The Guardian • Issue #2010

Watershed events in Australian First Nations history

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2010

A member of Yothu Yindi, performing during the launching of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People – December 1992. Photo: John Isaac. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This year marks several anniversaries in the fight for Indigenous struggle, coinciding with the election of an Albanese government planning reforms for First Nations rights. These include the following below.


Originally located under a beach umbrella, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy marks its 50th anniversary this year and represents the “longest protest for Indigenous rights, sovereignty and self-determination in the world.” The Commonwealth Heritage List recognises the site as it is included as part of the Old Parliament House precinct. As an embassy it emphasises that the fact that Aboriginal people never ceded sovereignty.


Genuine land rights became a possible reality in 1992 when the High Court of Australia confirmed that officially the nation had been “living a lie” for all of its history to that point. The myth of “terra nullius” was exploited by capitalist Australia, whose profits expanded at the expense of First Nations workers as they and their families languished in poverty, frequently excluded from schools, hospitals and many public places. Brave Aboriginal leaders could count on support from the Communist Party of Australia among a few activists who attempted to rectify many glaring injustices together. Recent Aboriginal leaders such as Vincent Lingiari, Neville Perkins and Pastor Sir Douglas Nichols made tremendous sacrifices for their people.

Prominent Communists, including author Frank Hardy, anthropologist Dr Hannah Middleton, along with union support, backed the Gurindji at Wattie Creek in their struggle. Later in 1991, a former Communist, Justice Elliot Johnston, authored the monumental Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The fact that this recognition of Aborigines as people with inalienable rights, had never been written into the Constitution allowed this myth to be perpetuated, even though the 1967 referendum allowed the Commonwealth to make laws for all First Nations peoples, apart from being authorised to count them.


Some twenty-five years ago, the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families was released, a testament to the courage of thousands who told of the devastating impact of forcible removal from their families, cultures and communities. Even distinguished returned Aboriginal soldiers had their children stolen.


Just as Prime Minister William McMahon, in spite of the Tent Embassy, dismissed any hope of land rights in re-asserting the government’s assimilation policy, a more recent Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, merely offered an immediate dismissal of the “voice to parliament,” erroneously as a “third chamber.” Although McMahon tried to ignore the presence of the Tent Embassy, the opposition leader and subsequent Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, visited the protesters and promised land rights under a future Labor government, a promise he indeed kept when symbolically he poured a handful of dirt into the hand of Gurindji leader, Vincent Lingiari, and provided a land title document as confirmation.

Now a new Labor government has begun the process of fulfilling a promise to provide First Nations people with a say in legislation that directly affects them. Much goodwill appears to exist in the community for a much better deal for Indigenous Australians, although some Aboriginal people, including some who have been involved in the Tent Embassy, express their cynicism as they have heard so many pious words spoken before without any concrete results ensuing. In addition, priorities have become an issue. As in the words of the Yothu Yindi song, is it treaty now or “voice to parliament” now, or both at the same time? Certainly, it’s time, time for a genuine change!


As a significant outcome of the recent federal election, the Australian parliament now has a total of ten First Nations members and senators, seven of whom are women. Linda Burney now bears the onerous weight of Australian Aboriginal history on her shoulders, so marked with delays and inaction.


For National Reconciliation Week 2022 the motto was Be Brave Make Change. Hopefully, our leaders and the entire nation will make the necessary change. Narungga Elder, Dr Kevin “Dookie” O’Loughlin, whose honorary doctorate from the University of South Australia was awarded for his contribution over three decades to reconciliation, embraces a two-way process whereby, not simply Aboriginal people having to change, but more importantly the rest of the nation as well. Will Australia be brave enough to make that change?

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