By the end of the 1960s, Aboriginal peoples had made significant gains; they were recognised as equal citizens under the constitution, the Federal Government had taken over Aboriginal affairs and racist state laws were removed, they had equal pay, and a new policy of Integration meant greater acceptance and valuing of indigenous culture.
However, some aboriginals saw a need for further progress to improve their opportunities and quality of life. In particular, many wanted
  • self-determination
  • land rights
These were seen as closely connected issues.
Steps toward recognition of land rights in the 1970s:
tent embassy 1972
tent embassy 1972

  1. the Wave Hill strike, led by Vincent Lingiari, continued into the 1970s, with some land being awarded
  2. protests and marches and other strikes
  3. the Tent Embassy was set up in front of Parliament House, Canberra in 1972 - highlighting the idea of a separate aboriginal nation and calling for land ownership. The newly created aboriginal flag symbolized this idea.
  4. In 1972, the Liberal Government was defeated, and Labor PM Gough Whitlam began his term of radical changes, promising to reverse the Liberal government's policy on land rights. He acknowledged the requests of the aboriginal leaders and launched an enquiry into the need for Land Rights and self-determination. This was called The Woodward Royal Commission , and as result 2 large Land Councils were set up and some land was returned to indigenous owners. The previous link is from the Northern Land Council which set up as a result of Woodward's recommendations. Interesting reading....

The question of Native Title: 1980s and beyond

The return of land to indigenous communities sometimes led to conflict in communities over rights to keep farming and mining and the value of long term pastoral and mining leases. Legal questions arose.

*the Mabo case (watch the films here - made during the campaign - they show how beautiful these islands are and how the Meriam people live)

Eddie Mabo at home on the island of Mer
Eddie Mabo at home on the island of Mer
From the early 1980s the small indigenous community of Mer Island in the Torres Strait challenged the Queensland Government over its attempts to control and use the island. The 400 people were represented by Eddie Mabo and other leaders including the Anglican church minister. They took their case to the High Court.
In 1992, these judges made an important decision. They claimed that the idea of Terra Nullius was wrong. This was a belief that the continent of Australia had belonged to no-one before white settlement and that all land belonged to the Crown or private owners. Others were leasing land from the Crown to farm or mine long term. These judges said - no - in fact Native Title existed first and still continued to exist in any place where Aboriginal people continued to live in traditional lands in traditional ways. This was an amazing change - and became known as the Mabo Decision.
In 1993 the Government passed the Native Title Act to put this into law. Aboriginal communities had to prove continuous connection and traditional use of any lands claimed.
But questions about land leased to pastoralists (farmers) and mines still existed.
In 1996 the Wik people of Cape York successfully claimed land that was being leased to pastoralists. The High Court ruled that Native title and leaseholders claims could co-exist. This became known as the Wik Decision. It caused a lot of concern and debate; some believed it opened up too much land to Aboriginal control and threatened farms and mines. The Howard Government added a '10-point plan' in 1997 as a compromise to increase clarity and make limits on making claims.


Self-determination and Reconciliation
Around the world, the 1970s saw indidenous peoples moving toward greater control of their own lives and destiny - self determination. In Australia, the new Labor Government of Whitlam (1972-5) was very commited to this approach. While self-determination meant freedom to enjoy lifestyles based on culture - it also brought responsibility for choices. This was challenging for a group subjected to great disadvantage over many decades. Large amounts of Government money was needed to allow Aboriginal communities to improve their standards of living and generate industry. In 1990, ATSIC was established to oversee community programmes. It was disbanded when evidence of corruption and mismanagement of funds arose. The Howard Government introduced an "Intervention" to address issues of abuse and neglect and poverty in remote communtities. All these events and decisions have met with controversy and often divide society.

To help improve division and hostility between black and white Australia, a focus has been on Reconciliation. A Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was established in 1991. (Since 2000 it has been known as Reconciliation Australia - read about its aims here).It aims to advise and educate. The release of the "Bringing them Home" report of 1997 which looked at the "Stolen Generations" - flowed out of this new focus. A National Sorry Day was set up. In 2008, Prime Minister Rudd apologised on behalf of Parliament and all previous Governments for injustices against Aboriginal people.