Aboriginal civil rights have been a highly debated topic in Australia for the past century. From the 1920’s to the constitutional referendum in 1967 many events occurred that shaped the advancement of Aboriginal rights. The sheer volume of significant events during this time period are too great to enlighten on all of them so I will aim to touch on the rights of Aboriginal people before this time period, the foundation of Aboriginal political activism, the Day of Mourning and the Cummeragunja walk off, International pressure against Australia, and the 1967 referendum.
It was not until the late 1930’s and 1940’s that really caused the Aboriginal rights movement to really surge with the combination of international pressure on the Australian government grouped with Aboriginal political activism during this time period. In order to get an understanding of the progress of Aboriginal Rights from the 1920’s all the way to the 1967 Referendum we must look at the Aboriginal Rights before this time frame.
The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia came into effect in 1901 officially making Aborigines a “state responsibility” (Prentis, 2008). The constitution came into effect during a time period where Aborigines had no political power and were essentially excluded from gaining Australian citizenship (Chesterman, 1997). There were two sections of the Constitution that lead to great debate and the constant struggle for the advancement of Aboriginal rights for the next seventy years.
Sections 51 of the Constitution states “The Parliament shall subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to…(xxvi) The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws” (Attwood, 2007). Many, including Chesterman, have considered this section of the Constitution to exclude people of the Aboriginal race regarding laws. However looking deeper this policy was mainly focused on dealing with “alien races” rather than the native races.
The confusion that arose from this section was the interpretation by the States that were authorized control over Aboriginal affairs in the given State. Section 127 of the Constitution deliberately states that Aboriginal natives shall not be counted in the population of Australia. This section of the Constitution should reveal a glowing issue with racist views of Australian’s during this time period. With these two sections being written and put into effect in 1901 the Commonwealth was effectively rejecting citizenship rights to Aborigines.
Aborigines’ rights were even further diminished when in 1902 the Commonwealth introduced the Franchise Act. The Franchise Act of 1902 stated, “No aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand, shall be entitled to have his name placed on an electoral roll, unless so entitled under Section 41 of the Constitution” (Attwood, 2007). The racial politics occurring during this time effectively barred Aboriginal people from voting.
The Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902 ended up disenfranchising Aboriginal people for almost sixty years. With the 1920’s we start to see formation of political groups that speak out for Aboriginal rights. The Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association was formed in 1925, lead by Fred Maynard. The AAPA was one of the first Aboriginal political organizations formed in the 1920’s. The aims of the organization set a precedent for other Aboriginal protest groups and speak out against the political oppression Aboriginal people faced (Maynard, 1997).
Although the group did not last for an extensive period of time the foundation they laid for political activism played a significant role in the advancement of Aboriginal rights. Very early on the AAPA petitioned the Protection Board on civil rights and land rights. Fred Maynard and the AAPA lead the campaign for “Aborigines to be fully assimilated and left in control of their children” (Flood, 2006). The main importance of this group was essentially being one of the first Aboriginal political organizations to form to take action against state and federal legislation in Australia.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s Australia began to see a rise in political activism among the Aboriginal people. During this time period Australia saw Aboriginal political organizations being “founded in New South Wales, Western Australia, Victoria, and South Australia: the AAPA, The Native Union, the AAL, the Australian Aborigines Association (AAA), the Euralian Association, and the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA)” (Attwood, 1999). All of these political organizations fought for similar rights for boriginal people, but they were all fought on local levels. The two organizations that were somewhat successful at becoming national organizations and representing Aborigines throughout Australia were the Australian Aborigines League and the Aborigines Progressive Association. Both groups fought for similar causes. These two groups although advocating for policy change in different regions of Australia worked together and organized two significant events that occurred during the 1930’s.
Arthur Burdeu was considered the creator of the Australian Aborigines League, which formed in the 1930’s. The major significance that lead to the AAL becoming a national organization rather than a local organization was set in how the members viewed the role of the League. Arthur Burdeu stated that the AAL represented “the aboriginal problem from the dark man’s point of view” (Attwood, 2004). William Cooper stated that the AAL was “the Dark Man’s own ameliorative effort for his own race” (Attwood, 2004).
Both these men were significant figures in the Australian Aborigines League and were implementing the view among their organization that it was their, Aborigines, fight and organization and used this as a way to speak out for the Aboriginal population of Australia. Jack Patten, William Ferguson, and Pearl Gibbs founded the Aborigines Progressive Association in the late 1930’s. The APA’s focus was aimed at “citizenship for Aborigines and assimilation into white society”(Broome, 1982).
However Broome would later go on to note that assimilation during the late 1930’s was met with racism as it was seen as a radical policy because most white Australian’s still believed the notion that Aborigines would eventually die out. The APA was most notably remembered for their role in the organization of the Day of Mourning in 1938 (Prentis, 2008). As previously noted these two groups, the Australian Aborigines League and the Aborigines Progressive Association were the two most prominent and influential Aboriginal political groups to be formed during this time period. These groups relied on mainly on conventional interest group tactics: meeting with state and federal officials to present grievances, petitions to the Crown, and presentations to government organized conferences on Aboriginal issues”(Gurr, 1983). These two groups were significant in voicing the direction of what Aboriginal people expected from the government regarding civil rights and this could not have been any clearer than the Day of Mourning protests in 1938.
The Australian Aborigines League and the Aborigines Progressive Association organized the Day of Mourning Protests in 1938. The main purpose of this protest was to voice to the government the glaring issues of Australia’s past and to gain rights other Australian’s have been entitled to for years. “The manifesto heralded a different, more radical spirit of protest”(Alexander, 1997) which was needed to spark the public’s awareness of the exclusion that was taking place.
The two organization leaders detailed the political agenda and argued that many Indigenous people were civilized and should be entitled to full citizen rights. “We ask for equal education, equal opportunity, equal wages, equal rights to possess property, or to be our own masters – in two words: equal citizenship! ” (Patten, 1938). In response to the new 1939 Child Welfare Act that stated that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children could be removed from their families for being uncontrollable as well as for being neglected (Chesterman, 1997).
The APA and AAL also organized the second Major event. In 1939 the Cumeragunja walk-off was a symbol of direct action of Aboriginal people in response to the worsening working conditions and continuous neglect to change policy. The new manager of the station in Cummeragunja was Arthur McQuiggan. Known to be a harsh authoritarian, residents complained and “Cooper and Patten drew up a petition to the Board seeking McQuiggans removal” (Attwood, 2004). However the petition was sent back and the grievance was ignored.
This neglect to act caused the residents to take further actions and stage a walk off; crossing the Murray River and camping on the riverbank (Attwood, 2004). Both the Australian Aborigines League and the Aborigines Progressive Association did an excellent job in advocating for Aboriginal rights. Now having said that it does not necessarily mean that all of their actions, such as the Day of Mourning and the Cummeragunja walk off lead to immediate and extremely influential legislation changes.
Yes both of these events during the late 1930’s brought national awareness to the Aborigines conflict and “influenced public opinion but the Second World War destroyed its momentum (Flood, 2006). Although the Cummeragunja “walk off, the APA’s propaganda efforts and a damning report by the Public Service Board, led to the passing of the New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Act in 1940 which established assimilation as its official policy” (Broome, 1982) it took nearly ten years for the act to actually become effective.
It was not until the 1960’s when we start to see Aboriginal political activism organizations successfully implementing influential change among acts and legislation. International pressures also played a significant role in aiding the advancement of Aboriginal civil rights. In 1945 the United Nations was formed and Australia was one of the original members. In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was agree upon by the UN. In this declaration of human rights there are numerous articles that Australian States have been violating from the 1900’s to the 1950’s.
Articles 1, 3, 7, 9, and 13 eerily address issues that had been occurring in Australia for decades. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared, “people should not be discriminated against on the basis of race” (Chesterman, 2001). The one major fault with the Declaration of Human Rights was that it had no legal power so enforceability was a serious issue in the early stages of the declaration. “Australian activity has involved support for the establishment and strengthening of national human rights institutions in other countries” (Barker, 1997).
The question that arouse was how could a country involved with human rights internationally have so much trouble with enforcing human rights domestically? The United Nations was a forum to “air matters of race and racism”(Attwood, 2007) and establishes universal human rights. Australia was receiving negative international press for the current questions around civil rights for Aboriginal people. The international attention brought to light the problem that “responsibility for Aboriginal affairs largely lay in the hands of the states and not the Commonwealth”(Attwood, 2007).
In a 1951 paper Henry Wardlaw outlined the hopes of Aborigines for implementation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Wardlaw wrote “the treat ment of the aborigines in Australia has laid the Australian Government open to justifiable charges of hypocrisy when its representatives have charged the Governments of other countries with depriving their subjects of elementary human rights. We would therefore urge upon you that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the Australian representative at the United Nations has set his name, should be taken as the basis for the necessary reforms in the treatment of the aborigines. (Wardlaw 1951). Once the civil rights issues of Aboriginal people gained international attention Aboriginal political activism groups became more effective in rousing change in legislation. In 1959 when the Commonwealth enabled all Aborigines who were not nomadic or primitive to social security legislation such as, “maternity allowance, widows’ pensions, and old-age and invalid pensions” (Chesterman, 2001) changes were significant for Indigenous people.
Chesterman then goes on to note that “by the late 1950s, as international tolerance of state-endorsed racial discrimination was waning, the lobby groups were able to have a great impact, and indeed they themselves responded by becoming more active. ” With the help of the international spotlight making the aboriginal rights in Australia more prevalent internationally, Aboriginal political organizations were able to apply more influence on the Commonwealth for policy change.
The 1948 Nationality and Citizenship Act, by which all persons born in Australia were deemed citizens of Australia (Rowse, 2000) was not effective due to the “distinct separation between the acquisition of Australian nationality…and the restrictions on personal rights that existed at Commonwealth and State levels”(Chesterman, 1997). The need for federal oversight regarding Aboriginal issues was extremely prevalent due to the complications with federal legislation and State legislation.
With international and domestic pressure building in the 1960’s we start to see the Commonwealth making serious strides toward correcting failed legislation of the past. In 1962 the Commonwealth amended its Franchise Act, which permitted all adult Indigenous people to vote in Commonwealth elections. “The Commonwealth parliament’s enfranchisement of Aborigines was…the first time an Australian parliament had specifically acted to enfranchise Aborigines without restriction”(Chesterman, 1997).
Finally after years of international pressure and embarrassment integrated with Aboriginal political organizations were rights of Aboriginal successfully affected. The 1967 Constitutional Referendum was and is considered by many as one of the most significant event in the advancement of Aboriginal civil rights. The 1967 referendum amended sections 51 and 127 of the constitution and was to make the Federal Government, rather than racist and neglectful state governments, be responsible for handling Aboriginal affairs in Australia. The Commonwealth would assume control of Aboriginal affairs, sweep away racial discrimination, grant citizenship rights to Aborigines, and realize equality for the Aboriginal people” (Attwood, 2007). H. C. Coombs states “I recommended that the government should not rush a decision on this matter of organization, but should initially appoint a small council supported by an office with a strong research basis, to study the nature of the problems it would face and advise the government in relation to policies and the administrative and executive means by which they might be carried out”(Coombs, 1994).
Although the referendum was significantly important in 1967 it was not until the Labor Party in 1972 when the “promise of the referendum was properly fulfilled”(Attwood, 2007). The powers that were now available to the Federal Government were ignored for a five-year period after the 1967 referendum, which some signified as a lack of action by the government, but I would deem it as a time where the Government was unsure of how to go about correcting a 60 year wrong.
In conclusion, the correlation between the most important Aboriginal political organization events and protests revolved around times when Australia was receiving negative press in the international scope when dealing with Aboriginal rights. Both the Aboriginal political groups and the international perception of Australian were significant in the advancement of Aboriginal rights from the late 1940’s moving forward.
Alexander, John. (1997): Following David Unaipon’s footsteps, in Journal of Australian Studies, 21:54-55, 22-29 Attwood, B. nd Markus, A. (1999) Introduction. In The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights: A Documentary History (pp. 1-29). Sydney: Allen and Unwin. Attwood, B. , & Markus, A. (2007). The 1967 referendum: Race, power and the Australian constitution. Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press. Attwood, B. , & Markus, A. (2004). Thinking black: William cooper and the australian aborigines’ league. Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press. Barker, B. (1997). Getting government to listen: A guide to the international human rights system for indigenous australians.
East Sydney, NSW, Australia: The Australian Youth Foundation. Broome, R. (1982). Aboriginal Australians: black response to white dominance 1788-1980. North Sydney, NSW: George Allen & Unwin Australia Pty Ltd. Chesterman, J. , & Galligan, B. (1997). Citizens without rights: Aborigines and Australian citizenship. London, England: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. Chesterman, John. (2001): Defending australia’s reputation how indigenous Australians won civil rights part one, In Australian Historical Studies, 32:116, 20-39
Coombs, H. C. (1994). Aboriginal Autonomy Issues and Strategies. New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. Flood, J. (2006). The original Australians: Story of the aboriginal people. Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin. Gurr, T. (1983). Outcomes of public protest among australias aborigines. American Behavioral Scientist, 26(3), 353-373. Maynard, John (1997), ‘Fred Maynard and the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association’, Aboriginal History 21: 1–13. Patten, J. T. and Ferguson. W. ‘Aborigines claim citizen rights! In J Horner, (1974) Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal Freedom. (pp 192-199) Sydney: Australia and New Zealand Book Company. Prentis, M. (2008). A concise companion to aboriginal history. NSW, Australia : Rosenberg Publishing. Rowse, Tim (2000). Indigenous citizenship: The politics of communal capacities. Change: Transformations in Education 3. 1: 1-16. The 1967 Referendum document 14, pages 99-100. Henry Wardlaw, Secretary, Council for Aboriginal Rights, to Rt Hon. Paul Hasluck, Minister for Territories, 28 August 1951