Overview of Indigenous Affairs: Part 1: 1901 to 1991

10 May 2011

Dr Coral Dow and Dr John Gardiner-Garden
Social Policy Section


The Barton to Chifley Governments 1901–1949
The Menzies Government 1949–1966
The Holt, Gorton and McMahon Governments 1966–1972
The Whitlam Government 1972–1975
The Fraser Government 1975–1983
The Hawke Government 1983–1991

Overview of Indigenous Affairs: Part 1: 1901 to 1991

This background note provides an overview of Indigenous affairs policy from federation to the end of the Hawke Labor Government in 1991. It takes a chronological approach concentrating on Commonwealth legal, administrative and political developments but also includes some references to significant state and international events.[1] A companion paper, Overview of Indigenous Affairs: Part 2: 1992 to 2010, traces developments after this period.

The paper is structured by year, with a brief summary of events for each federal government at the beginning of their term.


Over the last 100 years there have been several shifts in the policy relationship between the Australian Government and Australia’s Indigenous people. The notional citizenship ascribed to Aboriginal people upon first settlement at the end of the 18th century was eroded by colonial state governments in the 19th century—with dispossession from land being followed by dispossession from family.

With federation in 1901 there were few significant changes. State government policy and legislation had an overriding influence on Aboriginal Australians with the Commonwealth involved in a secondary manner through legislation that limited access to citizenship and welfare rights, often in terms of degree of descent and in legislative definitions of Aboriginality. In the mid 20th century a rhetorically more benign period of assimilation was ushered in, but laws, including laws framed by the Commonwealth  Government that had responsibility for the Northern Territory—intended to ‘protect’ or advance people’s ‘welfare’ quickly became laws which further alienated Indigenous people. Indeed, during this period the removal of children from Indigenous parents shifted from being an ad hoc state practice to a strategy agreed on by all governments; state and federal.

In the 1960s, as more voices, particularly Indigenous ones, drew attention to the lack of rights and the meagre achievements of the assimilation policy, the Commonwealth began to reform the system within its own jurisdiction, removing various legal liabilities it had imposed, or let be placed, upon Indigenous Australians and sponsoring a referendum which cleared the way for greater Commonwealth involvement in the policy area. Successive Commonwealth governments then led policy in this area through phases underpinned by expressions such as ‘self-determination’, ‘self-management’, ‘reconciliation’, ‘practical reconciliation’ and the present ‘closing-the-gap’. These were punctuated with the setting up and dismantling of several different administrative and consultative mechanisms, and woven through with issues such as how to facilitate the gaining of socio-economic equality and the recognition of land and other rights.

The Barton to Chifley Governments 1901–1949


The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (UK) (‘Australian Constitution’) came into force. Section 51 (xxvi) gave the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to ‘the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it was deemed necessary to make special laws’. Section 127 of the Constitution provided: ‘In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.’

Source: G Sawer, ‘The Australian Constitution and the Australian Aborigine’, Federal Law Review, vol. 2, June 1966, pp. 25-35.


The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 denied the voting rights of ‘Aboriginal natives of Australia … unless so entitled under Section 41 of the Constitution’. Garran advised that ‘half-castes’ were not disqualified from voting ‘but that all people in whom the aboriginal blood preponderates are disqualified’.

Source: Senate and House of Representatives, Debates, 9-10 April 1902, pp. 11450-11599; J Chesterman and B Galligan, Citizens without rights: Aborigines and Australian citizenship, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997.


The Census and Statistics Act 1905 established the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. The Act made no reference to Aborigines, but the Bureau needed to define ‘aboriginal natives’ when census taking. The Attorney-General gave the opinion that ‘half-castes are not aboriginal within meaning of section 127 of the Australian Constitution, and should therefore be included’. For the first Commonwealth census held in 1911, the interpretation of ‘shall not be counted’ as well as the decision as to who was a ‘half-caste’ was left to the Bureau.

Source: L Smith, The Aboriginal population of Australia, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1980, pp. 10-34.       


The Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act 1908 declared ‘Aboriginal natives of Australia’ were ineligible to receive benefits.

Source: Senate and House of Representatives, Debates, 3 June 1908, p. 11968.


The Defence Act 1910 exempted from war service ‘persons who are not substantially of European origin or descent’, a clause not repealed until 1951. The recruitment policy was relaxed after heavy losses in the World War 1 and men who claimed one European parent were accepted for overseas service.

Source: Senate and House of Representatives, Debates, 31 August 1910, pp. 2273-8.


Aborigines in the Northern Territory came under Commonwealth jurisdiction after the administration of the Northern Territory was transferred from South Australia to the Commonwealth Government by the Northern Territory Acceptance Act 1910 and Northern Territory (Administration) Act 1910.

The Aboriginals Ordinance 1911 placed Aborigines in the Northern Territory under the direction of a Protector who under section 3 (1) of the Act was given power to ‘undertake the care, custody, or control of any aboriginal or half-caste’, and, the Aborigines Act 1911 (SA) similarly provided for the ‘protection’ of Aboriginal people on reserves away from non-Aboriginal people.       


The Maternity Allowance Act 1912 declared ‘Aboriginal natives of Australia’ were ineligible to receive benefits.


The Aboriginals Ordinance 1918 widened the definition of ‘Aborigine’ and increased the powers of the Protector and the police.


Ngarrindjeri elders presented to the Governor of South Australia a petition written by Ellen Kropinyeri which called upon the Governor not to sign into law the Aborigines (Training of Children) Act 1923 (SA) which provided for the removal of children. The call was not heeded.


Frederick Maynard formed the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association to campaign for citizenship rights and fight the discrimination and denial of rights that Aboriginal returned servicemen experienced after World War 1.

Source: J Maynard, ‘Fred Maynard and the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association: ‘One God, One Aim, One Destiny’, Aboriginal History, vol. 21, 1997, pp. 1-13.


David Unaipon, the distinguished Aboriginal writer, speaker and inventor, pictured on the Australian $50 note, campaigned for a separate Aboriginal Territory of Centralia–a campaign which may have contributed to his arrest on a charge of vagrancy in the same year.

Source: P Jones, ‘David Unaipon (1872-1967)’ Australian Dictionary of Biography online.


The Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce announced a government inquiry into the conditions of ‘half-castes’ and Aborigines in North and Central Australia. Constitutional restrictions confined the inquiry, to be undertaken by Queensland’s Chief Protector, J. W. Bleakley, to the Northern Territory. However Bruce promised Parliament that the interests of all Aborigines would benefit from the inquiry.

Source: S Bruce, House of Representatives, Debates, 6 December 1927, p. 2708.


Bleakley’s report on the Aboriginals and Half-Castes of Central Australia and North Australia was released. It included recommendations for improved living conditions and minimum wages for pastoral workers, increased financial assistance for missions, increased protection, (including ‘moral protection’ for females), closer administration of residents at the Government institutions in Darwin and Alice Springs and different policies based on degrees of descent and ‘civilization’. Bleakley included proposed amendments to the Northern Territory Aboriginal Ordinances.

Source: The Aboriginals and half-castes of central Australia and north Australia: Report by J. W. Bleakley, Chief Protector of Aboriginals, Queensland, 1928, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1929, Parliamentary Paper, 21, 1929.


Minister for Home Affairs, C.L.A. Abbott, convened a meeting of groups (mainly missionary societies) interested in Aboriginal welfare to discuss Bleakley’s report. Many of the delegates argued for increased Commonwealth involvement in Aboriginal affairs but this was rejected by Abbott as not an agenda item.     


David Unaipon who had, following events of 1926, gone on to assist Bleakley’s inquiry, called on the Commonwealth to assume responsibility for Aboriginal affairs and for South Australia’s Chief Protector of Aborigines to be replaced by an independent body.


The Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities was held in Canberra from 21-23 April. The Conference was attended by representatives of all states (except Tasmania) and the Commonwealth. The conference exchanged ideas on the administration of Aboriginal affairs and agreed on uniform policy. A. O. Neville (Commissioner of Native Affairs, Western Australia) and J. W. Bleakley (Chief Protector of Aboriginals, Queensland) were the influential speakers. Twenty resolutions were passed. The most significant resolution sanctioned an assimilation policy:

This conference believes that the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end.

Source: Aboriginal welfare: Initial conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal authorities, Canberra, 21-23 April 1937, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, [1937?].  


The 26 January was declared a ‘Day of Mourning’ by Aboriginal activists led by William Ferguson and Jack Patten who organised a ‘Day of Mourning’ conference in Sydney. The conference was open only to Aborigines and the following resolution was passed:

We, representing the Aborigines of Australia, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, herby make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the whiteman during the past 150 years, and we appeal to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, and we ask for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community.

The resolution and speeches stressed the need for full citizenship rights for all Aboriginal people, that degree of descent or fairness of skin should not dictate access to rights, that the Commonwealth should have greater control over Aboriginal affairs and that Aborigines should be involved in policy decisions and their implementation.

Source: J Patten and W Ferguson, ‘Aborigines claim citizen rights!’ in J Horner, Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal freedom: a biography, Australia and New Zealand Book Co., Sydney, 1974, pp. 192-199; B Attwood, Thinking black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines’ League, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2004, and Herald 26 January 1938.

A Ten Point Plan based on resolutions from the Day of Mourning conference was presented by a deputation of Aborigines to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons.

Source: Abo Call, no. 1, April 1938.


The Aborigines’ Progressive Association was founded in New South Wales by William Ferguson and Jack Patten.

Source: B Attwood and A Markus, The struggle for Aboriginal rights: a documentary history, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1999.


The Child Endowment Act 1941 extended child endowment to Aborigines who were not nomadic or dependent on government benefits.  


Maternity allowances, old-age, invalid and widows pensions were extended to ‘aboriginal natives’ who possessed a certificate of exemption from state laws relating to the control of Aborigines. However, payments could be made to a third party and in some cases lesser payments could be made.    


Under the Unemployment and Sickness Benefits Act 1944 benefits were only payable to Aborigines ‘if the Director General was satisfied that, having regard to his character, standard of intelligence and development, it was reasonable that he should receive benefit’.       


A War Service Land Settlement Agreement between the Commonwealth and states, entrenched in the War Service Land Settlement Agreements Act 1945, enabled returned service personnel access to land under soldier settlement schemes. Following the agreement, the states and the Commonwealth enacted solider settlement legislation or amended existing legislation. As in the schemes introduced after World War 1, Indigenous personnel were not specifically excluded but the assessment procedures were prejudiced against them and many were rejected.


The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1949 specified that Aboriginal people had the right to enrol and vote at federal elections provided they were entitled to enrol for state elections or had served in the defence forces.

The Menzies Government 1949–1966

The Menzies Government presided over a period that saw growing support for a policy of greater Commonwealth involvement in Aboriginal affairs. During the 1950s the influential Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, developed and implemented policy based on assimilation and social advancement. The 1960s saw the growth of political movements critical of discriminatory measures, demanding the extension of rights, equal wages and campaigning for a referendum to change the Constitution and give the Commonwealth powers over Aboriginal affairs.


In June 1950, Paul Hasluck MP introduced a motion urging co-operation between Commonwealth and state governments in measures for ‘the social advancement as well as the protection of people of the aboriginal race’. The motion was seconded by opposition member Kim Beazley Snr and it was passed unanimously. Hasluck believed ‘the debate was significant both as the first post-war occasion on which Parliament made the future policy towards Aborigines the sole subject of a debate and as an illustration that it was a subject on which a national and non-partisan approach might be achieved’.

Source: P Hasluck, House of Representatives, Debates, 8 June 1950, pp. 3976-3977; P Hasluck, Shades of darkness: Aboriginal affairs, 1925-1965, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988, p. 70 and p. 78.


Paul Hasluck was appointed Minister for Territories, an office he held for the next twelve years and from which he had significant influence on Commonwealth policy in the area of Aboriginal affairs.

The Governments of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia joined the Commonwealth Government to discuss common policy in Aboriginal affairs at the September Native Welfare Conference in Canberra. In tabling the report of the conference Hasluck stressed the importance of a policy of assimilation:

The recent Native Welfare Conference agreed that assimilation is the objective of native welfare measures. Assimilation means, in practical terms, that, in the course of time, it is expected that all persons of aboriginal blood or mixed blood in Australia will live as do white Australians. The acceptance of this policy governs all other aspects of native affairs administration.

The conference established a native welfare council of the Ministers of the Commonwealth and of State governments, from which Hasluck hoped to ‘see emerge practical and effective proposals for nation-wide action’.

Source: P Hasluck, House of Representatives, Debates, 18 October 1951, p. 873; P Hasluck, Native welfare in Australia: Speeches and addresses by the Hon. Paul Hasluck, Paterson Brokensha, Perth, 1953.

The Commonwealth allowed the Cattle Station Industry (Northern Territory) Award 1951 to exempt Aborigines thus denying them equal wages.


The British, in collaboration with the Australian Government, began atmospheric atomic tests at Emu and Maralinga in the Great Victoria Desert of South Australia on lands of the Pitjantjatjara people. Hundreds of families were forced to leave their homelands because of contamination.


The Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) was established at a meeting of organisations including churches, trade unions, student bodies, labour councils and various committees and councils for Aboriginal rights. The FCAA (later FCAATSIA) worked towards citizenship rights, improved social and economic conditions and recognition of land rights. FCAA’s first goals were ‘to repeal of all legislation, federal and state, which discriminated against the Aborigines’ and amend the Commonwealth Constitution ‘to give the Commonwealth government power to legislate for Aborigines as with all other citizens’.

Source: National Museum of Australia, Collaborating for Indigenous rights, Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI)


The Social Services Act 1959 enabled all Aborigines who were not ‘nomadic or primitive’ to receive the maternity allowance, widows’ pensions, old-age and invalid pensions, unemployment and sickness benefits. Prior to 1959 access to these benefits was dependent on Aboriginal people being exempted from state and territory ‘protection’ laws.

Source: J Chesterman, ‘Defending Australia’s reputation: How Indigenous Australians won civil rights’ Australian Historical Studies, vol. 116, 2001, pp 20-39.


A meeting of federal and state ministers responsible for Aboriginal welfare agreed on a policy of assimilation. The Minister, Paul Hasluck, announced the policy in a statement to Parliament.

Source: P Hasluck, House of Representatives, Debates, 20 April 1961, p. 1051.


The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 by giving the vote in Commonwealth elections to all Aborigines. It was not compulsory for Aboriginal people to register, but once they had, voting was compulsory.

A national campaign was launched by the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) for a referendum to amend section 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution and repeal section 127 of the Constitution and thereby give the Commonwealth power in Aboriginal affairs.


The Yolngu people of Yirrkala, faced with 140 square miles being excised from the Arnhem Land Reserve for a Nabalco bauxite mine, sent two bark petitions to the Federal Government seeking Commonwealth recognition of their rights to their traditional lands on the Gove Peninsula. Kim Beazley MP (senior) moved that one of the bark petitions be printed and tabled.

Source: House of Representatives, Debates, 14 August 1963, p. 81,  House of Representatives, Debates, 28 August, 1963, p. 561;  National Archives of Australia, Documenting a Democracy, Yirrkala Bark Petitions 1963.


The campaign for equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers began when the North Australian Workers Union took a case for equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission.

A new Northern Territory Social Welfare Ordinance gave the Director of Social Welfare power  ‘over persons who in the opinion of the Director are socially or economically in need of assistance’ and the Ward’s Employment Ordinance remained in force leaving Aboriginal people on Christian missions and government settlements unequal in employment, wages, vocational training and housing.


The ‘Freedom Ride’ led by Charles Perkins toured rural NSW between 12 and 26 February in a bid to highlight segregation and racism in country areas.

Source: A Curthoys, Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2002; AIATSIS Freedom Ride On-line Exhibition.

The Queensland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Affairs Act 1965 removed the prohibition on an ‘aboriginal native of Australia or the Islands of the Pacific’ from voting.  Many of the 110 regulations under the Act continued, however, to infringe human rights.


In March the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission brought down the decision on the proposed variations to the Cattle Station Industry (Northern Territory) Award 1951. Aboriginal pastoral workers were awarded equal wages but the industry was not required to comply until December 1968.

Source: National Museum of Australia, Collaborating for Indigenous rights, Equal wages, 1963-1966

In August Gurindji workers, led by Vincent Lingiari, withheld their labour from the British owned Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory. The workers camped close to sacred sites at Wattie Creek (Daguragu). Initially a strike over low wages and poor living conditions, the Wave Hill strike later centred on land and citizenship rights. The strike lasted seven years and gathered significant momentum for Aboriginal land rights.

Source: Sir William Deane, Some signposts from Daguragu, The inaugural Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, Darwin 22 August 1996, Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Canberra, 1996; National Museum of Australia, Collaborating for Indigenous rights, Wave Hill walk off, 1966-1975

All references to ‘Aboriginal natives’ were removed from the Social Services Act but benefits could still be paid to a third party and remote Aborigines did not qualify for unemployment benefits.

The Aboriginal Lands Trust Act 1966 was enacted in South Australia–first major recognition of Aboriginal Land rights by an Australian government. It created an all Aboriginal representative Aboriginal Lands Trust to hold freehold title to former reserves.  The Bill was introduced by Don Dunstan, South Australia’s Attorney-General and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, later Premier. Dunstan acknowledged the British Parliament’s Letters Patent establishing the Province of South Australia 19 February 1836 (UK) which included a significant guarantee of the rights of  ‘Aboriginal Natives’ or their descendants to lands they ‘now actually occupied or enjoyed’.  

Source: National Archives of Australia, Documenting a democracy, Aboriginal Lands Trust Act 1966 (SA)

The Holt, Gorton and McMahon Governments 1966–1972

The major development was the 1967 referendum which cleared the way for the Commonwealth to make special laws in relation to Aboriginal people. It was subsequently incorrectly ascribed in popular writing to the granting of various rights in the 1960s and 1970s.


The Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals)1967  provided for a referendum to amend section 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution and repeal section 127 giving the Commonwealth the power to make laws regarding Aboriginals and ordering that Aboriginals be counted in the census. The referendum enabled the Commonwealth to accept wider but not exclusive responsibility for Aboriginal affairs. However the amendments did not, as widely reported, guarantee Aboriginal voting rights, confer citizenship rights or constitutional recognition, grant award wages to Aboriginal workers in the pastoral industry or confer the ‘right to drink’.

Source: House of Representatives, Debates, 1 March 1967, pp. 263-287; B Attwood, The 1967 Referendum, or when Aborigines didn’t get the vote, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1997; J Garden, The origin of Commonwealth involvement in Indigenous affairs and the 1967 referendum, Background paper, no. 11, 1996–97, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 1997.

After the referendum Prime Minister Holt established the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. An advisory body, the Council was comprised of three eminent non-Indigenous people: its Chair Dr H. C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs, Australian diplomat Barrie Dexter, and anthropologist William Stanner. Later the Office of Aboriginal Affairs was established.


The Aboriginal Enterprises (Assistance) Act 1968 established a fund to which Aborigines could apply for the purposes of pursuing a business enterprise and the States Grants (Aboriginal Advancement) Act 1968 provided for payments to the states to be used in a manner approved of by the Minister.

The Mining (Gove Peninsula Nabalco Agreement) Ordinance 1968 (NT) granted a 42 year lease (with a right to renew) to Nabalco to mine Aboriginal land on the Gove Peninsula. Aborigines were given right to move across most of the lease but there were no provisions for the respect of sacred sites or the training or employment of Aboriginal people. Gough Whitlam presented a bark petition to Parliament which asked for the area known as Gove to be given the name of Nhulumbuy.

Source: House of Representatives, Debates, 8 October 1968, p. 1631.


The first Aboriginal Study Assistance Scheme commenced and the States Grants (Aboriginal Advancement) Act 1969 provided for further money to be paid to states for ‘welfare and advancement’ of Aboriginal people.

The National Tribal Council was established in Brisbane. Its ‘cultural pluralism’ manifesto called assimilation a failed policy and called for programs to educate Aboriginal people about their own past, traditions, languages and cultural practices.


The Gibb Committee was set up to investigate conditions on pastoral properties in the Northern Territory. The committee’s report–Excision of land from pastoral properties–was silent on many abuses surrounding the reservation system and rather than recommending joint ownership or management of cattle stations on Aboriginal land, recommended excisions from some pastoral lands for Aboriginal communities to enjoy limited economic or recreational opportunities.


The Yolgnu people including Gumatj elders Milirrpum and others of Yirrkala took legal action against Nabalco Pty Ltd and the Commonwealth of Australia. In Milirrpum v. Nabalco Pty. Ltd (1971) 17 FLR 141 (‘the Gove Land Rights Case’) the Northern Territory Supreme Court ruled that Aboriginal people did not own the Arnhem Land reserve – indeed, that Indigenous land laws were incapable of recognition by the Australian common law, that native title does not form part of the law of any part of Australia and that even if native title did once exist, it would have been extinguished, and even if it did still exist the Yolgnu could not prove the elements necessary to establish native title.

The Office of Aboriginal Affairs conducted an inter-departmental study on the Nabalco issue. The report was generally supportive of the Yirrkala people’s right to claim royalties from Nabalco, favoured leasehold ownership of reserves in all states and advocated the provision of funds to buy land outside the reserves in the states and the Northern Territory. Prime Minister William McMahon rejected the advice.

Neville Bonner became the first Aboriginal Australian to sit in the Commonwealth Parliament when he was chosen by the Queensland Liberal Party to fill a casual Senate vacancy. In his first speech he raised issues of identity, self-determination and intellectual property rights:

In my experienced opinion, all persons who desire to be so classified, regardless of hue of skin, and who have flowing in their veins any portion, however small, of Abor­iginal or Torres Strait Island blood, are Indigenous people.

Source: N Bonner, Senate, Debates, 8 September 1971, pp. 553-556

At the State level:

The Walmatjarri and Nyikina people in Western Australia walked off Noonkanbah station in protest against ill-treatment and the Larrakia people in the Northern Territory ‘sat-in’ at Bagot Road, Darwin, as a protest against theft of their land.

The first Aboriginal Legal Service was established in Redfern, Sydney by a group of Aboriginal community leaders, lawyers and academics.

The Aboriginal flag designed by Aboriginal artist, Harold Thomas, first flown in Adelaide on National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) day.

Following the passing of the Victorian Aboriginal Lands Act 1970 the presentation of title deeds to residents of Lake Tyers and Framlingham offered the first recognition of land rights in Victoria.

The Aborigines Act 1971(Qld) provided for restrictions upon Aboriginal people living on reserves -  Aboriginal cultural customs were banned,  reading matter censored, relationships controlled, work devalued and movements recorded, and the Torres Strait Islanders Act 1971 (Qld) reiterated Queensland Government policy of assimilation.


On 25 January, the McMahon Government announced a new policy - Aborigines should have a choice about the degree to which they identify with the wider society and should be encouraged to manage their own affairs. Freehold land rights were rejected, however, in favour of fifty-year general purpose leases to Aboriginal communities for social and economic purposes. The Government announced an intention to allow the Yirrkala people to receive a small royalty from the bauxite mining on their country, allow a weak form of Aboriginal leasehold over some reserve areas in the Northern Territory and to acquire some pastoral lease land in the Northern Territory, such as at Daguragu (Wattie Creek) for Aboriginal development. McMahon stressed that this would not constitute recognition of traditional ownership or land rights. No reference was made to either land acquisition outside ‘traditional’ areas or to any compensation for dispossession. Mining companies could continue to mine unimpeded on Aboriginal reserves.

Source: Australian Aborigines Commonwealth Policy And Achievements Statement By The Prime Minister —The Rt Hon. William McMahon, C.H., M.P., 26 January 1972.

In protest at Prime Minister McMahon’s denial of land rights, on the following day, Australia Day, Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey set up a protest under a beach umbrella on the lawns of Parliament House, Canberra and proclaimed themselves the ‘Aboriginal Embassy’.

Source: C Dow, Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Icon or Eyesore?, Chronology 3, 1999-2000, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2000.

The Leader of the Opposition, Mr Gough Whitlam, visited the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and promised that a Labor Government would ‘absolutely reverse’ the Government’s policy on land rights, allowing ‘ownership of land by tribal communities’. He also promised the introduction of a civil rights bill, overruling state laws that discriminated against Aborigines, a fully elected Legislative Assembly in the Northern Territory with a non-discrimination charter and free legal representation for Aborigines to test their rights in court.

Source: The Australian, 9 February 1972; Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 1972; The Age, 10 February 1972.

In a Ministerial Statement on Aboriginal Land Rights, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Peter Howson reiterated the Government’s policy announced by Prime Minister McMahon on Australia Day and claimed that freehold ownership of land was ‘alien to Aboriginal thought and custom’.

Source: P Howson, House of Representatives, Debates, 23 February 1972, pp. 122-124.

The Whitlam Government 1972–1975

In 1972 the Whitlam Government created the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, ushering in a period of significant Commonwealth expenditure and programming in Indigenous affairs, and in 1973 initiated a Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights.


The Whitlam Government upgraded the Office of Aboriginal Affairs to a Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) and introduced ‘self-determination’ as a key guiding principle in Aboriginal Affairs policy-making. The policy was later described as ‘one of the most revolutionary policy changes ever enacted in Australian government policy’.

Source: J Altman and W Sanders, From exclusion to dependence: Aborigines and the welfare state in Australia, CAEPR Discussion Paper 1, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy and Research, Canberra, 1991.

All applications for mining and exploration on Commonwealth Aboriginal reserves were frozen and the Northern Territory Welfare Branch was abolished and responsibilities taken over by the new DAA.


The Woodward Land Rights Commission was established with Justice Woodward being appointed to hold a Commission of Inquiry into appropriate ways to recognise Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory.

The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gordon Bryant, reinforced the government’s policy of self-determination, stating Labor would not ‘make decisions on behalf of Aborigines’.

Source: ‘Government policy towards Aborigines’. Australian Government Digest, 1 July-30 September 1973.

The National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) was established with the objective of ensuring that Aboriginal views were taken into account in policy formation and implementation.

Source: Koori History website, The National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) 1973- 1977

Under the Aboriginal Affairs (Arrangements with the States) Act 1973, State Governments, with the exception of Queensland, agreed to surrender their special responsibilities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs to the Commonwealth.

In Papua and New Guinea v Daera Guba (1973) 130 CLR 353 Chief Justice Barwick hinted that native title might exist at common law indicating that Milirrpum v Nabalco was due for re-assessment.


The Aboriginal Land Rights Commission’s Second Report argued for the introduction of land rights legislation to ensure simple restorative justice because land was taken without consent or compensation; to promote social harmony and stability by removing a cause of grievance; to provide opportunities for economic development; to preserve Indigenous people’s spiritual link to land; and to maintain and perhaps improve Australia’s international standing. The report also argued ‘to deny Aborigines the right to prevent mining on their land was to deny the reality of their Land Rights’. The report was accepted in principle by all political parties.

The Aboriginal Loans Commission Act 1974 established the Aboriginal Enterprises Fund, Housing and Personal Loans Fund and the Aboriginal Loans Commission.

 The Aboriginal Land Fund Act 1974 established Land Fund Commission to administer the Aboriginal land fund by which Aboriginal corporations or land trusts could acquire interests in land which would enable members of the corporation to occupy the land.

In September Senator Neville Bonner moved:

‘That the Senate accepts the fact that the Indigenous people of Australia, now known as Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, were in possession of this entire nation prior to the 1788 First Fleet landing at Botany Bay, urges the Aus­tralian Government to admit prior ownership by the said Indigenous people, and introduce legislation to compensate the people now known as Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders for dispossession of their land.’

Bonner stated that he was seeking:

‘... true and due entitlement for dispossession. Surely no one can deny that the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were dispossessed of what was theirs by right of inheritance … I am asking for an amount of money to be set aside from the annual national Budget which will become the true entitlement of the Aborigi­nes and Torres Strait Islanders so that we may recapture our dignity and our pride as human beings … I say that the day is fast approaching when this com­pensation for dispossession of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders must - I say ‘must’ - be channelled to an all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statutory body empowered to adminis­ter such a compensation for dispossession fund, for the survival of fellow Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.’

The motion was passed unanimously in the Senate on 20 February 1975.

Source: Senate, Debates, 19 September 1974, pp. 1267-1273; Senate, Journals, No. 54, 20 February 1975, p. 529.


The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 conferred rights to equality before the law and bound the Commonwealth and the states to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam handed back to the Gurindji people a lease to 1250 square miles, formerly part of Wave Hill Station now called Daguragu. At the ceremony Gough Whitlam said: ‘Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands this piece of the earth itself as a sign that we restore them to you and your children forever’. Gough Whitlam later revealed that his speech and the idea of pouring some of the earth into Lingiari’s hands came from Dr H. C. (‘Nugget’) Coombs. Vincent Lingiari replied ‘we are all mates now’ and then spoke to his own people, in their language. He stressed through references to ceremony, the importance of the event.

Source: G Whitlam, The Whitlam Government 1972-1975, Viking, Ringwood, 1985, pp. 470-471; L Hercus and P Sutton, eds, This is what happened, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1986, pp. 313-315.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Queensland Discriminatory Laws) Act 1975 established an Aboriginal Land Fund Commission to purchase land for Aboriginal communities.

The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 provided that if land has special significance in relation to Aborigines then it was not to be acquired for establishment of a park without the state’s consent.

The National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation established.

On 11 November the Commonwealth Parliament was prorogued by the Governor-General and the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Bill lapsed.

The Fraser Government 1975–1983

The Fraser Government followed up on the Whitlam Government’s initiatives and passed significant land rights legislation relevant to the Northern Territory but showed no sign of following up with support for a national system of land rights. The Government dropped ‘self-determination’ from Commonwealth rhetoric. A public campaign got under way for a more basic immutable recognition of Indigenous rights in the form of a treaty (‘makaratta’).  


The term ‘self-determination’ was dropped from the Government’s vocabulary and replaced by ‘self-management’ and ‘self-sufficiency’.

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, based on the bill framed by the Whitlam Government, provided recognition of Aboriginal land ownership and established Aboriginal Land Commissioners, Aboriginal Land Trusts and the Aboriginal Benefit Trust Account.  It enabled traditional Aboriginal lands to be granted to Aboriginal Lands Trusts and provided for the creation of a Central Land Council, Northern Land Council, Tiwi Land Council and Anindilyakwa Land Council.

The Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, led by Justice Fox, examined the effects of mining on Aboriginal people and recommended the Ranger Uranium mine go ahead subject to strict environmental safeguards and that Kakadu land be granted to Aboriginal people, declared a national park and leased back.

Source: Australia. Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, First report, AGPS, Canberra, 1976.

The Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act 1976 provided for the establishment of Indigenous councils and for incorporation of Aboriginal associations.

A review of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) commissioned by the Fraser Government found that the NACC had not been an effective mechanism for providing advice to the Minister, or for consulting with Aboriginal people.

Source: Australia. Department of Aboriginal Affairs, The role of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee – report of the Committee of Inquiry, AGPS, Canberra, 1976.


The first Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) scheme began. Under the scheme, members of participating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities or organisations can forgo social security payments for a wages grant paid to the community.

The National Aboriginal Education Committee was established.

The National Aboriginal Conference (NAC) replaced the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) as a peak body to advise the federal government on Aboriginal affairs. It comprised representatives elected to state branches, from which a ten-member national executive was elected.

Source: National Aboriginal Conference Establishment, Role and Functions.

Pursuant to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 the Northern, Central and Tiwi Land Councils were established, Mr Justice Toohey was appointed Land Commissioner in the Northern Territory and the first land claim hearing to Crown land at Borroloola commenced.


Conflict arose between the Commonwealth and the Queensland Government over Aurukun and Mornington Island Aboriginal reserves after the Queensland Government decided to take control of both reserves. Both communities protested and asked for help from the Commonwealth Government. Legislation for self-management of the two reserves was provided by the Commonwealth’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Queensland Reserves and Communities Self-Management) Act 1978. In response the Queensland Government revoked the two reserves resulting in neither Queensland nor the new Commonwealth legislation being applicable. Eventually state and federal ministers agreed local authorities would be created for the former reserves and the land leased to the newly created councils for fifty years.

Source: National Archives of Australia, 1978 Cabinet Documents, Indigenous Affairs.

The Northern Land Council (NLC) and the Commonwealth Government signed the Ranger uranium mining agreement. The agreement provided for payments to be made by the Commonwealth to the NLC by way of royalties for mining on Aboriginal land.

The Northern Territory was granted self-government by the passage of the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978.

At Noonkanbah Station, in Western Australia, purchased by the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission in 1976, the Yangngara community demonstrated against a road through a sacred site. Although the Yangngara’s legal action was unsuccessful, the court found that action could be taken to protect sacred sites under the Heritage Protection Act 1972 (WA). In the meantime CRA Ltd planned to explore for oil on Yangngara land near an identified but not listed sacred site. The community petitioned the WA Parliament to stop the exploration.


A prominent group of Australians including H. C. (Nugget) Coombs and Judith Wright formed the Aboriginal Treaty Committee to lobby for a negotiated ‘Treaty, Covenant or Convention of Peace and Friendship between Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, and the Commonwealth Government’. The National Aboriginal Conference put forward a treaty proposal and the Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser subsequently agreed to discuss the treaty proposal.

Source: National Times, 25 August 1979 and AIATSIS Aboriginal Treaty Committee on-line exhibition.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, released Aboriginal Health, a report in which it found that ‘little progress has been made in raising the overall standard of Aboriginal health’ and that ‘this is a deplorable situation that would not be tolerated for non-Aboriginals’.

In Coe v Commonwealth (1979) 24 ALR 118 the High Court struck out a statement of claim brought by Paul Coe asserting Aboriginal sovereignty over Australia. The Court hinted that the existence of native title would be ‘arguable ... if properly raised’.

The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Amendment Act 1979 obliged the Jabiru town development authority in the Northern Territory to consult with the chairman of the local Aboriginal land council before establishing Jabiru.


The Aboriginal Development Commission Act 1980 repealed the Aboriginal Loans Commission Act 1974 and the Aboriginal Land Fund Act 1974 and established the Aboriginal Development Commission (ADC). The ADC was governed by a board of Aboriginal people appointed by the government and had the task of administering a range of development-oriented programs. 

The National Federation of Land Councils was formed.

Peter Read and Oomera (Coral) Edwards established the organisation LinkUP, to assist the reunion of Aboriginal parents and children who had been separated by welfare policies.

The National Aboriginal Conference (NAC) decided to take the fight for Aboriginal rights to the United Nations. NAC delegate, Jim Hagan’s speech to the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities specifically referred to the Noonkanbah dispute and received international media coverage. The Sub-Commission specifically recognised the NAC submission in its resolution at the end of sittings.

Source: Q Beresford, Rob Riley: an Aboriginal leader’s quest for justice, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2006, Chapter 6.


The Coburg Peninsula Aboriginal Land and Sanctuary Act 1981 (NT) provided for the handing back of the Gurig National Park (Cobourg Peninsula) to Indigenous owners. 

The Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 (SA) was enacted following recommendations in the Report of Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Working Party of South Australia. It vested freehold title to all former reserve lands on Pitjantjatjara country, as well as some land purchased by the South Australian Government, in a corporate body comprising all the traditional owners.

Source: South Australia, Report of the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Working Party of South Australia, Adelaide, 1978.

Following the Report on a review of the administration of the working definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs an administrative definition of Aboriginality based on descent, self-identification and community recognition was adopted by all Federal Government agencies.


In Koowarta v. Bjelke-Petersen (1982) 153 CLR 168 the High Court upheld the Constitutional validity of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and that the Queensland Government’s blocking of John Koowarta’s land purchase plan was contrary to the Racial Discrimination Act.

The death in custody of Joe Pat in Roebourne (WA) led to widespread protests which would eventually result in the setting up of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987.

Eddie Mabo, Dave Passi and James Rice brought an action against the State of Queensland and the Commonwealth claiming ‘native title’ to Mer (Murray Islands)  Mabo v Queensland (No. 2) (‘Mabo Case’) (1992) 175 CLR 1.

The Hawke Government 1983–1991

When the Australian Labor Party returned to office in 1983, ‘self-determination’ returned to the Commonwealth vocabulary, the issue of national land rights was again on the agenda and work began on moving away from the departmental model of administration and service delivery towards an Aboriginal controlled model implemented in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. However, when the Hawke Government subsequently limited its definition of self-determination and backed away from national land rights, calls for a treaty became stronger. In 1988 Prime Minister Bob Hawke committed his Government to concluding a ‘compact’ by 1990, but failing to achieve bi-partisan support for such a compact, the Hawke Government saw merit in the concept of ‘reconciliation’. In 1991 bi-partisan support was achieved for the passage of a bill setting up the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and setting in motion a formal ten-year ‘process of reconciliation’.


Justice Toohey was appointed by Minister Clyde Holding to undertake a general review of the provisions and operation of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs’ report, Two Hundred Years Later – a report on the feasibility of a compact or ‘Makaratta’ between the Commonwealth and Aboriginal people was tabled. It rejected the idea of a treaty because of its connotations of an agreement between sovereign states. The Committee concluded that sovereignty was not vested in Aboriginal peoples other than that which they share in the Commonwealth. The Committee was in favour of a compact to eventually be inserted into the Constitution by referendum.

Minister Holding announced the engagement of Dr H. C. Coombs to conduct a review of the National Aboriginal Conference to give effect to the Government’s desire to involve the NAC in policy and decision-making.

Source: C Holding, House of Representatives, Debates, 17 November 1983, p. 2939.

In a speech to the House of Representatives on 8 December Minister Holding outlined the Government’s policies on Aboriginal affairs. He listed ‘consultation’ and ‘self-determination’ as the two key principles on which the Labor government would base its approach to achieving ‘further progress for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’. The statement also reaffirmed the government’s intention to legislate for national uniform land rights. 

Source: C Holding, House of Representatives Debates, 8 December 1983, pp. 3485-3489.

In New South Wales the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW) gave freehold title over existing reserves to local Aboriginal Land Councils and allowed for claims over some crown lands. The legislation provided flexible criteria for making land claims and required that for 15 years 7.5 per cent of general land tax revenue went into a fund for the purchase of land on the open market.


Justice Toohey’s review of the operations of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, Seven Years On, was tabled and supported Aborigines controlling mining on their lands. However, Prime Minister Hawke announced the removal of Aboriginal peoples’ right of veto over mining on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory.

Charles Perkins was appointed Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Minister Holding announced the establishment of the Aboriginal Housing Authority, and Mick Miller was commissioned to conduct a review of Aboriginal employment and training programs.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984  provided for the protection and preservation of objects and sites of religious, historic and cultural significance to Indigenous peoples where state and territory laws were ineffective or not being used.

In response to growing concerns about the safety standards observed during the conduct of British nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s, especially with regard to measures taken to protect people from the exposure to ionising radiation, and the disposal of radioactive substances and toxic materials, the government established a Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia.

In Western Australia the Aboriginal Land Inquiry chaired by Paul Seaman (the ‘Seaman Report’) recommended the transfer of reserve and mission land to Aboriginal ownership, a scheme for acquiring and returning pastoral leases to Aboriginal communities, the creation of a land claims process and that Aboriginal groups should have powers to veto mining on their land.

In South Australia the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984 (SA) granted the Maralinga lands to the Yalata people and vested former reserve lands and some land purchased by the South Australian Government in an Aboriginal corporate body. 


The Government released its ‘Preferred National Land Rights Model’ for discussion and following consideration of some 260 submissions from interested parties, the Government endorsed the principles contained in the national land rights model as appropriate, reasonable and balanced. Plans for uniform national land rights legislation ran into trouble, however, when the mining industry in Western Australia responded to the land rights proposal with an extensive election-time media campaign and the WA Premier Brian Burke refused to agree to federal proposals. The Burke Government was returned to office on the understanding that there would be no more land rights. The Western Australian Government’s own bill responding to the Seamen report failed to pass.

Minister Holding tabled Dr H. C. Coombs’ report on the NAC. The report was highly critical of the NAC’s structure.  Holding announced the establishment of a taskforce– comprising members of the NAC, including State chairmen, and officers of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs – to consider Coombs’ recommendations, consult with Aboriginal people, and develop a proposal on the NAC’s future. The Minister subsequently announced that the NAC would be terminated and that a new organisation to replace the NAC would be established following consultations with Aboriginal community groups and organisations.

Source: House of Representatives, Debates, 27 February 1985, p.283; The Role of the National Aboriginal Conference: Report to the Hon. Clyde Holding, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Canberra, 1984.

The Report of the Committee of Review of Aboriginal Employment and Training Programs (the Miller report) was tabled in Parliament. 

In Gerhardy v Brown (1985) 159 CLR 70 the High Court decided that the statutory land rights scheme created by the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 (SA) was not inconsistent with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Justice Deane commented that the recognition of native title would herald a ‘retreat from injustice’.

The Deed of Grant to Uluru National Park was delivered to Uluru Katatjuta Aboriginal Land Trust under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. The traditional owners then leased the park back to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service for 99 years. The park’s board of management became majority Aboriginal.

In the ‘Come to Canberra Campaign’ land council representatives and their supporters went to Canberra to protest against the proposed changes to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act and inadequacies in Hawke’s ‘Uniform National Land Rights’ vision.

The report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia was tabled in Parliament. It recommended that the Maralinga and Emu nuclear test sites be rehabilitated, that Aboriginal people be allowed to use the areas in an unrestricted manner, and that the British Government should pay for the costs of the cleanup.

In Queensland the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (Land Holding) Act 1985 (Qld) introduced a new system of land tenure for Aboriginal settlements which allowed Aboriginal reserve and mission land to be handed over to the control of Aboriginal councils in the form of a Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT). Such land could no longer be held as Crown Land but instead would be considered as freehold title held by local Aboriginal councils.

Source: Documenting a Democracy, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (Land Holding) Act 1985 (Qld)

In the United Nations the Working Group on Indigenous Populations began work on a Universal Declaration on Indigenous Rights.


In a Ministerial Statement to Parliament Minister Holding signalled the Federal government’s retreat from its pursuit of national land rights legislation.  Holding outlined progress on legislation for Aboriginal land rights in the states, and said it was the government’s intention to continue negotiating with the states.  The Opposition said that Holding’s statement was an admission of the government’s failure to institute national land rights legislation.

Source: C Holding, House of Representatives, Debates, 18 March 1986, p. 1473.

The Australian Law Reform Commission released a landmark report the Recognition of Aboriginal Customary Laws. The inquiry considered questions such as in what ways Aboriginal customary law should be recognised within the framework of the general criminal law, and whether Aboriginal communities should have the power to apply their customary laws and practices in the punishment and rehabilitation of Aboriginal people.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (now the Australian Human Rights Commission) was established by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986. The Commission’s statutory responsibilities include resolving complaints of discrimination or breaches of human rights under federal laws including the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

The Aboriginal Land Grant (Jervis Bay Territory) Act 1986 provided for the establishment of the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council and the grant of land to Aboriginal people in the Jervis Bay Territory.

Title to land at Daguragu in the Northern Territory was handed to Daguragu Aboriginal Land Trust.


Amidst the controversy over Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell’s alleged connections with Libyan terrorist organisations, Minister Holding told Parliament that any Aboriginal organisation which sought funding from or affiliated with a terrorist organisation would cease to receive Commonwealth funding.

Source: C Holding, House of Representatives, Debates, 29 April 1987, p. 2170.

In August Prime Minister Hawke announced the formation of a Royal Commission to investigate the causes of deaths of Aboriginal people in state and territory gaols. The Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody was established in response to a growing public concern that deaths in custody of Aboriginal people were too common and poorly explained.

In his Foundations for the Future speech Minister Gerry Hand announced that the Government would replace the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the Aboriginal Development Commission with a new agency, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) which would combine representative and administrative roles; that an Aboriginal Economic Development Corporation would be established as part of ATSIC to encourage and facilitate Aboriginal participation in commerce and enterprise and that the Government would embark on a process to reach some sort of ‘compact, agreement, treaty or Makarrata’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia.

Source: G Hand, House of Representatives, Debates, 10 December 1987, p. 3152.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs report, entitled Return to Country: the Aboriginal Homelands Movement in Australia, described the homelands movement as one of the most significant features of Aboriginal affairs in the previous 15 years and it recommended Federal, State and Territory agencies support the return to country through the delivery of services.   

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Act 1987  introduced a sunset clause to ensure no claims were lodged after June 1997. Further amendments to diminish the rights of land councils over mining were vigorously opposed by the Federation of Land Councils. A compromise deal on the mining veto was made – exploration on land could be banned for five years but once exploration occurred, land owners would have no power to veto mining.

The Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS) was introduced and Imparja Television received a TV Broadcasting license – the first to an Aboriginal organisation.

The Aboriginal Employment Development Policy (AEDP), a response to the Miller committee’s 1985 review of Aboriginal employment and training programs, was launched. 

The Victorian Government asked the Commonwealth to legislate when a land claims bill failed to pass after significant opposition from the Legislative Council. The Commonwealth passed the Aboriginal Land (Lake Condah and Framlingham Forest) Act 1987. The Act vested ownership in an Aboriginal corporation for each area and gave community government and significant controls over mining.


The year began with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders converging on Sydney for an Australia Day protest and survival celebrations on the bicentenary of white settlement.

The Barunga Statement, a petition on bark framed by a selection of Western Desert and Yolgnu paintings which celebrated land and sea rights, was presented to Prime Minister Hawke by Galarrwuy Yunupingu (Chair of the Northern Land Council) and Wenten Rubuntja (Chair of the Central Land Council) at the Barunga Festival in the Northern Territory. The petition asked the government to recognise a range of civil, economic, social and cultural rights and for the Commonwealth Parliament to ‘negotiate with us a Treaty recognising our prior ownership, continued occupation and sovereignty and affirming our human rights and freedom.’ Hawke promised that there would ‘be a treaty negotiated between the Aboriginal people and the Government on behalf of all the people of Australia’.  

Source: Land Rights News, no 2, July 1988, p. 9 and Sydney Morning Herald 13 June 1988.

The first item of business in the first sitting in the new Parliament House was a resolution acknowledging the prior occupation of land by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and acknowledging their dispossession and the denial of their citizenship rights.  The resolution affirmed the importance of Indigenous culture and heritage, the entitlement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to self-management and self-determination subject to the laws of the Commonwealth, and the desirability of the Commonwealth seeking further reconciliation with Indigenous people. Although the resolution passed, the inability of the Government and Opposition to agree on its wording prevented the resolution from having bipartisan support.

Source: House of Representatives, Debates, 23 August 1988, p.10337, 11186.

Minister Hand introduced the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Bill into the Parliament. Over 90 amendments were made to the bill before it was eventually passed in 1989.

In Mabo v. Queensland (1988) 166 CLR 186 (Mabo No. 1) the High Court judged that Queensland legislation to extinguish native title without payment of compensation was inconsistent with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. The decision made it clear that the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 can prevent discriminatory treatment of Indigenous interests in land.


Prime Minister Hawke announced that a treaty may not be concluded during the current Parliament.

The Commonwealth negotiated with the Northern Territory Government for the establishment of a statutory regime to cover the grant of Aboriginal community living areas on pastoral land. As a result of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Act 1989, land claims over stock routes and stock reserves were granted to Aboriginal people.

The Aboriginal Education Supplementary Assistance Act 1989 supported the Aboriginal Education Strategic Initiatives Program (AESIP) and several other direct assistance programs. It defined four objectives: increasing Aboriginal involvement in educational decisions; equal access to education by Aboriginals; equity of participation by Aboriginals in education and equitable and appropriate educational outcomes for Aboriginals.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989 established ATSIC.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Act 1989 created the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and replaced the 1964 Act which had established the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS).

In the Northern Territory the Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park Act 1989 (NT) provided for a ‘leaseback’ arrangement between Jawoyn Aboriginal Land Trust and the Conservation Land Corporation and provided that the park be jointly managed.


Prime Minister Hawke attended the Waitangi Treaty anniversary celebrations in New Zealand and announced that preparations for treaty talks in Australia would be accelerated. In March the Hawke government was re-elected and Robert Tickner was appointed Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

The first elections for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) were held with one-third of eligible Aboriginal people voting.

Health Minister Brian Howe’s National Aboriginal Health Strategy was adopted unanimously by a joint Ministerial forum of Ministers for Aboriginal Affairs and Health.

The Federal Resource Assessment Commission (RAC) began an intensive inquiry into mining at Guratba (Coronation Hill) in the Northern Territory.


The Aboriginal Affairs portfolio was renamed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.

Minister Tickner issued a discussion paper entitled Aboriginal Reconciliation which proposed the establishment of a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation to facilitate a process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to be formally concluded by 1 January 2001. The initiative was supported by the Opposition and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991 was passed with bi-partisan support, providing for the setting up of a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. The council of prominent Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people was to consult widely on the need for an ‘instrument of reconciliation’ and make recommendations on the nature of such a document.

Source: Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation archive.

The Federal Resource Assessment Commission (RAC) found that mining at Guratba would damage Jawoyn society and culture. Prime Minister Hawke announced his decision to ban mining at Coronation Hill (Guratba), despite reportedly not having majority support in Cabinet or the Labor caucus.

Paul Keating became Prime Minister and Bob Hawke, in one of his last formal acts as Prime Minister after losing the leadership challenge, hung the Barunga Statement in Parliament House.

The report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was released. It investigated the deaths of 99 people between January 1980 and the end of 1990. The report made 339 wide-ranging recommendations to governments designed to reduce the number of black deaths in custody. The report was greeted with enormous hope by the Indigenous community as a blueprint for change.

The Constitutional Centenary Foundation was established for the purposes of encouraging and promoting public discussion, understanding and review of the Australian constitutional system in the decade leading to the centenary of the Constitution in 2001. It identified the constitutional position of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a key issue for the constitutional decade.

Source: Constitutional Centenary Foundation.

In State developments the Aboriginal Land Act 1991 (Qld) and the Torres Strait Islander Land Act 1991 (Qld) transferred into Indigenous ownership all previous reserve land under DOGIT (Deed of Grant in Trust) titles, the Aboriginal Lands Act 1991 (Vic) vested small areas of land into Aboriginal hands and the Upper House in Tasmania rejected land rights legislation for Aboriginal people.


[1].      Items under each year are not strictly chronological and to keep the focus on Commonwealth developments, state and international entries are generally mentioned at the end of each year section. Acts named can be assumed to be Commonwealth Acts unless the name of the state follows in parentheses.


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