Significant anniversaries in 2017

2017 provides a number of reasons to reflect on achievements in seeking justice, rights and recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia – finding hope in these milestones to take the next steps needed, for there is still much more to tackle.


50 years: Referendum – 27 May 1967

This marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum in which more than 90 percent of Australians voted to give the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal people and for Aboriginal people to be counted in the census. Before then, the states were responsible for making laws about and for Indigenous peoples, and these laws – and the freedoms or restrictions Indigenous Australians lived under – varied significantly from state to state.

For more information see these articles at the National Archives here and AIATSIS here.


25 years: Mabo Case – June 3 1992

3 June marks one of the key dates in Australian history and signalled a significant victory in the campaign for Indigenous Land Rights as, on this date in 1992, six of the seven judges of Australia’s High Court, upheld the claim in Mabo v. Queensland (No. 2), and recognised the land rights of the Meriam people, traditional owners of the Murray Islands (which include the islands of Mer, Dauer and Waier) in the Torres Strait.

The High Court decision in the Mabo v. Queensland (No.2) altered the foundation of land law in Australia. The following year the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth), was passed through the Australian Parliament, which opened the way for claims by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to their traditional rights to land and compensation.

The Mabo Case challenged the existing Australian legal system from two perspectives

  • The assumption that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had no concept of land ownership before the arrival of British colonisers in 1788 (terra nullius).
  • That sovereignty delivered complete ownership of all land in the new Colony to the Crown, abolishing any existing rights that may have existed previously.

This is taken from a longer article from AIATSIS here.


25 years Redfern Speech – 10 December 1992

This was a major speech by the then Prime Minister, Mr Paul Keating, to mark the beginning of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People in 1993. The speech was a watershed: it offered formal public recognition by a Prime Minister of the cataclysmic confrontation between settler society and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, and it invoked this as a basis for talking about the need in the present to build a more equitable and just future encompassing Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, in which the achievements of Indigenous Australians are truly appreciated and valued.

The speech remains inspirational 20 years later, and helps us to remember just how far we have all come in the past quarter century as well as reminding us about the many opportunities which have been missed.

The transcript is available on the ANTaR website here.

And you can see the speech on YouTube here.


20 years: Bringing Them Home Report – tabled 26 May 1997

Between 1995 and 1997, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission conducted the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. This investigated the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and the laws, practices, policies and attitudes which facilitated these removals. It also examined the historical and ongoing effects of child removal on individuals and communities, in what were called the ‘Stolen Generations’.

The report from the Inquiry, Bringing Them Home, was released in May 1997, and contained 52 recommendations, including the issuing of a formal apology, support for people to trace lost family members and for reunions, increased support for indigenous language, culture and history centres, appropriate training and awareness programs be provided to professionals delivering services for Indigenous people and Indigenous involvement and co-partnership in these, that national standards be adopted to prevent such events occurring again, and reparations and compensation.

For further information see the Australian Human Rights Commission link here.

For further history including about Sorry Day and the National Day of Healing, which arose out of one of the recommendations of the Report, see the article on here.


20 years first Sea of Hands – 12 October 1997

Sea of Hands installations are a symbol of Australians’ desire for reconciliation, and ANTaR’s most visible means of promoting rights, recognition and respect for Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

The first Sea of Hands was held on the 12 October 1997, in front of Parliament House, Canberra. It was conceived by Australian Artists Against Racism (AAAR) as a powerful, physical representation of the Citizen’s Statement on Native Title, which was a petition circulated by ANTaR to mobilise non-Indigenous support for native title and reconciliation. This occurred during a period when the Federal Government was moving to restrict Indigenous native title rights following the High Court’s Wik decision, which had recognised the coexistence of native title on pastoral and other leasehold land.

At the first Sea of Hands in 1997, hands in the colours of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, each one carrying a signature from the Citizen’s Statement, were installed in front of Parliament House in what was then the largest public art installation to have occurred in Australia with over 70,000 hands. Six weeks later, in Canberra again, 120,000 hands were planted to launch a blueprint for a coexistence approach to native title – the “Six-Steps to Coexistence”.

Since then, Seas have been held throughout Australia. Each Sea of Hands is a unique event, and wherever possible is designed by a local Indigenous artist, using symbols and themes appropriate to the Indigenous traditions of that region.

A major Sea of Hands event is being planned to mark the anniversary in late 2017, and to highlight the ongoing issues being faced by Indigenous Australians and barriers to reconciliation.

For more information see the ANTaR website here.

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