“Well, I heard it on the radio
And I saw it on the television
Back in 1988
All those talking politicians
Words are easy, words are cheap
Much cheaper than our priceless land
But promises can disappear
Just like writing in the sand…”
– Yothu Yindi, Treaty, 1992
In his election victory speech, Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese committed his government to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, beginning with a referendum to create an Indigenous Voice to parliament in its first term. Supporters of the Uluru Statement present the Voice as the first step in a process that, along with a Makarrata Commission of truth-telling and agreement-making, will lead to genuine self-determination for Indigenous people.
Alyawarre woman and human rights advocate Pat Anderson argues:
Establishing the Voice will lead to immediate, important outcomes. It will set the scene for addressing the centuries of injustice. It will create an effective process to address the intergenerational disadvantage many communities suffer. It will help overcome the historical exclusion of First Nations people from public forums. And crucially, it will offer an important symbolic gesture of acknowledgement and recognition that the days of vox nullius (“voicelessness”), the primary intention and consequence of terra nullius, are at last over.
Yet the proposed Indigenous Voice to parliament will not be able to compel the federal government to listen to its advice, nor will it exercise any veto power over the enactment of legislation that will be harmful to Indigenous people. Voice advocates have been at pains to insist that it will be an advisory body only, with no legislative power. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has similarly stressed that the Voice is “not a radical proposition [but] a sensible one” and that it is in keeping with the nation’s traditions of Westminster democracy.
“The architects of our Federation understood that democracy is dynamic, not static. And that change driven by the people is not a threat to the system – it is a vital and necessary part of it”, he told the National Press Club on 5 February.
The Voice initiative hardly represents the first time Labor governments have committed to consulting with Indigenous people to address the deep social and economic inequality they face. The establishment of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC), by the Whitlam Labor government in 1973, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), by the Hawke Labor government in 1990, were similarly accompanied by much fanfare about a new beginning for the government’s relations with First Nations peoples. In February 1973, Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam told a meeting of Aboriginal leaders that he hoped his government would be remembered for bringing “back justice and equality to the Aboriginal people”.
A decade later, Labor was returned to power on a platform of implementing national land rights legislation. In 1988, during the bicentenary year, Prime Minister Bob Hawke responded to the Barunga Statement – a call by Indigenous people for land rights and self-determination – by committing his government to negotiate a treaty with First Nations people by 1990. And in 1992 Hawke’s successor, Paul Keating, called for an act of recognition for First Nations people. He told a mostly Aboriginal audience in Sydney’s Redfern Park:
We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.
We brought the diseases. The alcohol.
We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice.
And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.
Similarly, in 2008 Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a national apology to the Stolen Generations, a decade after a government apology was recommended by the national inquiry into the Stolen Generations Bringing Them Home report. Following the apology, the Rudd government, alongside state governments, pledged to take action to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in health, education and employment.
As the Yothu Yindi song “Treaty” reminds us: “words are easy, words are cheap”.
No Australian government has ever implemented national land rights legislation or a nationwide treaty with First Nations peoples. Aboriginal incarceration and deaths in custody have skyrocketed since the Royal Commission handed down its report 32 years ago. There has been no compensation to the Stolen Generations (also recommended in the Bringing Them Home report), and paltry compensation from state governments for stolen wages. In the 15 years since federal and state governments adopted six Closing the Gap targets to address Indigenous disadvantage, negligible improvement has been made.
In several of the Closing the Gap target areas the gap continues to widen. The 2022 report found that only a third of children commencing school were developmentally on track in 2021; overrepresentation of Indigenous children in out-of-home care and Indigenous adults in prison continues to increase, as do Indigenous suicide rates. In 2021, Indigenous children were eleven times more likely than their non-Indigenous peers to be in out-of-home care and Indigenous youth (aged between 10 and 17 years) were eighteen times more likely to be locked up. It was also reported that a staggering 22,000 Indigenous children are removed from their families each year, with only around 16 per cent of those being reunited with family.
This article will examine Labor’s record in office since the 1967 referendum. It will review the Whitlam government’s response to the land rights movement, following the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of federal parliament in 1972, and the Hawke government’s subsequent abandonment of national land rights legislation. It will argue that Keating’s adoption of native title legislation and the rhetoric of reconciliation, as well as Rudd’s 2008 apology, were largely symbolic gestures that failed to meaningfully address land rights, self-determination and equality for First Nations People. Labor’s embrace of the Voice follows a well-worn path: it seeks to amplify the most conservative Aboriginal voices and divert protest down bureaucratic channels. But first, it is necessary to review the position long held by socialists towards the ALP.
Formed in the wake of the defeats of the 1890 Maritime and 1891 Shearers’ strikes, the Australian Labor Party was captured early on by small business and farming interests. At the time of federation, in 1901, its platform centred around the objectives of support for the White Australia Policy, arbitration of industrial disputes and defence of Empire. Racial exclusion was the cement that bound together Labor’s first federal caucus, which was otherwise divided between opposing camps of protectionists and free-traders.
While Labor began as a party articulating the demands of the early labour movement and retains links with the much-emaciated trade union movement today, it has consistently proved willing to rule in the interests of Australian capital. There have been ten periods of federal Labor government since the 1910 federal election, with Labor typically being the Australian ruling class’s preferred party of government in times of crisis, including during two world wars and the Great Depression. The longest period of Labor government – 13 years – coincided with the implementation of neoliberalism and a massive transfer of wealth from wages to profits during the Hawke and Keating years, between 1983 and 1996.
Up until the 1960s, Labor supported and implemented protectionist and assimilationist policies at state and federal levels. Labor governments shielded police and vigilantes from any state sanction for their role in the massacres of Aboriginal people and defended the interests of pastoralists and, later, mining companies. During the 1946 Pilbara strike, when 800 Aboriginal workers walked off pastoral stations, it was a Labor state government that jailed Aboriginal strike leaders for defying the repressive provisions of the Aborigines Act 1905 (WA).
In 1958, state-based Aboriginal rights organisations began organising on a national basis, under the umbrella of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (renamed the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, FCAATSI, in 1964). They demanded equal citizenship rights, equal pay and improved welfare for Indigenous Australians. In the early 1960s, under the influence of more conservative forces within the movement, including members of the Communist Party, the ALP and Church leaders, FCAATSI’s focus turned towards lobbying federal parliamentarians for a referendum on constitutional amendments that would transfer primary responsibility for Aboriginal affairs from the states to the Commonwealth.
At the same time, a series of protests by Indigenous people and their supporters had led to a groundswell of support for Indigenous rights. The 1965 Freedom Ride, a 15-day bus journey by Sydney University students through regional New South Wales, drew national attention to the appalling living conditions and racism experienced by Aboriginal people in country towns. In 1966, a strike erupted at the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory. At first it was a strike about wages and living conditions. However, it subsequently became a determined campaign for land rights by the Gurindji people.
On 27 May 1967, the referendum for which FCAATSI had long advocated was put to voters by the Holt Liberal government. It won 90 percent support, including a majority in all states and territories. However, there was little appetite by subsequent conservative federal governments to act on this mandate to deliver any meaningful improvements for Aboriginal people. At the state level, the winding back of responsibility for Aboriginal affairs in the wake of the referendum had detrimental effects. Historian and activist Gary Foley describes how, when the New South Wales government dismantled its Aborigines Welfare Board in 1969, 20,000 Aboriginal people on 45 reserves around the state were effectively left destitute. This accelerated a movement of Aboriginal youth to the cities, looking for work. Many arrived in Redfern, forming the nucleus of the Black Power movement.
In a belated response to the Gurindji strikers’ demands, the federal Arbitration Court awarded equal wages to Aboriginal pastoral workers in 1968. It proved a pyrrhic victory: with no anti-discrimination legislation to protect Aboriginal workers from dismissal, they were sacked en masse, resulting in great hardship for workers who had been the backbone of the Northern Territory and West Australian pastoral industries. Aboriginal communities now faced destitution on the outskirts of town centres, forced to depend on meagre welfare payments. However, the Gurindji people’s walk-off, and the Yolngu people’s fight against bauxite mining in Arnhem Land, began to move the issue of land rights to the centre of Aboriginal politics.
Meanwhile, Redfern activists, drawing inspiration from the Black Power movement in the United States, began to create Aboriginal community-controlled organisations such as the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service, free health clinics, housing co-operatives and a Breakfast for Children program. Similar initiatives followed within urban Aboriginal communities centred in Fitzroy and South Brisbane. During the 1970 Vietnam moratorium campaign and the mass protests against the national tour of the all-white South African Springbok rugby team in 1971, Aboriginal activists began to make common cause with non-Indigenous radicals on a more equal footing than had been the case in the FCAATSI.
It was in this context that one of the most famous Aboriginal protests emerged: the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of federal parliament. The immediate impetus was a speech by Liberal Prime Minister Billy McMahon, on 26 January (Invasion Day) 1972, in which he rejected the notion of Aboriginal land rights. McMahon had failed to offer Aboriginal communities any redress following the long-awaited outcome of the Gove land rights case in the NT Supreme Court. In April 1971, Justice Blackburn sided with mining company Nabalco, asserting that any claim Yolngu people may have had to ownership of their land had been extinguished by British colonisation. In response, the Black Caucus in Redfern dispatched a group of four young men, Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bert Williams and Tony Coorey, to Canberra to set up a protest on the lawns of Parliament House. Coorey told the media that McMahon’s statement had effectively made Indigenous people “aliens in our own land” and therefore they should have an embassy of their own to represent them.
The protest proved enduring, in part because more liberal laws in the ACT provided no pretext for the police to arrest the Embassy activists. In May 1972, the McMahon government changed the law to enable their eviction. A series of mass confrontations took place over the following months on the Parliament House lawns, drawing national and international attention.
The Whitlam-led Labor Opposition took a more pragmatic approach. Whitlam met with Embassy activists and committed a future Labor government to addressing their concerns. Whitlam became prime minister in a landslide election victory in December 1972, in a period of great social and political upheaval and high expectations. The Labor Party had promised to abolish conscription and to legislate for universal health care, free education and Aboriginal land rights. However, Whitlam’s election also took place on the eve of a global recession. It soon became evident that mining company executives were in no mood to concede land rights that might impinge on their mining rights and corporate profits.
Labor, once in government, moved very cautiously. A gulf between the expectations of Aboriginal activists and what the Whitlam government was prepared to deliver resulted in rapidly strained relations between the two. Whitlam’s first Aboriginal Affairs minister was Gordon Bryant, a former president of the Aboriginal Advancement League and executive member of FCAATSI. Bryant had been a part of FCAATSI’s old guard, opposing an Aboriginal takeover of the Council at its 1970 conference and clashing with younger Aboriginal activists who split away to form the Tribal Council. Thus, he was already alienated from the new Indigenous leadership with whom he was now expected to work.
In 1973, Bryant established the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) as an advisory body to government. Unlike the proposed Voice to parliament, NACC’s 41 representatives were directly elected by Aboriginal constituents. Under pressure from its base to secure immediate action from Labor on land rights, NACC failed to do what the Whitlam (and later Fraser and Hawke) governments wanted it to do. From the outset, there were two competing views about NACC’s purpose. Aboriginal activists wanted NACC to be an autonomous and democratic body that would faithfully articulate their demands. Bryant, on the other hand, wanted a subservient body that would implement government policy.
Additionally, Bryant came into conflict with Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) head Barrie Dexter. The conflict led to Whitlam’s sacking of Bryant in November 1973. After just ten months in the role, Bryant was replaced by long-time union official and now senator, Jim Cavanagh, who had no background in Aboriginal affairs. Foley expresses just how incredulous activists were of Cavanagh’s appointment:
Jim Cavanagh was an old-style ALP apparatchik, promoted only because of his union influence and with attitudes toward Aboriginal issues that were paternalistic and bordering on racist. They were appalled that Prime Minister Whitlam could impose on Aboriginal Affairs such a political Neanderthal, and they came to regard this appointment as the end of their political “honeymoon” with Whitlam.
Like his predecessor, Cavanagh was soon at war with the activist wing of NACC. Cavanagh also came into conflict with Charles Perkins, the most senior Aboriginal bureaucrat in Canberra, who he ordered be suspended from the DAA. Whitlam was forced to reinstate Perkins and Cavanagh resigned soon after, in June 1975.
Perkins was no radical. He was opposed to Asian immigration and anti-union. He was also viewed with suspicion for having taken a role as a senior public servant. However, he also needed to demonstrate he was no government puppet at a time when the Black Power and the land rights movements were a force to be reckoned with. The conflict in which both Bryant and Cavanagh found themselves reflected the stark divide between the Whitlam government’s rhetoric of support for Aboriginal self-determination and its practice of ignoring Aboriginal voices.
The most significant legacy of the three-year Whitlam Labor government for Aboriginal people was the Woodward Commission of Inquiry into land rights. Activist Kevin Gilbert criticised the inquiry for
the lack of Aboriginal representation on and participation in its deliberation, that the inquiry was to be restricted to the Northern Territory, that mineral rights would continue to be reserved to the Crown, the lack of consideration of their claims for compensation…
The outcome of the Woodward Commission was land rights legislation implemented in the Northern Territory only, enacted by the Fraser Liberal government. While the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) 1976 recognised the concept of inalienable freehold title, it enabled only claims on “unalienated Crown land” (ie, land that no one else – including mining companies and pastoralists – had any claims on). The Hawke Labor government subsequently amended the Act to introduce a sunset clause that prohibited any further claims after 1997.
The Act also established a trust account administered by the minister for Aboriginal Affairs that accumulates so-called “royalty equivalent” income from mining on Aboriginal land. Thirty percent is paid to Aboriginal corporations. The rest – allocated to community grants and administration – is under the minister’s control. Land Council representatives are given only an advisory role. Nonetheless, over the following decade, this influx of funds transformed Northern Territory land councils from activist bodies dependent upon volunteer labour to state-funded bodies increasingly integrated into the business of government. In his biography of Aboriginal activist Rob Riley, historian Quentin Beresford says of the Northern Land Council:
In the mid-1980s, the NLC had a staff of about a hundred spread over several regional offices, and a multimillion-dollar budget. It was organised along classic public service lines with separate departments.
In the mid-1970s, the homelands movement was gaining momentum. Aboriginal communities such as the Arrernte, Pitjantjatjara and Warlpiri peoples in central Australia were leaving church-run missions and state reserves to re-occupy ancestral lands. The community of Noonkanbah (aka Yungngora) was established in the Kimberley in 1976 and soon after thrust into the spotlight in a bitter confrontation with the Charles Court Liberal government and over mining exploration. While land rights protests at Noonkanbah failed to stop a scab (non-union) crew from undertaking drilling on Yungngora land, the protests marked a high point of collaboration between unionists and land rights activists.
Legislation in South Australia – the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 and the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984 – returned land to some Aboriginal communities. The NSW Land Rights Act 1983, introduced by the Wran Labor government, acknowledged title to some reserves, but validated the takeover of others. The Act allowed some limited claims on Crown land and allocated a proportion of land tax to a fund that would enable land councils to buy back some freehold land. According to NSW Land Council chair Kevin Cook, “[the Act was] not what we wanted… [it] has forced a compromise on us… our traditional right to lands…have never been ceded by treaty or overturned by conquest… we maintain they still exist”.
In Queensland and Western Australia, governments beholden to mining and pastoral interests doubled down. In 1984, the National Party government in Queensland passed a law to block land claims in the Torres Strait by several Meriam Islanders, including Eddie Mabo. The law was subsequently disallowed by the High Court in the Mabo case as it breached the 1975 Race Discrimination Act.
In Western Australia, the Burke Labor government was elected in February 1983. Like conservative premier Charles Court before him, Brian Burke was committed to currying favour with the state’s mining magnates, including Lang Hancock (Gina Reinhart’s father), and other industry tycoons, such as property developers Alan Bond and Laurie Connell. The WA Inc. inquiry later revealed that Burke held a slush fund in his office to pay off anyone who got in his way.
Just three weeks after Burke’s election, in March 1983, the Hawke Labor government was elected on a platform of support for national land rights legislation. Later that year, the federal parliament passed a resolution moved by Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Clyde Holding committing to comprehensive land rights legislation. The resolution recognised the principles of Aboriginal land to be held under inalienable freehold title, protection of Aboriginal sites, Aboriginal control in relation to mining on Aboriginal land, access to mining royalty equivalents, and compensation for lost land. Holding told parliament that the human rights of Aboriginal Australians must take precedence over state rights.
Holding also committed to consult with the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC), which was established as NACC’s successor by the Fraser government. NAC had been effectively starved of funding during the Fraser years but was now brought back in from the cold. In September 1983, NAC and land council representatives were appointed to the newly established Aboriginal Land Rights Steering Committee (ALRSC). They faced strong headwinds from a mining industry lobby determined to sink any prospect of land rights legislation.
Mining bosses soon went on the offensive, led by Western Mining’s executive director Hugh Morgan. In May 1984, at an Australian Mining Industry Council (AMIC) seminar, Morgan attacked the granting of Aboriginal land rights as “a symbolic step back to the world of paganism, superstition, fear and darkness”. Traditional vengeance killings took more Indigenous lives than “any depredations by the Europeans” claimed Morgan. Charges of genocide were “nonsense”, aimed “to incite resentment and animosity within the Aboriginal community”, “to arouse…white middle-class guilt”, and “to create expectations of compensation payments”. In an Australia Day speech the following January, Morgan warned, “Our national sovereignty, and the legitimacy of the settlement that began formally on 7 February 1788, is under threat.”
AMIC launched an advertising campaign that portrayed land rights as an attack on suburban backyards. Newspaper ads featured a “Keep Out” sign with the accompanying warning: “This land is part of Western Australia under Aboriginal claim”. Television commercials ramped up this theme by depicting a pair of black hands building a brick wall across a map of Western Australia.
Labor soon buckled. In October 1984, Hawke told AMIC that he would water down the proposed legislation. Newly elected NAC chair Rob Riley responded with a scathing criticism of Hawke at a National Press Club address, claiming that the ALSRC was being treated as though it were a rubber stamp for the Aboriginal Affairs minister. WA Premier Brian Burke, however, threatened to resign if the legislation was not shelved in its entirety. In May 1985, hundreds of Aboriginal activists mobilised in Canberra, rallying at federal parliament on 14 May and invading DAA two days later. The protests, however, were to no avail. In March 1986, in what the Canberra Times described as a “shameful backdown”, Holding announced that land rights legislation would not be implemented at a national level and would now be up to the states. The only concession federal Labor was prepared to make was the symbolic handback of Uluru, in 1985.
Labor’s capitulation reflected its commitment to an “economic rationalist” (ie, neoliberal) agenda that favoured the big end of town. Labor had no appetite for a public education campaign that could beat back the mining companies. And the unions, with a few notable exceptions, failed the test also. Having entered into the straitjacket of the Prices and Incomes Accord with the incoming Labor government in 1983, the Australian Council of Trade Unions was not prepared to defy federal Labor and lend the kind of support necessary for the land rights movement to prevail.
Labor’s betrayal also accelerated a crisis of identity for the NAC that mirrored that of its predecessor, the NACC. While Aboriginal activists wanted a democratic organisation that represented their interests, federal governments wanted an organisation that would do their bidding. During the 1984 debate on land rights, this played out between one wing led by Riley, who viewed the NAC as an instrument of grassroots-run land councils, and “Sugar” Ray Robinson, who prioritised a collaborative relationship between the NAC and the Labor government. NAC’s leadership was now fraught with infighting and entered an interminable crisis. In June 1985, indignant at Riley’s criticism of Labor’s land rights betrayal, the federal government abolished the NAC.
In the lead-up to the 26 January 1988 bicentenary celebrations, Indigenous activists again began to plan national protests. The National Coalition of Aboriginal Organisations (NCAO) was formed to coordinate campaigns over sovereignty, land rights and Aboriginal deaths in custody. Under the theme of “Boycott the Bicentenary” and “Don’t Celebrate ’88”, activists around the country travelled to La Perouse in Sydney, the site of Arthur Phillip’s first landing 200 years earlier. From there they marched to Redfern and into Sydney CBD, holding a 40,000-strong demonstration.
The Hawke government was forced to offer up some concessions. The first was the announcement of a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADC). The second was the abolition of the NAC and the DAA and their replacement with the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission (ATSIC). And the third was the creation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR). All of these initiatives were intended to deflect public anger and were largely symbolic in their outcomes. A national campaign had long demanded action on Aboriginal deaths in custody, following the deaths of 21-year-old Eddie Murray in Wee Waa police station in 1981 and 16-year-old John Pat in a Roebourne lock-up in 1983. The campaign was spearheaded by the Murray and Pat families.
The RCIADC was established in 1987 and handed down its report in 1991, at a cost of $50 million. It made 339 recommendations, many of which have never been implemented. The federal government was not prepared to force state governments to implement reforms to their criminal codes and police and prison systems that could have reduced Indigenous incarceration. Instead, the WA and NT governments proceeded to introduce mandatory sentencing laws in the 1990s. In state elections, both parties engaged in bidding wars about who was most “tough on crime”. The result has been the maintenance of racist policing measures and ever-increasing Aboriginal incarceration, especially among youth.
In July 1987, the Hawke government also announced the abolition of the reviled DAA, established under the Whitlam government in 1973. The DAA was staffed by mostly non-Indigenous public servants. Some came from Aboriginal Protection Boards and other state institutions that had overseen child removal and regulated Aboriginal people’s lives. Others had patrol officer experience in the Northern Territory or in the former Australian colony of Papua New Guinea. Thus, the DAA proved incapable of delivering on Whitlam’s promise of self-determination and, during the Fraser years, worked to marginalise and undermine the NAC.
Hawke and his newly appointed Aboriginal Affairs Minister Gerry Hand were determined to move quickly to placate growing public protest. In January 1988, Hand and DAA Secretary Charlie Perkins embarked on a whirlwind tour of Aboriginal communities, undertaking 46 meetings and travelling over 56,000 kilometres. However, many communities regarded this as a token exercise, angered at the government’s land rights betrayal two years earlier. ATSIC was due to begin operation in July 1988. However, Hand and Perkins soon fell out, leading to Perkins’ dismissal from his role in DAA. With Hand now having to find a new appointee to lead ATSIC, the body’s creation was postponed until 1990.
ATSIC was given a broader mandate than its predecessors. Its functions were to advise governments at all levels, advocate for Australian Indigenous affairs and deliver and monitor Indigenous programs and services. The latter role was one that had been demanded by the NAC, but never conceded. Yet, as Foley observes, there were fundamental flaws in the machine.
The first was that ATSIC’s elected councillors lacked a popular mandate. In 1973, when the Whitlam government established the NACC, it also established an Aboriginal electoral role that included about 70 percent of Indigenous people eligible to vote. According to Foley, in the 1973 NACC elections more than 80 percent of Aboriginal voters participated. In contrast, only Indigenous people on the mainstream Australian electoral roll were eligible to participate in ATSIC elections. Foley estimates that in ATSIC’s first national election, in 1990, less than 30 percent of eligible Indigenous people voted. This was due not only to the low level of Aboriginal electoral enrolment, but also because several Aboriginal activist organisations, disenchanted with the process, called for a boycott. According to Foley, among the 35,000-strong Koori community in Sydney, fewer than 1,000 voted.
It was not, however, just the lack of voter participation that ensured ATSIC was not representative of Indigenous people. ATSIC was composed of a nominally representative wing, consisting of over 400 councillors representing 60 regions (reduced to 36 regions in 1993) and a board of 18 commissioners. Alongside this structure was an administrative body composed entirely of unelected public servants drawn for the most part from the old DAA bureaucracy. ATSIC staff were not accountable to ATSIC’s elected councillors, but instead to the federal government and its Aboriginal Affairs minister. Presiding over the whole body was a government-appointed ATSIC chairperson, Lowitja O’Donoghue, who had been a senior Commonwealth bureaucrat since 1975.
ATSIC’s structure ensured the same tensions arose that had plagued the NAC and NACC. Was ATSIC intended to be an independent and democratic decision-making body or an advisory one? What control would it exercise over funding and allocation of resources?
In a report to minister Hand prior to her appointment as ATSIC chair, O’Donoghue recommended that ATSIC’s powers be limited to an advisory role only. This proposal, adopted in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act 1989, ensured that ATSIC councillors had no effective decision-making power over development in the regions that they were elected to represent. That power was vested in an unelected bureaucracy. In 1994, HC Coombs, a former Commonwealth bureaucrat and founder of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee during the Fraser years, made the following observation of ATSIC’s functioning:
[T]he Commission is not, as yet, an Aboriginal organisation working for and accountable to Aboriginal society and importantly…is not thought of as such by many Aborigines [sic]. Rather, it continues to be seen by many as an instrument of the Commonwealth Government and of the central ATSIC bureaucracy in Canberra. It does not, therefore, adequately serve the purposes of either government or Aborigines.
What Coombs alludes to here is that the federal government needed an Indigenous body that could be widely seen to be representative of Indigenous interests while, at the same time, implementing government policy. This contradiction only sharpened in the years to follow, as programs delivered by ATSIC were pared back. ATSIC councillors were now left with the job of explaining to their constituents why they were implementing cuts to health, housing and employment programs. This was entirely consistent with ATSIC’s raison d’être from the beginning. Foley says of ATSIC’s formation:
Thus, a small, elite group of indigenous public servants, academics and ATSIC commissioners began a process of cultivating, and being cultivated by, the Government. This elite, unrepresentative group would become indispensable during the next four years of anxiety and debate about the next major indigenous issue to confront the government, that of Mabo and native title.
Before addressing this vexed issue, another Hawke government initiative is worthy of mention: the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR). As Foley and other activists have pointed out, reconciliation was not an issue that had emerged spontaneously from either the Indigenous or non-Indigenous communities. Rather it proved a useful diversion from the anger Aboriginal activists felt in response to Labor’s betrayals.
CAR was established in 1991 with much fanfare. It was one of the few recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to be implemented. According to the Reconciliation website, CAR “invested ten years of research, promotion, partnership-building, consultation and educating into the reconciliation process”.
However, in reality, CAR achieved very little. It took six years for another royal commission to hand down the Bringing Them Home report on Australia’s Stolen Generations, in 1997, and a further decade before the newly elected Rudd Labor government apologised to the Stolen Generations (albeit without compensation). Hundreds of thousands participated in reconciliation bridge walks, sponsored by Labor state governments, in June 2000. However, their demands were limited to calling on the conservative Howard government to apologise to the Stolen Generations. Howard was in no mood to listen. Thus, the mobilisations served only to build a platform for Labor based on a purely symbolic gesture.
The High Court’s Mabo decision, handed down on 3 June 1992, was described by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Robert Tickner as “one of the most important decisions the High Court of Australia will ever deliver and elevated the process of reconciliation”. However, Aboriginal activists had a more sceptical view of its significance. With an immediate and sustained backlash from mining interests, reminiscent of the earlier debate on land rights legislation, the Keating Labor government came under immense pressure to implement native title legislation that would protect mining and pastoral interests. Once again, a media campaign was unleashed about the Mabo decision’s supposed threat to suburban backyards.
In July 1993, a year after Mabo and weeks after the Wik people lodged a significant native title claim, the federal cabinet decided that “Aboriginal people would have rights to negotiate with miners and others, with unresolved disputes to be determined by the Native Title Tribunal to be created by the proposed legislation”. Thus, Aboriginal people would once again be deprived of any veto over mining on their land.
Indigenous leaders were divided. An elite, self-appointed group (known as the A-team), including Noel Pearson, Sol Bellear, Marcia Langton and others, was ushered into negotiations with government, arriving at what they claimed was a “compromise” agreement. A second group of Indigenous negotiators, led by Michael Mansell, dubbed themselves the B-team and met with Democrat and Green senators in an effort to force concessions from the government. They failed.
The resulting Native Title Act 1993 established a very high benchmark for recognition of title. Only Crown land could be claimed, and it was available only to Aboriginal people who could prove continuous association with that land: a very difficult thing to do after centuries of dispossession. With most Aboriginal communities having experienced forced removal or expulsion from their land, confinement and the removal of their children, such connections to country were all too often severed. Rob Riley, one of the “B Team”, accused the government of “having sold out the rights of Aboriginal people to the pastoralist, mining and tourist industries”.
A subsequent High Court case in 1996 produced the Wik judgment, which required pastoralists and mining companies to negotiate with Aboriginal people for limited access to the land. However, even this was watered down, such that native title holders face protracted court battles to secure meagre compensation. Consequently, very few Aboriginal people are native title claimants, and those who are successful are obliged to seek redress through compensation from mining and commercial interests, instead of exercising rights of control over development on their land.
In March 1996, the conservative Howard Liberal government was elected in a landslide, in an election where Pauline Hanson’s anti-Aboriginal and anti-Asian agenda featured prominently. This set the scene for Howard to launch an attack on even the most meagre gains Aboriginal people had won in the preceding Hawke and Keating years. In 1997, Howard vehemently rejected a government apology to the Stolen Generations proposed in the Bringing Them Home report. Siding with right-wing commentator Keith Windschuttle in the “history wars”, he castigated truth-telling about Aboriginal massacres as a “black armband” view of history.
The culmination of Howard’s backlash was the Northern Territory Emergency Response (better known as the Northern Territory Intervention), launched in June 2007 on the eve of a federal election. The pretext was the Little Children are Sacred report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse. However, the measures Howard implemented bore no resemblance to the nearly 100 recommendations of that report. Instead, Howard seized on an opportunity to improve his flagging electoral fortunes with a military invasion of Aboriginal communities. As commentator Guy Rundle observed at the time, Howard was seeking to replicate the “war on terror” on home soil.
The NT Intervention included welfare quarantining (so-called “income management” via the Basics Card), the abolition of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) and their replacement with work for the dole. The federal government compulsorily acquired 65 Aboriginal communities, granting them only five-year leases to Crown land. The permit system that had previously regulated government access in remote communities was suspended. Federal and state police, as well as the army, were mobilised to crack down on alcohol consumption and pornography, supposedly to aid the welfare of Aboriginal children. Demeaning signs were erected at the entrance to communities (most of which were already “dry”) declaring them to be alcohol- and pornography-free zones.
The NT Intervention was continued under the subsequent Rudd and Gillard Labor governments under the misnomer of “Stronger Futures”. Cosmetic changes were made: the original Intervention legislation had breached the federal Anti-discrimination Act. However, Rudd and Gillard’s commitment to the Intervention demonstrate the shallowness of Rudd’s Stolen Generations apology.
Today, Aboriginal communities are still suffering from the dismantling of the CDEP employment program carried out during the Howard and Rudd years, and the punitive welfare measures that followed. Housing overcrowding remains a key issue. A 2021 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report found that while one in five Indigenous people live in overcrowded housing, in remote communities the statistic is one in four and, in very remote communities, one in two. The consequence is dramatically reduced health outcomes. As of January 2023, the COVID-19 mortality rate for Indigenous people was 1.5 times higher than for non-Indigenous people, but a shocking 3.5 times higher in remote and very remote communities.
Albanese’s announcement of a referendum on the Indigenous Voice to parliament continues in the tradition of previous Labor governments. It represents rhetorical commitment to Indigenous rights, while failing to address structural forms of racism that are heavily embedded in Australian capitalism. As Jordan Humphreys has observed:
In reality, the Voice is an almost entirely symbolic gesture. The proposed model of the Voice will be an advisory body only, with no actual power over government policy. Parliament will have to listen to its views – which it can then freely ignore.
The idea of an Aboriginal Voice in/to federal parliament is not a new one. From the mid-1920s, the NSW-based Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association advocated for an Aboriginal board to advise the Commonwealth government, and for state control over Aboriginal lives to be abolished. These demands were raised as part of a comprehensive platform that included land rights and an end to the removal of Aboriginal children by the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board.
In 1929, AAPA president Fred Maynard told a Sydney meeting of the Labour League that the AAPA advocated an Aboriginal representative “in the Federal Parliament, or failing it, to have an [A]boriginal ambassador appointed to live in Canberra to watch over his people’s interests and advise the Federal authorities”. Four years later, Koori man Joe Anderson famously addressed a nationwide Cinesound news broadcast as the self-proclaimed “King Burraga”. He declared: “All the black man wants is representation in Federal Parliament”.
However, the Voice will be far from representative of all Indigenous people’s interests. The model proposed by a government-appointed advisory panel, which includes NT Intervention supporters Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson, rejects direct election of Indigenous Voice representatives by Indigenous communities at large on the basis that this would not “accommodate the vast diversity of cultures and ways in which cultural authority works in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities”. Harking back to ATSIC, they also cite low voter turnout as threatening the legitimacy of the Voice.
Instead, they recommend a model in which national Voice members are drawn from “Local and Regional Voices”, based “on relevant arrangements in place that work well”. They place emphasis on “shared decision making in partnership with governments”. The relevant arrangements referred to above presumably refer to land councils and bodies initiated in partnership with state governments, such as the First Peoples’ Assembly in Victoria and the recently legislated First Nations Voice in South Australia.
Each of these state-based models, like the national Voice to parliament, are (or will be) legislated into existence and can therefore be replaced as governments see fit. Moreover, they operate within a neoliberal framework in which governments view Indigenous self-determination as synonymous with granting government contracts to Aboriginal corporations to deliver “culturally appropriate” services. This model differs from the Hawke government’s ATSIC service delivery model in so far as it provides a much greater role for the market to determine who can turn a profit in building Aboriginal housing or keeping children in out-of-home care or detention.
Today there are many more Aboriginal corporations positioned to bid for government contracts. As of 30 June 2022, there were 3,521 corporations registered under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006. The last “Top 500” report published by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), in 2016, found that the combined income of the top 500 Indigenous corporations had more than doubled in the previous decade, from $865 million in 2005–6 to $1.92 billion in 2015–16. The equity of these corporations had grown even faster, at 11.9 percent per year. Total equity of the top 500 in 2015–16 was more than $1.9 billion.
Unsurprisingly, this accumulation of wealth has not “trickled down” to those most in need. In 2016, the poverty rate for Indigenous Australians was 31 percent, and was twice as high in very remote communities (54 percent) as in major cities (24 percent). Australian National University researchers Markham and Biddle observe that the income disparity between urban and remote Indigenous communities continues to grow.
This entrenched wealth disparity is the consequence of decades of neoliberal policy pursued by both Labor and Coalition governments. Labor governments have felt a much greater need to appeal to liberal opinion by consulting with Indigenous “representatives” in designing and implementing “public policy, programs and service delivery” in accordance with neoliberal logic. However, the extent to which these “representatives” are listened to depends upon how willing and able they are to articulate the interests of the above-mentioned Indigenous corporations and a small, but growing, Aboriginal middle class.
Incorporating the Indigenous Voice to parliament in the Australian constitution won’t make it more representative or more democratic. Rather, it signals Labor’s intention to continue down the path it has adopted since the Whitlam years, half a century ago. That is, a strategy that gives lip service to Aboriginal empowerment, while at the same time entrenching elite interests. Combatting institutional racism and inequality will require a different approach: one built from the ground up.
Addressing a Rainbow Alliance conference back in 1988, Gary Foley concluded his talk by arguing that: “The only sort of Australia that I think Aboriginal Australia can ultimately live alongside in true harmony is some form of socialist republic Australia where racism, sexism and exploitation have been eliminated”.
That’s not just the type of society we should all aspire to, but one we need to organise to fight for, together.
Agreements, Treaties and Negotiated Settlements Project 2020, Milirrpum v Nabalco (1971) 17 FLR 141. https://database.atns.net.au/agreement.asp?EntityID=1611
Albanese, Anthony 2023, “Address to the Chifley Research Conference”, National Press Club, Canberra, 5 February. https://www.pm.gov.au/media/address-chifley-research-conference
Anderson, Pat 2022, “Why a First Nations Voice should come before Treaty”, The Conversation, 21 October. https://theconversation.com/why-a-first-nations-voice-should-come-before-treaty-192388
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2023, “COVID-19 Mortality in Australia: Deaths registered until 31 January”. https://www.abs.gov.au/articles/covid-19-mortality-australia-deaths-registered-until-31-january-2023
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2021, “Indigenous housing: Snapshot”, 16 September. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-housing
Bennett, Scott 1985, “The 1967 Referendum”, Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/ielapa.860402932
Beresford, Quentin 2006, Rob Riley: An Aboriginal Leader’s Quest for Justice, Aboriginal Studies Press.
Beresford, Quentin 2008, The Godfather: the life of Brian Burke, Allen & Unwin.
Bramble, Tom and Rick Kuhn 2011, Labor’s Conflict: Big Business, Workers and the Politics of Class, Cambridge University Press.
Central Land Council 2023, “The Aboriginal Land Rights Act”. https://www.clc.org.au/the-alra/
Coombs, HC and Robinson, CJ, 1996 “Remembering the Roots: Lessons for ATSIC”, in Patrick Sullivan (ed.), Shooting the Banker: Essays on ATSIC and Self-Determination, North Australia Research Unit, Australian National University.
Foley, Gary 1988, “For Aboriginal sovereignty”, Arena (83), republished at the Koori History Website. http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/speech1.html
Foley, Gary 1999a, “Whiteness and Blackness in the Koori Struggle for Self-Determination”, Koori History Website. http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/pdf_essays/whiteness%20and%20blackness%20in%20the%20koori%20struggle.pdf
Foley, Gary 1999b, “Reconciliation: fact or fiction?”, Koori History Website. http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/pdf_essays/reconciliation.pdf
Foley, Gary 1999c, “ATSIC: Flaws in the machine”, Koori History Website. http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/pdf_essays/atsic.pdf
Foley, Gary 2001a, “Black Power in Redfern 1968–1972”, Koori History Website. http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/pdf_essays/black%20power%20in%20redfern%201968.pdf
Foley, Gary 2001b, “The Road to Native Title: Aboriginal Rights and the ALP 1973–1996”, Koori History Website. http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/227.pdf
Foley, Gary 2010, “A Short History of the Australian Indigenous Resistance 1950–1990”, Koori History Website. http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/229.pdf
Hawke, Steven and Michael Gallagher 1989, Noonkanbah: Whose Land, Whose Law, Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
Human Rights Commission 1997, Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. https://humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/pdf/social_justice/bringing_them_home_report.pdf
Humphreys, Jordan 2023, “A voice to parliament will do little for Indigenous justice”, Red Flag, 224, 20 January. https://redflag.org.au/article/voice-parliament-will-do-little-indigenous-justice
Keating, Paul 1992, Speech at the Australian launch of the International Year for the World’s Indigenous People, Redfern, 10 December. https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/original/00008765.pdf
Markey, Raymond 1988, The Making of the Labor Party in New South Wales 1880–1900, New South Wales University Press.
Markham, Francis and Nicholas Biddle 2018, Income, poverty and inequality – Census Paper 2, ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/145053/1/CAEPR_Census_Paper_2.pdf
Markus, Andrew 2001, Race: John Howard and the remaking of Australia, Allen & Unwin.
Maynard, John 2020, “The Voice to parliament isn’t a new idea – Indigenous activists called for it nearly a century ago”, The Conversation, 3 January. https://theconversation.com/the-voice-to-parliament-isnt-a-new-idea-indigenous-activists-called-for-it-nearly-a-century-ago-122272
Morse, Dana 2022, “Closing the Gap report shows four targets going backwards as experts call for efforts to ‘empower communities’”, ABC News, 30 November. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-11-30/closing-the-gap-report-released/101713892
National Indigenous Australians Agency 2021, Indigenous Voice Discussion Paper, Commonwealth of Australia. https://voice.niaa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2021-03/indigenous-voice-discussion-paper-2_0.pdf
National Indigenous Australians Agency 2022, “Appendix D – Register of Indigenous Corporations Annual Report 2021-22”, Annual Report 2021–22. https://www.transparency.gov.au/annual-reports/national-indigenous-australians-agency/reporting-year/2021-22-36
NSW Government n.d., “The Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983”. https://www.aboriginalaffairs.nsw.gov.au/land-rights/the-aboriginal-land-rights-act-1983-alra/
Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations 2017, The Top 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporations 2015–16. https://www.oric.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/11_2017/Top500_2015-16.pdf
Productivity Commission 2022, Closing the Gap Annual Data Compilation Report, July. https://www.pc.gov.au/closing-the-gap-data/annual-data-report/report/closing-the-gap-annual-data-compilation-report-july2022.pdf
Read, Peter 1990, “‘Cheeky, Insolent and Anti-White’: the split in the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – Easter 1970”, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 36 (1), April, pp.73–83.
Read, Peter 2001, Charles Perkins: A Biography, Penguin.
Riley, Rob 1984, Address at the National Press Club on 11 October 1984 [sound recording], Trove. https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-222466426/listen
Rundle, Guy 2007, “Military humanitarianism in Australia’s North”, in Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson (eds), Coercive Reconciliation: Stabilise, Normalise, Exit Aboriginal Australia, Arena.
Smith, Diane 1996, “From Cultural Diversity to Regionalism”, in Patrick Sullivan (ed.), Shooting the Banker: Essays on ATSIC and Self-Determination, North Australia Research Unit, ANU.
Tickner, Robert 2001, Taking a Stand: Land Rights to Reconciliation, Allen & Unwin.
Vassiley, Alexis 2021, “Noonkanbah 1979: when unionists stood up for Aboriginal rights”, Red Flag, 17 February. https://redflag.org.au/node/7540
Wilkie, Meredith 1985, Aboriginal Land Rights in NSW, Alternative Publications Co-operative and Black Books.
 Lyrics to “Treaty” available at http://www.schoolsreconciliationchallenge.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/TreatyYothuYindiTextBlock.pdf.
 Anderson 2022.
 Albanese 2023.
 Quoted in Foley 2001b, p.2.
 Keating 1992.
 Human Rights Commission 1997.
 Productivity Commission 2022, p.33.
 Morse 2022.
 Markey 1988, p.295.
 See Bramble and Kuhn 2011, chapter 7.
 Bennett 1985, pp.26–31.
 Foley 2010, pp.10–14.
 Agreements, Treaties and Negotiated Settlements Project 2020.
 Foley 2001a, pp.10–14.
 Foley 1999a, p.11.
 Foley 2001b, p.4.
 Quoted in Read 1990.
 See Central Land Council 2023.
 Beresford 2006, p.207.
 See Hawke and Gallagher 1989.
 Vassiley 2021.
 NSW Government n.d.
 Quoted in Wilkie 1985, p.v.
 Beresford 2008.
 Foley 2001b, p.9.
 Quoted in Markus 2001, pp.60–62.
 Markus 2001, p.70.
 Beresford 2006, pp.164–65.
 Riley 1984.
 Read 2001.
 Canberra Times, 6 March 1986.
 Rob Riley, like his mother and grandmother, was a member of the Stolen Generations. In the 1970s, he joined the Perth-based Aboriginal rights organisation Black Action. He was a field officer and later executive officer for the Aboriginal Legal Service and a central activist in the Noonkanbah land rights dispute. After working as an advisor to Labor minister Gerry Hand and RCIADC commissioner Patrick Dodson, he returned to the ALS in 1990, where he campaigned around the issues of Aboriginal incarceration and recognition of the Stolen Generations. He took his own life on 1 May 1996. See Beresford 2006.
 Robinson later served as deputy chair of ATSIC between 1996 and 2003, under the Howard government.
 See Smith 1996, p.23; Read 2001, p.314.
 See Foley 1999c.
 Beresford 2006, p.122.
 Foley 1999c, p.6.
 Foley 1999c, p.10.
 Foley 1999c, p.10.
 Coombs, Aboriginal Autonomy: Issues and Strategies, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1994. Cited in Coombs and Robinson 1996, p.10.
 Foley 2001b, p.16.
 Foley 1999b.
 See https://nrw.reconciliation.org.au/
 Tickner 2001, p.86.
 Tickner 2001, p.144.
 Quoted in Tickner 2001, p.201.
 Rundle 2007, p.37.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2021.
 ABS 2023.
 Humphreys 2023.
 Quoted in Maynard 2020.
 Maynard 2020.
 National Indigenous Australians Agency 2021, p.7.
 National Indigenous Australians Agency 2021, p.6.
 National Indigenous Australians Agency 2022.
 Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations 2017.
 Markham and Biddle 2018.
 For a further discussion of the rise of an Aboriginal middle class see Jordan Humphreys’ article in this issue of Marxist Left Review.
 Foley 1988.