Sunday, 17 November 2019

Recent History


In 1967 there was a referendum in Australia to do with who had the power to legislate for Aborigines. Up till that time each State had separate laws regarding the indigenous population, and many of those laws were discrimatory and racist in nature. Activists and the Federal Government wanted to rectify this situation and indeed the referendum passed by an enormous majority (90%). But what the referendum was actually about and what it changed is not quite how it is remembered now.

 Plaque in the floor of the foyer of the National Museum of Australia.
Plaque commemorating the 1967 referendum on who legislated for Aborigines in the foyer of the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, Australia.  Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Many people think that this was the moment that Aborigines were finally allowed to vote, and stopped being classified as 'flora and fauna'. Neither of these things are quite true. One of the things it did allow for though was that Aborigines would be included in the official population census figures, which meant that health policy could be more sensibly managed and allowed such issues as infant mortality and life expectancy to be monitored. Federal legislation was also introduced to cover land rights, discrimatory practices, financial assistance and preservation of cultural heritage.

Certain States were notorious for discrimatory practices towards Aborigines. For example, in Queensland they were treated as slaves and forbidden to engage in traditional practices. In Western Australia Aborigines could apply for citizenship, but had to renounce all traditional practices, and their status could be removed at any time. Aborigines were allowed to vote if they had served in the defence forces in some States, but otherwise it was not until 1983 that Aborigines were required to register for the electoral roll and vote, putting them on the same standing as other Australian citizens.

Plaque in the floor of the foyer of the National Museum of Australia.
Plaque commemorating the Mabo Decision, in the floor of the foyer of the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, Australia. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The Mabo Decision in 1992 was a significant turning point in the fight for recognition of Indigenous Land Rights in Australia. The High Court decision overturned the idea that Australia was terra nullius when Europeans arrived. The Torres Strait Islander who led the fight for Land Rights, Eddie Mabo, is today a household name in Australia. Very sadly he died just months before the High Court decision was made. Today, 15% of Australian territorial land and water is subject to the Native Titles Act and there are over 600 registered Indigenous Land Use Agreements between Aboriginal tribal groups and other land users, establishing exactly how certain places are managed.


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