday lives

Equal rights: Even though the Referendum revealed a desire to extend equal rights to Indigenous people, the referendum did not guarantee equality. The Referendum gave the federal government the power to make laws for Indigenous people, but it did not require that those laws would ensure equality and would not be discriminatory

In 1837 a visiting British Quaker, James Blackhouse, wrote to the Governor of NSW: “Aborigines have had wholesale robbery of territory committed upon them by the Government, and settlers have become the receivers of stolen property …” In all states Aboriginal people were dispossessed.

In 1839 Mr Chief Justice Stephen described the process of theft: “A man passed into the interior and took possession of a tract of country so occupied by himself … was said to be in possession, and he could bring an action against any person who would intrude upon him. He was not bound to show his title.”

Possession was not just nine-tenth of the law – it was the law.

More recently, the years of the Howard government were an disaster for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The government led a arrogant rearguard action to deny the reality of the 1788 invasion, to deny the policies of genocide, to refuse to recognise the monstrous history of the Stolen Generations and, above all, to limit, delay and, if possible, scuttle the land claims of Indigenous Australians.

Appealing to racist tendencies and a widespread perception that Aboriginal peoples received special treatment, the Howard government denied the existence of the Stolen Generations and refused to consider an apology for the policies of earlier governments, dramatically reduced spending on Aboriginal affairs, watered down Native Title legislation, and even attempted to interfere in the curriculum of schools and universities and the approach of museums in representing the treatment of indigenous peoples in Australia’s colonial past.

In June 2005, Howard abolished the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the only national, democratically elected Indigenous voice.

In June 2007, Howard launched his “emergency intervention” into the Northern Territory. Two months later the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act was passed, giving the government power to acquire Aboriginal land and hold back 50 percent of all welfare payments for “necessary items”. The government scrapped the permit system which had enabled Aboriginal communities to control entry into their land and deal with social issues.

Behind the intervention in the Northern Territory was the desire of the corporations to wrest control of Aboriginal lands from the local communities so they could better exploit the mineral wealth below.

A new Aboriginal activism began to develop in response to this onslaught on Aboriginal rights and land ownership.

Central to the fulfilment of Aboriginal rights is the possession by Aboriginal communities of communal and inalienable title to their land, including the minerals and other natural resources on and within it and in adjacent seas.

For the ruling class of capitalist Australia private property is sacred, not concepts of justice or what is right.

The Communist Party of Australia remains committed to the campaign to win recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the original occupiers and owners of Australian territory and their right to own and control their land and resources.

The Party recognises that the issues confronting Indigenous Australia are complex, resulting from a long history of colonisation, dispossession and injustice and require long-term policy solutions.

More specifically the CPA supports:

  • Communal and inalienable land rights for Aboriginal communities.
  • An immediate review of the effectiveness of the Native Title legislation with a view to strengthening the powers of Aboriginal communities wishing to oppose developments such as the Kimberley’s natural gas project.
  • The immediate rescinding of the Northern Territory Intervention and its discriminatory provisions for Aboriginal peoples and the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act in the NT.
  • The restoration of the Community Development and Employment Program (CDEP) program to all Indigenous communities that request it.
  • The ongoing campaign for the restoration of unpaid wages to Aboriginal peoples as a result of previous protection policies.
  • The establishment of a Federal Ombudsman with sole responsibility for investigating complaints by Indigenous people of their treatment by the criminal justice system of the states, territories and Australian governments.
  • The abolition of the current celebration of Australia Day and its replacement by a more meaningful, respectful and relevant national day that can be celebrated by all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
  • The introduction of compulsory Aboriginal Studies programs in teacher training courses and in the school curriculum and, where practical and applicable, the introduction of Aboriginal language programs in schools.

Many of the planks of the Party’s program would see the Commonwealth finally using the powers given to it in an overwhelming vote by the people of Australia in the Referendum of 1967. Action is needed now.

Next article – NO Pasaran! – A call for solidarity with the Bolivarian revolution

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