Part I: Early years — akin to going through ‘hell corner’
Deep history: For 70,000 years, people live on the Australian continent, adapting to its ecology and climate, and building a rich tradition of art, culture and knowledge. In the area we now call the Sydney Basin, people live for well over 30,000 years.
1770s-1780s: Soldiers and colonists sail from Britain to the eastern and southern coasts of Australia. They call the Indigenous people of the Sydney region ‘Eora’ (Yura). Ignoring the Eora’s rights, and their deep connection to land and country, the British declare Australia terra nullius, a place belonging to no one. The land is most definitely not a ‘null’, but the doctrine of terra nullius is a convenient legal cover for theft on a colossal scale. The legal fiction will be maintained for two centuries.
1800-1830s: On the island of Van Diemen’s Land, this is a period of bloody conflict and massacre, known as the Black War and defined by terrible atrocities. In 1832, George Arthur, Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, says it was a fatal error that a treaty had not been entered into with the island’s Indigenous people some thirty years earlier.
1835: John Batman fraudulently ‘purchases’ land around Port Phillip from the Wurundjeri people in exchange for a meagre bounty of everyday goods and trinkets. He calls the deal a ‘treaty’.
1898-1900: In a series of referenda, the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania approve the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia.
9 July 1900: The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900, passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, is given Royal Assent to come into force on 1 January 1901. Australia’s constitution contains no recognition or acknowledgement that people had been here for tens of thousands of years. There are two references to Indigenous people. Section 51 gives the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to ‘people of any race, other than the Aboriginal race in any state’. Section 127 provides that ‘aboriginal natives shall not be counted’.
1914-1918: During WWI, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers serve with valour and distinction. Upon returning, only a handful were granted land under the Returned Servicemen’s Settlement Scheme.
1932: William Cooper and other Indigenous leaders establish the Australian Aborigines’ League.
1937: A petition is presented to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons (Labor turned United Australia Party, a precursor to the modern Liberal party) for passing to King George VI to intervene, ‘for the preservation of our race from extinction and to grant representation to our race in the Federal Parliament’.
1938: Lyons Government decides that no good purpose would be gained by submitting the ‘Cooper petition’ to the King. The Aborigines Progressive Association and the Australian Aborigines’ League declare 26 January a day of mourning for Aboriginal people.
1945: Reg Saunders, the first Indigenous Australian commissioned as an officer in the Australian Army, recalls of WWII: ‘Australian soldiers I met in the Army were not colour-conscious towards the aboriginal…native troops from practically every colony in the Empire fought and died in the struggle against tyranny and oppression, and Australian aboriginals were no exception.’
1948: The Chifley Labor Government passes the Commonwealth Nationality and Citizenship Act, giving citizenship to all Australians, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Bill is introduced by the controversial Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell (an advocate for the White Australia policy and known for making racist comments in the parliament). Calwell later writes in his memoir (1972): ‘If any people are homeless in Australia today, it is the Aboriginals. They are the only non-European descended people to whom we owe any debt. Someday, I hope, we will do justice to them.’ Legal discrimination remains widespread at the state level.
1962: Robert Menzies’ Liberal Government amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act to give the vote to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at federal elections.
1963: Menzies as PM announces that, in Arnhem land, mining rights have been granted to the Gove Bauxite Corporation, a subsidiary of Pechiney Aluminium. Yolngu leaders present Yirrkala Bark petitions to the Australian Parliament, protesting the seizure of more than three hundred square kilometres of Aboriginal land. A cross-party House Select Committee recommends compensation but is ignored. Another rock is thrown at Indigenous owners.
1965: The Freedom Ride. Charles Perkins, a pioneer in Indigenous education and justice, leads a group of University students travelling by bus to pools, parks and pubs in NSW to protest de facto segregation.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), Army Corporal, notable political activist and poet, is a key figure in the campaign for a referendum to properly recognise Indigenous Australians, and to give the Federal Parliament authority over Indigenous affairs. Oodgeroo Noonuccal urges Prime Minister Robert Menzies, and his successor Harold Holt, to support the referendum campaign.
1966: Vincent Lingiari leads a walk-off by Indigenous Gurindji employees at Wave Hill Cattle Station, 600km south of Darwin, to protest against poor work and conditions. The employees establish the Wattie Creek Camp and begin a long fight for land rights. ‘Now it don’t sound like much but it sure got tongues talking’ (Paul Kelly, ‘Little things, Big things grow’). Labor’s leader of the opposition, Arthur Calwell, pledges ALP support for the referendum.
Part II: The middle years
1967: Under the Liberal Country Government of Harold Holt, a referendum is held to include Indigenous Australians in determinations of population, and to empower the Federal Parliament to legislate for Indigenous affairs. In a landmark moment for reconciliation, 90.77% of the 6,182,585 Australians vote in favour of the referendum. It is a major step forward: the new powers will be used for great things including the return of land to traditional owners. But the powers will also be used for controversial policies such as the Northern Territory ‘intervention’.
1971: In the NT Supreme Court, Indigenous people unsuccessfully challenge mining leases. ‘The Aborigines belong to the land, but the land does not belong to the Aborigines’ (Blackburn judgement, known as the Milurrpum decision). Neville Bonner is appointed to parliament as Liberal Senator for Queensland. Harold Joseph Thomas designs the now-iconic Aboriginal flag, which is flown at Victoria Square in Adelaide in July 1971.
26 January 1972: Tent Embassy. Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, and Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams plant a beach umbrella on the front lawn of Old Parliament House. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is erected in response to the refusal of William McMahon’s Coalition Government to recognise Aboriginal land rights.
1975: Australian Federal parliament passes the Racial Discrimination Act. All Australians, regardless of ethnicity and background, must be treated equally and receive the same opportunities. This reconciliation landmark will be a critical ingredient in the historic Wik and Mabo cases.
From little things, big things do indeed grow. PM Gough Whitlam meets Vincent Lingiari (who has spent eight long years of waiting) on the land at Wave Hill. The tall stranger says: ‘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 earth as a sign that we restore them to you and your children forever.’
1976: The Fraser Government implements the recommendations of the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission (also known as the Woodward Royal Commission) initiated by Gough Whitlam, and passes the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, which allows Aboriginal people in the NT to make claims on land to which they can prove traditional ties. This leads to the establishment of land rights legislation in most Australian states. Patricia (Pat) O’Shane becomes Australia’s first Indigenous barrister.
1979: The Aboriginal Treaty Committee is formed and the National Aboriginal Conference calls for a treaty.
1985: Uluru is handed back to its traditional owners.
1988: New Parliament House opens. The forecourt reflects Australia’s ancient beginnings. Aboriginal artist Michael Nelson Jagamara, of the Papunya community in central Australia, designs the 196-square-metre mosaic that ‘stands for this place where all people come and meet together…These Dreamings are part of this country that we live in…We’ve been trying to explain what the land means to us for the sake of all Australians.’ The Barunga Statement is presented to Bob Hawke PM, who indicates his support for a treaty.
1989: John Pilger publishes ‘A Secret Country’, an incendiary account of Indigenous affairs in Australia: ‘In 1984 the Labor Party adopted a land rights programme which “solemnly pledges” to finish that which the Whitlam Government began. Aborigines were to have a veto over all exploitation of land handed back to them. Australia was not South Africa. The first and third worlds would be reconciled in Australia…On October 18, [WA Labor Premier] Burke met Hawke in Perth and told him that not only the State Government but several Labor Senate seats were vulnerable to the anti-land rights campaign. Hawke acted…he withdrew the most fundamental right laid down in the proposed land rights legislation.’
1990: The musical Bran Nue Dae enthrals audiences across the country.
1990: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) is established by the Hawke Government to formerly involve Indigenous Australians in the processes of government affecting their lives.
1991: The report of the Royal Commission into the deaths of 99 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australian jails is presented to the Australian parliament.
The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation is established.
Bangarra is the Wiradjuri word meaning ‘to make fire’. Stephen Page becomes artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre. With his brothers David ‘Little Davy’ Page (chorographer) and Russell (dancer), Bangarra becomes a global phenomenon. David wins four Deadly Awards and many other accolades. Youthi Yindi’s ‘Treaty’ features Australian language (Yolngu-Matha) and gains international recognition. The song peaks at no. 11 on the ARIA Singles Chart and no. 6 of the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play singles charts. Molly Meldrum says ‘do yourself a favour’ and listen to it.
1992: The High Court recognises native title in the landmark Mabo v Queensland case, busting the pernicious myth of terra nullius. Mick Dodson is appointed as the inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.
10 December 1992: Redfern Speech. PM Paul Keating delivers one of the greatest Australian speeches at Redfern Park, NSW. It includes this acknowledgment: ‘We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.’
1993: The first National Week of Prayer for Reconciliation is supported by Australia’s major faith communities. The Keating government passes the Native Title Act 1993. AFL legend Nicky Winmar raises his St Kilda jumper at Victoria Park and points to his black skin after receiving racist abuse from Collingwood fans. The United Nations declares 1994 the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.
1995: The Australian Government officially recognises the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags.
Part III: Long straight into the ‘21st century’
October 1996: Under PM Howard, Australia’s parliament affirms a commitment to the ‘equal rights’ of citizens, regardless of ‘race, colour, creed or origin’. The motion was agreed in discussions between the Leader of the House (Mr Peter Reith) and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Gareth Evans). Howard remarks ‘this motion is not an attempt to pretend some phoney level of bipartisanship’.
May 1997: The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families releases the Bringing them Home report.
John Howard PM opens the Australian Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne: ‘we need to acknowledge openly that the treatment accorded to many indigenous Australians over a significant period of European settlement represents the most blemished chapter in our history.’ Howard’s choice of words elicits outcry from the audience. The ill-chosen and diminutive ‘blemish’ is especially galling. Some elders stand and turn their back on the PM.
26 May 1998: First National Sorry Day.
1999: The Australian Republic referendum includes a question to add a preamble to the Australian constitution. The phrasing of the preamble question is heavily criticised by Indigenous leaders. It is resoundingly defeated in every state and territory.
28 May 2000: Bridge Walk. More than 250,000 people walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of Indigenous Australians.
2000: Cathy Freeman wins gold at the Sydney Olympics. Midnight Oil sing ‘let’s give it back’ (Beds Are Burning) at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. ‘Sorry’ is emblazoned on their outfits.
2001: Steve Bracks, Labor Premier of Victoria, sets out a vision for reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Victorians by 2010.
2002: Koori Courts are created in Victoria as part of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement in order to allow participation of Aboriginal communities and culture in the legal system. It is an attempt to bridge the divide between culture of Indigenous Australians and imposed colonial law.
2002: The Commonwealth Government establishes a memorial to the Stolen Generations at Reconciliation Place in Canberra.
2004: ATSIC dismantled in the aftermath of corruption allegations and litigation. Both major parties pledge to introduce alternatives.
2005: ATSIC is abolished.
2006: The ‘Close the Gap: Indigenous Health Campaign’ is developed in response to the Social justice report 2005 by Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, in accordance with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986.
2007: High Indigenous mortality is a national disgrace. Life expectancy for non-Indigenous males is 11.5 years longer than for Indigenous males. It is 9.7 years longer for non-Indigenous females than for Indigenous females.
On the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the Howard Government begins the controversial Northern Territory Emergency Response – which includes suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. The ‘intervention’ receives bipartisan parliamentary support, as well as support from some Aboriginal leaders including Noel Pearson. During the election campaign, PM John Howard announced (at the Sydney Institute) that, if re-elected, he would hold a referendum to amend the Preamble to the Constitution. Kevin Rudd as opposition leader gives bipartisan support for the proposal regardless of the election outcome.
2008: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issues for the first time a formal national apology for the crimes committed against Australia’s Indigenous people. This step towards reconciliation – a long time coming has bipartisan support. In parliament the Liberal Leader of the Opposition, Brendan Nelson, reaches across the dispatch table to shake the PM’s hand.
2008: PM Rudd established the National Indigenous Health Equality Council. COAG commits $4.6 billion towards Closing the Gap on Indigenous Disadvantage for projects in health, housing, early childhood development, economic participation and remote service delivery. COAG approves the National Indigenous Reform Agreement, which sets out six Closing the Gap targets. There is bipartisan support for Closing the Gap.
2012: The campaign to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution begins
2013: The Australian Parliament passes the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013 to maintain the momentum towards a referendum.
2014: AFL legend Adam Goodes is named Australian of the year.
Part IV: The ‘twists and turns’ keep coming today
2015: A cross-party report tabled by the first indigenous member of the House of Representatives, Ken Wyatt, recommends a clause mentioning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders should be inserted into Australia’s founding document (and repealing S25 which currently allows the states to disqualify people from voting on the basis of race, and repealing or amending S51 to remove reference to race).
2016: Victorian Labor Government under Premier Andrews commits to advancing a treaty.
2017: We are failing to meet our Closing the Gap targets. Just one example: life expectancy for non-Indigenous males is 8.6 years longer than for Indigenous males. It is 7.8 years longer for non-Indigenous females than for Indigenous females.
26 May 2017: The ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ calls for ‘First, a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution and second, a Makarrata Commission to supervise treaty processes and truth-telling.’
2019: Breaking new ground in Australia. Mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto announce they support the Uluru Statement. BHP chief Andrew Mackenzie says: ‘These fears [of a constitutionally enshrined voice] don’t stand up to scrutiny.’ For the first time, indigenous Australians are both Minister (Ken Wyatt) and Shadow Minister (Linda Burnley) for Indigenous Australians. For the first time, a minister of the crown is sworn in wearing a traditional kangaroo skin (booka). For the first time, the Governor General’s opening speech commits the Government to finding consensus on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.
Minister Ken Wyatt pledges during NAIDOC week to ‘bring forward a consensus option’, to be put to a referendum during this term of parliament. Ken Wyatt tells Sky News he is ‘not going to disagree’ with his leader, after PM Scott Morrison rules out having an Indigenous Voice in Parliament enshrined in the constitution. Nicky Winmar’s 1993 gesture is depicted in a statue outside Opus Stadium in Perth.
Today: Australian officials are drafting legislation that will include community and regional voices, but not a national one enshrined in the constitution. If the legislation lacks meaningful change, it is likely to be as popular as the defunct 1999 ‘preamble question’.
Genuinely closing the gap requires genuine reconciliation, and that means Voice, Treaty and Truth – the core elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. To achieve these, we need genuine consensus for constitutional change.
Of the 44 referendum questions asked in the modern history of Australia, only eight were carried. It is an unwritten law of Australian politics that, for a referendum to pass, there must be bipartisan support. That doesn’t mean finding the lowest common denominator. It means our leaders need to lead.