Indigenous Voices on Public Policy
Intellectual history is the study of thinking across generations—how ideas emerge, develop and change over time. Such analysis relies on the words of key thinkers as they work through shared problems. It traces a conversation as people grapple with the same questions years or decades apart, trying to learn from the past and face the future.
Such conversations about public policy are rarely straightforward. Language shifts, ideas are expressed in the idiom of the moment, concepts vanish and must be rediscovered. There is never a single thread to the discussion, only multitudinous strands overlapping and intertwining, responding to events yet returning over time to shared concerns.
The past 80 years of policy dialogue among Aboriginal Australians embraces many approaches, some framed around rights, others around land, some demanding equality and others separation, all concerned with survival, identity and community yet arguing, shifting, never settling.
To explore this conversation further this essay takes five moments, each broadly associated with a different generation of Aboriginal Australians. We sample voices in the conversation and explore how ideas flow across the years as successive Indigenous thinkers grapple with the response to settler society. The choice of moments is shaped by the thinkers—the issues they chose, rather than responses to actions by government. This short survey of Indigenous intellectual history begins in 1938 and ends in the here and now, opening and closing on Yorta Yorta country but traversing, all too briefly, discussions from across the continent.
1938: William Cooper
In 1938 Australia marked 150 years since European settlement, which had brought dislocation, disease and dispersal. The arrival of Europeans shaped the life of William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta man born around 1860 near the confluence of the Murray and Goulburn rivers. From childhood Cooper worked as a shearer and handyman in regional Victoria and New South Wales. He took adult literacy classes during his years at Moira station, under the tutelage of missionary Daniel Matthews.
As he studied and mulled, Cooper began writing letters and petitions to political figures. In 1887, aged around 27, Cooper petitioned Baron Charles Carrington, the governor of New South Wales, on behalf of local Indigenous people. Cooper argued for access to traditional land:
those among us, who so desire, should be granted sections of land not less than 100 acres per family in fee simple or else at a small nominal rental annually, with the option of purchases at such prices as shall be deemed reasonable for them under the circumstances, always bearing in mind that the Aborigines were the former occupiers of the land.1
It was far from the first call from the displaced for land, but Cooper had been thinking about the legal framework of the colony. He argued the British and their descendants had an obligation to Aboriginal people, who had suffered violent dispossession. Indeed, Cooper believed that Queen Victoria had granted the reserve lands to those Aboriginal people living on them.
The same year Cooper appealed to John Moore Chanter, who represented the seat of Murray in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Again Cooper argued the MLA should support the project to provide Indigenous people with 100 acres: ‘I do trust you will be successful in securing this small portion of a vast territory which is ours by Divine right.’2 This time Cooper expanded his argument. A committed Christian, he used the teaching of the missionary. God and religion represented a higher form of authority, a principle that establishes rights for all people. As professed Christians, politicians such as Chanter should acknowledge the justice of the claim.
It was not to be. Although his efforts were again rebuffed, Cooper did not give up his arguments for land as the basis of a just settlement with Aboriginal Australia. As he aged, Cooper thought deeply about assimilation and separation. He sought ways for two worlds to coexist, albeit in a context where Europeans expect Aborigines to adjust to European ways. In a letter to the Age in 1933, Cooper pressed the case for access to land, arguing that self-reliance would encourage different peoples to live side by side: ‘It is against the nature of the Aborigine to move from his home country and he should be well cared for in his natural environment. If carefully educated in right surroundings aborigines would soon accustom themselves to the ways of decent white men.’ 3
Again, in 1937, Cooper argued for a partnership so Aboriginal identity could flourish alongside the European society that now surrounded Aboriginal Australia. This, he suggested, was an urgent national project:
Our Prime Minister tells us that he and his cabinet are much concerned about the Aboriginals, but the problem is to know how exactly to help us.
Surely that is no problem, for it is plain that we need food, shelter, education, civilisation, and, finally, complete emancipation.
We do not want policemen to rule over us and cattlemen to ‘civilise’ us. We need and want the cooperation of the educated, kindly and sympathetic white people, backed by the financial power of the Federal Government, to bring education, culture and industry to my people so that we may become partners in the work of our country—the Commonwealth of Australia.4
When Cooper was writing, the Commonwealth held no constitutional authority in Indigenous matters. Cooper anticipated a day when the national level of government accepted responsibility for a comprehensive settlement with Aboriginal Australia. A later group of Indigenous leaders would take up this battle.
The William Cooper who set out the argument for Commonwealth intervention was now a city dweller. In his seventies, he had left Cumerooguna station and moved to Footscray in Melbourne, to ensure access to an old age pension. From his new home the political activism continued. Cooper now sought Aboriginal voices in decision-making. For some years he had been examining the parliamentary representation guaranteed to Maori in New Zealand.
Cooper also drew on the precedent of Aboriginal people petitioning the British monarchy, which originated in 1847 with ‘the humble petition of the free Aborigines Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land’. The Tasmanian Aboriginal community of Wybalenna on Flinders Island appealed to Queen Victoria on the basis that ‘… we are your free children that we were not taken prisoners but freely gave up our country to Colonel Arthur then the Governor after defending ourselves’.5 The petitioners sought the dismissal of Dr Henry Jeanneret, superintendent of Aboriginals on Flinders Island, due to his behaviour and his arbitrary use of power: ‘We humbly pray your Majesty the Queen will hear our prayer and not let Dr Jeanneret any more to come to Flinders Island.’6
In response, Dr Jeanneret illegally imprisoned Walter G. Arthur, the primary author of the document, in an attempt to make him renounce the petition. Arthur wrote a further letter to the colonial secretary complaining about his imprisonment and demanding justice. This led to the appointment of Matthew Friend by the Colonial Secretary to investigate the conditions on Flinders Island. Dr Jeanneret was eventually removed from his position, and the community at Wybalenna relocated to Oyster Cove.
Following this precedent, William Cooper petitioned King George V in the memorable year of 1938, requesting the monarch intervene in our behalf and through the instrument of your Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth grant to our people representation in the Federal Parliament, either in the person of one of our own blood or by a white man known to have studied our needs and to be in sympathy with our race.7
However, experience had taught Cooper not to rely on help from established institutions. In his view it was time to organise Aboriginal political associations. Cooper was a founding member, and soon secretary, of the Australian Aborigines’ League. Cooper suggested the league pursue not just Aboriginal rights but also a form of self-sufficiency. Cooper described this as ‘the Dark Man’s own ameliorative effort for his own race’.8
The Australian Aborigines’ League promoted a ‘Day of Mourning’ protest on 26 January 1938 to mark 150 years of British colonisation. The league shared objectives with new emerging Indigenous political organisations such as the Aborigines’ Progressive Association of New South Wales, established the year before in Dubbo. The Progressive Association did not mince words. As organising secretary William Ferguson said of the sesquicentenary:
We have been ‘protected’ for 150 years, and look what has become of us. Scientists have studied us and written books about us as though we were some strange curiosity, but they have not prevented us from contracting tuberculosis and other diseases which have wiped us out in thousands … It would be better for the authorities to turn a machine-gun on us.9
William Cooper remained committed to Christian values that make all equal before God. Thus he insisted the rights of one belong to all. In December 1938 this led Cooper to protest outside the German consulate in Melbourne against ‘the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi Government of Germany …’ Cooper drew parallels between the plight of the Jews in Europe and that of the First Australians, arguing that ‘while we are all indignant over Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, we are getting the same treatment here and we would like this fact duly considered’.10
Such demonstrations were rare. This may have been the only private protest against Kristallnacht anywhere in the world. The German consulate refused to accept the petition, yet Cooper thought it important Aboriginal voices were heard about oppression on the other side of the world. It was a brave act recognised 70 years later when a ceremony in Israel commemorated William Cooper and those Indigenous Australians with him who spoke out in the name of universal rights.
In the writing of William Cooper, in the voice that speaks through petitions, letters and public addresses, we hear recurring themes in the Indigenous policy conversation—a concern with identity, the pull of assimilation yet an equal determination to remain Aboriginal, engagement with wider politics alongside recognition that few non-Indigenous people are listening. A product of the missions, which he once described as ‘our best friends’, Cooper offered a political program that sought recognition within the political, religious and legal framework imposed on Aboriginal Australia.11 These themes will reappear again and again in the conversation.
The 1967 referendum
In his many appeals to authorities, William Cooper stressed the need for the law to reflect the professed Australian value of the fair go. This ideal of equality would be expressed by a new generation of Indigenous leaders through a campaign for legal reform. The demand for citizenship had been expressed in 1938 ‘Day of Mourning’ protests. A Sydney meeting of the Australian Aborigines Conference on 26 January heard a resolution demanding the Australian nation ‘make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines’ and adopt a ‘new policy that will raise our people to Full Citizenship Status and Equality within the Community.’12
Some 20 years later a campaign to secure such change took shape. The movement began with a meeting of activists in Adelaide during 1958. The new Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders advocated the removal of discrimination in national, state and territory law, along with equal pay and access to traditional lands.
The federal council was not only an Indigenous organisation, though a number of prominent Aboriginal activists were associated with the council, including Pastor Doug Nicholls from Victoria and Jeff Barnes from South Australia. In the years ahead the council would campaign for a national referendum to secure constitutional change. It collected 100,000 signatures on a petition presented to the Australian Parliament, lobbied politicians and, ultimately, persuaded the Liberal government of Harold Holt to announce a referendum for 27 May 1967.
By any means this was a successful campaign—90.77 per cent of Australians voted to change sections 51 and 127 of the Constitution. This would count Aboriginal Australians in the census population and allow federal laws on Aboriginal matters to overrule state legislation. Political support for the proposals was so strong no parliamentarian could be found to sponsor the ‘no’ case in the booklet sent to households before a referendum.
The ‘yes’ case spoke not just to the constitutional issue, but to wider community disquiet about discrimination. For alongside the referendum campaign, a series of actions by Aboriginal communities drew attention to aspects of entrenched discrimination. The Yirrkala bark petition of 1963, submitted to the Australian Parliament by the Yolngu people in response to mining prospecting on the Gove peninsular in the Arnhem, presented the first native title claims to traditional lands. The bark petition claimed ‘the land in question has been hunting and food gathering land for the Yirrkala tribes from time immemorial’.13 Despite a sympathetic hearing by a parliamentary committee, the claims were ignored and mining leases granted.
In New South Wales, ‘the Freedom Ride’ of 1965 made clear the tensions in some regional centres. Inspired by recent American events, and led by Charlie Perkins and other Sydney University students, the bus tour was announced as a fact finding expedition to survey Aboriginal living conditions. The Freedom Ride soon illustrated racism in rural communities. There were street confrontations between students and town residents, notably in Walgett where the local RSL excluded Aboriginal ex-servicemen, and in Moree, where the Council-run swimming pool excluded Aboriginal children.
Perkins would later reflect on the humiliation of discrimination:
Not being able to sit down at a restaurant, you know, in a delicatessen, whatever, or a restaurant in a country town if white people wanted a seat, is not acceptable, you know. Or not being allowed to sit down anyhow. You can only have takeaways. Only being served in one bar in a hotel and not the lounge or anywhere else. Not being able to sit at the back seats of picture theatres, only in the front. This all happened in Walgett. Walgett was Australia all over. In my mind, Walgett, Moree too … was the beginning of the social change for Aboriginal people in Australia, which allowed the referendum in 1967 to be successful.14
The sense of entrenched discrimination likewise inspired Faith Bandler, secretary of the federal council and a South Sea Islander who became a leading voice in the 1967 referendum campaign. The law must change, she argued, to free Aboriginal people from the tyranny of state laws. As she later recalled:
You could be a relatively free person, walking around Victoria, you come to New South Wales, and you find you’ve got to register if you wanted to visit your aunt or uncle, then, if you move over the border to Queensland, the very fact that you went over the border meant you could be arrested without reason. There was a great need to abolish those state laws and bring everyone together under the common law.15
By voting ‘yes’, suggested Bandler, Australians would make the national parliament responsible for a program of equal rights and equal opportunity for Aboriginal people. Her aspiration was mirrored by Chika Dixon, a leading Aboriginal activist and acting president of Sydney organisation the Foundation of Aboriginal Affairs: ‘For most Aborigines [the referendum] is basically and most importantly a matter of seeing white Australians finally, after 179 years, affirming … that they believe we are human beings.’16
The mood in Indigenous policy discussion changed after the referendum. Aboriginal people had organised to argue for, and win, new legal status. Yet disillusion followed. Those who pressed for constitutional recognition felt little had improved. Aboriginal activist and poet Kath Walker concluded she and others had proved mere ‘stooges of the white Australians working in the interest of white Australians’ because a referendum vote did little more than ‘ease the guilty conscience of white Australians’.17
Walker had proved an important figure in the referendum campaign, as the Queensland state secretary of the federal council, lobbyist and an eloquent public voice for change. The first published Indigenous female poet, she travelled to Canberra to press the constitutional case with then prime minister Robert Menzies. When the prime minister invited the delegation for a drink, Walker noted pointedly he could be jailed in Queensland for offering her alcohol.
Walker had begun with hope. Change was possible. Her poem ‘United We Win’ urged fellow Indigenous Australians not to despair, for the ‘black man … knows he has white friends today’. There is mateship now, so Aborigines should ‘Brood no more on the bloody past that is gone without regret, / But look to the light of happier days that will shine for your children yet.’18
In the years following the referendum Walker reflected on her experience of political engagement with white Australia. Her tone lost its earlier optimism. Five years after the referendum Walker moved to secluded land on North Stradbroke Island. The following decade she would leave behind her European name in favour of Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal tribe.
In a later lecture on ‘Black History in the Seventies’, Oodgeroo Noonuccal would conclude: ‘I would say that the seventies were a watershed in Aboriginal history. When the decade started there was optimism and hope in the face of dreadful problems. Despite a good start, the optimism has gone, the hopes have been dashed, only the dreadful problems remain.’ Later in the same lecture came a clear sense of despair that campaigns such as the 1967 referendum delivered so little in retrospect: ‘My people face dispossession, disease and death. Despite the efforts of Aborigines and our white friends … our future is grim.’19
In conversations around the 1967 referendum are found strands of past and future conversations among Indigenous leaders—aspiration to reshape political arrangements using legal concepts of equality and freedom from discrimination, along with an emerging despair that formal recognition achieves little meaningful change.
In later work, Oodgeroo Noonuccal would embrace ideas of self-determination. No longer willing to work within white structures, she now sought a resurgent identity for Aboriginal Australia, expressed in the language of self-determination. In 1969 she published her now famous ‘Black Commandments’:
1. Thou shalt gather thy scattered people together.
2. Thou shalt work for black liberation.
3. Thou shalt resist assimilation with all thy might.
4. Thou shall not become a black liberal in a white society.
5. Thou shall not uphold the white lies in a black society.
6. Thou shall take back land stolen from thy forefathers.
7. Thou shall meet white violence with black violence.
8. Thou shall remove thyself from a sick, white society.
9. Thou shalt find peace and happiness in a stable black society.
10. Thou shalt think black and act black.
11. Thou shalt be black all the rest of thy days.20
This version of identity too would resurface many times in the decades ahead. Charles Perkins recalled vividly the ‘frustration’ caused by the refusal of the federal government to ‘implement the spirit of the referendum’. The result, he suggested, was an ‘assertion of black dignity’, often labelled by media as ‘black power’.21 Activism linked to self-determination would remain a recurrent strand in Indigenous conversation, a reminder of choices open to Aboriginal Australia.
The Tent Embassy of 1972
When Oodgeroo Noonuccal urged Aborigines to ‘be black all the rest of thy days’, she spoke to a time of heightened awareness of Indigenous claims against settler society. In 1971 the Yolgnu people lost their claim for native title, with Justice Richard Blackburn of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory relying on the concept of terra nullius to reject communal native title as alien to Australian legal tradition.
In April the same year prime minister William McMahon promised to ‘end racial discrimination in our midst and … deal with Aboriginal Australians with respect, justice, humanity and compassion’.22 His statement was silent on native title, noting only that ‘consideration will be given’ to allowing ‘Aboriginal groups effective access to land for recreational and ceremonial purposes as well as for the development of enterprises’.
On Australia Day 1972 the prime minister was more specific: his government would not recognise Aboriginal land rights, but instead offer a 50-year general-purpose lease on lands for Aborigines, conditional upon their ‘intention and ability to make reasonable economic and social use of land’.23
It was time, suggested some activists, for more direct action. For Kevin Gilbert, the prime minister’s rejection of native title led to the formation of a Black Panther movement in Queensland. For Gary Foley, ‘Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs’ became the slogan of a new emerging home-grown Black Power movement.24
Talking over the Australia Day address, a discussion group in Redfern calling itself the Black Caucus dispatched a group of four young men—Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bert Williams and Tony Coorey—to set up a protest on the lawns of Parliament House. Soon they were sitting on the lawns of parliament with a beach umbrella and later a solitary tent.
Paul Coe remembers: ‘Tony Coorey got the idea of calling the tent “Aboriginal Embassy”, [which] started off as a joke, but turned out to be perhaps one of the most brilliant symbolic forms of protest that this country has ever seen’.25 Tony Coorey explained: ‘The PM’s statement has effectively declared us aliens in our own land. If so, we should have an embassy like all the other aliens.’26 As Gary Foley recalls: ‘The idea of the protest was originally simply to stage a small demonstration and be arrested. The hope was that the media would take photos before the men were dragged away.’27
Yet national and international media coverage created a serious political embarrassment for the McMahon government. In May the prime minister moved a new law making it illegal to camp on the lawns of parliament. Gary Foley remembers: ‘Within twenty minutes of the new ordinance coming into effect, ACT police moved on the Embassy and forcibly removed the tents in the midst of a brawl in which nine protestors were arrested and many more injured.’28 The arrests were televised around the nation and the globe. Within days more than two thousand Indigenous people and their supporters marched on Parliament House and re-erected the embassy. For Charlie Perkins the Tent Embassy became
the focal point for demonstrations, sit-ins, messages to be conveyed to government, you know, getting world attention on our plight and all that, inspiration as well, you know. The psychology of the Tent Embassy was very important for Aboriginal people in my mind. The second thing was the physical presence of the Tent Embassy in front of Parliament House. No politician could go into Parliament House without turning around and looking at the embassy there and saying, ‘Them bloody blacks, they’re still there!’29
Poet and activist Roberta Sykes emphasised the importance of black activism. She described the tent as that ‘ragged little symbol of hope’, an act that showed
blacks had been pushed as far as blacks are going to be pushed. That from now on, they are going forward again … The Embassy was a black affair; it wasn’t blacks guided by whites … first and foremost it symbolized the land rights struggle. But beyond that it said to white Australia, ‘You’ve kicked us down for the last time.’30
Nearly half a century later the Tent Embassy remains on the parliamentary lawns, regularly repainted with slogans that express again distance and alienation. It is a vivid symbol of a strand of Aboriginal thinking about how to address political convictions, an ironic use of international diplomacy to make a domestic point.
The inspiration for the Redfern activists had been a government decision on land rights. This long-standing but unresolved agenda would become a key concern of much Indigenous thinking for the generation ahead, eventually played out in the High Court of Australia, in clear sight of the Tent Embassy.
The campaign for native title and the 1992 Mabo decision
The campaign for land rights began in the earliest days of colonisation. Soon after the settlement of Melbourne Wurundjeri leader William Barak pressed the manager of the Coranderrk mission: ‘Give us this ground and let us here manage ourselves…and no one over us … we will show the country we can work it and make it pay. I know it will.31 Then, as later, few listened. For many Aboriginal leaders, land rights became the best opportunity to restore identity and a sustainable future. As activist Alice Briggs argued:
the only answer is to give them back their land rights and let the Aborigine try and rectify what the white man has done, because a white man’ll never do it … and that’s why it’s got to come from us. We’ve got to help these kids out here ourselves.32
Defeat of the Yolgnu in the 1971 Gove case produced a dual dynamic: disillusionment with the law and a determination to work with allies and win back what had been lost. In the words of Kevin Gilbert, ‘It should’ve been apparent from the Gove Land Rights case that blacks could not rely on the law as it stood. It is difficult territory and there is no shame for blacks to admit that they need help in traversing it.33
The argument for land rights had not fallen entirely on official indifference. Elected as prime minister, Gough Whitlam moved swiftly to change the law. As Noel Pearson said in his moving eulogy in November 2014, ‘Without this old man the land and human rights of our people would never have seen the light of day.’34
Whitlam handed back title to the Gurindji people in 1975, pouring a handful of red soil into the hand of land rights activist Vincent Lingiari to symbolise the legal transfer.35 In the same year, the Racial Discrimination Act was passed and parliament debated a Bill to implement recommendations on land rights from the Woodward Royal Commission. These actions confirmed the greater reach of Commonwealth constitutional powers arising from the 1967 referendum.
Reintroduced under the Fraser government, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act allowed legal title in the Northern Territory if claimants could provide evidence of their traditional association with land. Yet land rights laws did not guarantee Indigenous ownership. The legal regime was tested in 1980, when mining exploration rights were approved by the Western Australian Government over sacred land at the Noonkanbah station. When local Indigenous people spoke up in protest, a convoy of mining and police vehicles from Perth arrived on the property. A blockade and clash followed, with elders arrested.
Through the 1980s, demands for land rights marked Indigenous gatherings. On 26 January 1988, the bicentenary of European arrival, more than 40,000 Aborigines, Islanders and their supporters gathered in Sydney under the slogan ‘We Have Survived’. The land rights movement echoed themes from William Cooper—a demand that Aboriginal property be returned to its original owners linked to universal rights.
Among the many Indigenous people lodging claims for ownership of traditional lands, Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo summed up his recent experience in the state of Queensland:
My family has occupied the land here for hundreds of years before Captain Cook was born. They are now trying to say I cannot own it. The present Queensland Government is a friendly enemy of the black people as they like to give you the bible and take away your land. We should stop calling them boss. We must be proud to live in our own palm leaf houses like our fathers before us.36
It would prove a ten-year legal fight, but Eddie Mabo, Sam Passi, David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee and James Rice won their claim for ownership of lands on Murray Island. The 1992 Mabo decision saw the High Court overturn the notion of terra nullius. Yet this decision, and the 1996 Wik ruling that followed, was not met with universal acclaim in the Aboriginal community. Michael Mansell contended that
The Court did not overturn anything of substance, but merely propounded white domination and superiority over Aborigines by recognising such a meagre Aboriginal form of rights over land. The judges did little more than ease their own conscience of the guilt they so correctly feel for maintaining white supremacy.37
Other land claims failed entirely. In 1994 the Yorta Yorta people submitted a claim for native title. Nine years later Justice Olney ruled that the ‘tide of history’ had ‘washed away’ any acknowledgement of traditional laws or real observance of traditional customs by the applicants. As Yorta Yorta woman Monica Morgan reflected on the case, ‘Our mob knew we were taking a chance trusting the system of the white man … but this is like an annihilation of our culture.’38
Land rights remain the subject of a continuing conversation across Indigenous Australia, an appeal to the form of community proposed by William Barak—self-reliance on Indigenous lands, with Indigenous people deciding how much to engage in other forms of political and community life. This is an argument about self-determination made possible through legal title, an unresolved aspiration for many Indigenous communities. Its influence is clear in a final snapshot of Indigenous policy conversations, the talk of empowerment for Aboriginal Australia.
2015—the era of empowered communities
The last century produced a troubling history of Indigenous advancement, with slow recognition of legal rights and an end to formal discrimination. Aboriginal Australians were finally citizens and sometimes beneficiaries of return of native lands. Yet Aboriginal communities remain marked by widespread poverty and the social ills that travel with grave disadvantage, from poor health outcomes to violence.
As in 1967, success in winning recognition of native title was followed by disillusionment. Why did land rights not make Indigenous communities more viable, better places to live? Why in much of remote Australia are services still so far below acceptable national standards? When does formal, legal equality begin to produce outcomes comparable with non-Indigenous Australians?
These are the questions that dominate contemporary Aboriginal conversations. Not surprisingly, analysis varies. Pat Dodson has been unambiguous about the causes of Indigenous disadvantage. Speaking after the 2007 Northern Territory intervention, Dodson spoke angrily about white assumptions that blame the victim:
Community dysfunction is now understood as the fault of the colonised and their persistent cultural practices rather than as a result of violent dispossession, brutal colonisation and authoritarian state intervention …39 This human tragedy [is] caused by decades of under-investment by governments in capital and social infrastructure.40
This explanation places the blame for dysfunctional Indigenous communities squarely on history and neglect. It demands government address underinvestment and so turn around the disadvantage so clear in social indicators for Indigenous Australia.
Other voices in the conversation might share the analysis but look to different solutions. In her 2012 Boyer lectures The Quiet Revolution, Marcia Langton welcomed prospects for greater Indigenous self-reliance. Pointing to the mining boom on Aboriginal lands, Langton put a case for more Indigenous enterprises, employment and mutual support. She described the Gumala Indigenous Construction Resource Group joint venture in the East Pilbara, where more than 60 per cent of the workforce is Indigenous: ‘The wages paid increase Indigenous incomes, and distribute the incomes to Indigenous families, enable them to accumulate assets, such as homes, and to invest in the education of their children.’41
Her theme of mutual support finds strong resonance in the work of Noel Pearson. After leading the Cape York Land Council from 1990, Pearson shifted his focus to community development, eventually founding the Cape York Partnerships Program. As Pearson argued in his 2014 Quarterly Essay ‘A Rightful Place’, ‘the only path to closing socioeconomic gaps is for Indigenous Australians to become active agents in their own development’.42 This builds on his 2005 blueprint for Cape York, which promoted personal and community responsibility for outcomes. Pearson attributed his thinking to conversations with elders and the philosophy of Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen.43 His aim is ‘that Cape York people have the capabilities to choose a life they have reason to value’.44
It is an aspiration summed up in the slogan of the Cape York Partnerships Program—‘responsibility, opportunity, freedom’. This is a rejection of further government intrusion in Indigenous lives. Pearson argues that passive welfare destroys the basis of a strong individual—self-belief, self-reliance, reasons to try. He wants to break the welfare dependency of Indigenous communities and instead encourage work, education and economic development to create jobs.
It is a vision that attracts much debate within Indigenous Australia. Yet the Pearson agenda for an empowered community, taking responsibility for its own fate, has resonance close to home. It is the theme of a March 2015 report in which eight Indigenous communities encourage a partnership approach that empowers Indigenous people to make their own choices.
Although the report is recent, the aspiration to build skills and confidence among Indigenous communities has a long history. We can see it in Shepparton, embodied in the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club. The club can trace its origins back more than 40 years, but has deep historic connections with the football teams of the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve from the 1890s. The Rumbalara club has mirrored Indigenous history, locked out of the district league at various times despite its sporting prowess, battling always for the right to play and represent its members.
This club is just one of many organisations fostered and led by Yorta Yorta Elder Paul Briggs. He has warned, ‘We are faced with assimilation if we don’t develop an economic vision and strategies for our collective futures.’45 Briggs has emphasised organisation to encourage self-reliance, and the revival of language to foster identity. Over a long life of modest but determined activism, his leadership has focused on building Indigenous institutions that provide Aboriginal people with the skills and experience necessary to prosper. Briggs has encouraged a number of sports, health, financial and community organisations under the Rumbalara banner, along with a think tank, the Kaiela Institute.
This theme of organisation, community action and economic development informs the Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples report. The document brings together some long-standing conversations among Indigenous voices. Its authors set out two primary ambitions, of equal weight:
First, our goal is to close the gap on the social and economic disadvantage of the Indigenous Australians of the Empowered Communities regions.
Second, we aim to enable the cultural recognition and determination of Indigenous Australians of the Empowered Communities regions so that we can preserve, maintain, renew and adapt our cultural and linguistic heritage and transmit our heritage to future generations.46
To thrive amid the realities of contemporary Australia yet build and convey Indigenous heritage are goals that might have been welcomed by William Cooper and many of the other voices over the past 80 years of Aboriginal conversation.
Few policy debates are linear, building carefully on experience and evidence to arrive at consensus about next steps. In most conversations, the topic wanders, new voices arrive as others depart. People bring to the discussion their existing assumptions, their particular experience of the world, their own language and local concerns.
Since 1938, the policy conversation in Aboriginal Australia has explored many pathways, yet often returned to a small number of central concerns. These arise from the necessity to reimagine identity in a suddenly changed world where fundamental beliefs, family ties, ownership and standing were all challenged when Europeans arrived.
For William Cooper, the answers were clear if difficult to secure—land to sustain viable communities, political rights through parliamentary representation, protection under laws that apply to all, values of equality and the dignity that Cooper first encountered among the missionaries of his youth.
For the generation leading to the 1967 referendum, legal equality shaped the conversation, with an expectation that government programs should follow. As bright promise gave way to disappointing reality, a rhetoric of separation and self-determination emerged. A younger generation re-evaluated the circumstances of Indigenous Australians. With the demonstrations of the era, the angry publications, the Tent Embassy and the Aboriginal flag designed in 1971 by Harold Thomas for the land rights movement came new language and symbols now part of Indigenous dialogue.
All these concerns flowed into a renewed conversation about native title from the 1970s. Here old concerns met new—identification with traditional lands, aspirations to escape dependence on non-Indigenous institutions and, more recently, the prosperity possible for some through mining and tourism. Here is both concern for the consequences of welfare in Indigenous communities and a desire to build capabilities through individual responsibility and Indigenous-owned enterprises.
The Aboriginal conversation since 1938 has covered much terrain, but returned often to the themes of survival, identity and community. It has proved a rich and important conversation with an emphasis that shifts according to circumstances, but concerns that prove enduring. With such pressing issues to confront there can be no resting point, only a dialogue that continues over generations. Talk must include all the disagreement and different priorities that distinguish any serious consideration of policy choices.
Such conversations affirm the importance of ideas and debate to Aboriginal Australia. Through discussion the world is confronted and possible choices weighed. To talk is to call into being the disappointments of the present and the paths to a future. For as Northern Territory politician Marion Scrymgour said recently, ‘Aboriginal people have never been afraid of having the hard conversation.’47
- William Cooper, Maloga petition to the Right Hon. Baron Carrington, 20 July 1887, in Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus (eds), Thinking Black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines’ League, Aboriginal Studies Press, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra, 2004, p. 27.
- William Cooper, ‘Letter to J.M. Chanter, MLA’, 11 November 1887, quoted in Attwood and Markus, Thinking Black, p. 27.
- William Cooper, ‘Treatment of Aborigines’, letter to the editor, Age, 16 March 1933, quoted in Attwood and Markus, Thinking Black, p. 34.
- William Cooper, ‘Letter to Sir John Harris, Secretary, Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society’, 22 December 1937, in Attwood and Markus, Thinking Black, p. 83.
- Quoted in Henry Reynolds, Fate of a Free People, Penguin, Melbourne, 2004, pp. 7–8. Reynolds cites N.J.B. Plomley (ed.), Weep in Silence, Blubber Head Press, Hobart, 1987, pp. 148–9.
- Cooper, ‘Letter to Sir John Harris’.
- William Cooper, ‘Petition to King George V’, 1933, in Attwood and Markus, Thinking Black, pp. 35–6.
- William Cooper to W.G. Sprigg, 22 February 1936, Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 9377/1726/1, in Attwood and Markus, Thinking Black, 12.
- Argus, ‘Aborigines’ Day of Mourning: Plan for 150th Anniversary’, 13 November 1937, in Thinking Black, Attwood and Markus, p. 82.
- Argus, ‘Deputation not admitted’, 7 December 1938, quoted in Attwood and Markus, Thinking Black, p. 108.
- William Cooper, secretary, Australian Aborigines’ League, to Mr Kitson, the chief secretary, Western Australia, 30 December 1938, in Attwood and Markus, Thinking Black, p. 112.
- Emphasis in original proclamation, signed by J.T. Patten, president, and W. Ferguson, organising secretary, on behalf of the Aborigines Progressive Association, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aborigines_Progressive_Association>.
- Petitions of the Aboriginal people of Yirrkala, 14 August and 28 August 1963, <http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/bark-petition-1963>.
- Megan McMurchy and Mark Hamlyn, ‘Australian Biography: Charles Perkins’, National Interest Program of Film Australia, series 7, 1999, directed by Robin Hughes, <http://www.australianbiography.gov.au/subjects/perkins/>.
- Ron Saunders, ‘Australian Biography: Faith Bandler’, National Interest Program of Film Australia, series 2, 1993, directed by Robin Hughes, <http://www.australianbiography.gov.au/subjects/bandler/>.
- Quoted in Bain Attwood, The 1967 Referendum: Race, Power and the Australian Constitution, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2007, p. 51.
- Kath Walker, ‘Black–White Coalition Can Work’, Origin, vol. 1, no. 4 (1969), p. 6.
- Kath Walker, ‘Black Australia in the Seventies’, Lecture at the Australian National University, 1979, in Kath Walker, My People: A Kath Walker Collection, Jacaranda, 1981, <http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/noonuccal-oodgeroo/a-look-at-the-seventies-0771034#>.
- Walker, My People.
- Kath Walker, ‘The Black Commandments’, Koorier, vol. 1, no. 10 (1969), p. 25.
- Gilbert, Because a white man’ll never do it, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1973, p. 33.
- William McMahon, ‘Aboriginal Affairs Policy’, Statement by the Prime Minister, Conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers responsible for Aboriginal Affairs, Cairns, 23 April 1971, <http://pmtranscripts.dpmc.gov.au/browse.php?did=2408>.
- ‘Prime Minister McMahon rejects land rights’, pamphlet, Commonwealth Government Printing Office, Canberra, 26 January 1972, <http://indigenousrights.net.au/resources/documents_-_land_rights/documents_-_aboriginal_embassy,_1972>.
- Gary Foley, ‘A Short History of the Australian Indigenous Resistance 1950–1990,’ The Koori History Website (2010), 11, <http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/pdf_files.html>.
- Gilbert, Because a white man’ll never do it, p. 29.
- Gary Foley in the Age, 14 April 1995; see also the Australian, 10 February 1972.
- Foley, ‘A Short History’, p. 15.
- Foley, ‘A Short History’, p. 18.
- McMurchy and Hamlyn, ‘Australian Biography: Charles Perkins’.
- Gilbert, Because a white man’ll never do it, p. 29.
- Patricia Marcard, ‘Barak, William (1824–1903),’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, Melbourne University Press, Melborne, 1969, p. 87.
- Gilbert, Because a white man’ll never do it, p. 9.
- Gilbert, Because a white man’ll never do it, p. 60.
- ‘Noel Pearson’s eulogy for Gough Whitlam in full’, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 November 2014.
- At the Dungela Kaiela Oration on 7 July 2015, at which this essay was presented as a paper, Indigenous singer Lou Bennett opened with a powerful rendition of ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’, the song by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly telling the story of the Gurindji campaign for title to their land.
- Edward Koiki Mabo, ‘Eddie quote from a “manifesto” on Mabo case’, Mabo Family Collection, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, 1980s, <http://www.nfsa.gov.au/digitallearning/mabo/info/myNameIsEddieMabo.htm>.
- Michael Mansell, Aboriginal Law Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 57 (August 1992), p. 6.
- ‘Yorta people vow to fight on’, Age, 19 December 1998.
- Pat Dodson, ‘Intervention turned our backs on reconciliation’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 2009.
- Pat Dodson, ‘Whatever happened to reconciliation?’, in J. Altman & M. Hinkson (eds), Coercive Reconciliation: Stabilise, Normalise, Exit Aboriginal Australia, Arena Publications, Melbourne, 2007, p. 23.
- Marcia Langton, ‘Struggling Indigenous people need business, not bureaucrats’, Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2015.
- Noel Pearson, ‘A Rightful Place: Race, Recognition and a more Complete Commonwealth’, Quarterly Essay no. 55 (2014), p. 48.
- See Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, p. 285
- Noel Pearson, ‘The Cape York Agenda’, Address to the National Press Club, Canberra, 30 November 2005, <http://capeyorkpartnership.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/4-The-Cape-York-Agenda_National-Press-Club.pdf>.
- Paul Briggs, Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples—Design Report, Wunan Foundation, 2015, p. 3.
- Briggs, Empowered Communities, p. iii.
- ‘Sydney Ideas: Controversial Conversation—Freedom not Frustration’, Awaken, SBS Television, 27 June 2015.