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Aboriginal Recognition Day - Why Constitutional Recognition and the Voice to Parliament matter


Acknowledgement of Country

We recognise the First Peoples of this nation and their ongoing connection to culture and country. We acknowledge First Nations Peoples as the Traditional Owners, Custodians and Lore Keepers of the world's oldest living culture and pay respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.


This preamble is now said or read before any major gathering be it a school assembly, a board meeting, a concert or a sporting event

 Artwork: Connection to Country, 2021 by Shaenice Allan

 I’ve been thinking about our controversial Australia Day which is held on January 26th. Some  people celebrated, others mourned, especially our First Nations people for whom the arrival of the First Fleet of ts in 1788 marked the beginning of their dispossession from the land they had occupied for the previous 65,000 years. Quite probably it wasn’t a particularly happy occasion for the hapless convicts who were involuntarily dumped here by the British Crown either, so let’s make it on another day which everyone can celebrate including the many millions of Australians who have come since. [I'll be using the terms indigenous people, Aboriginal People, First Nations People more or less interchangeably. In all cases it will mean the traditional owners of this country, Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders].

While January 1, would be a logical day historically, because that’s the day in 1901 when the rabble of independent colonies came together as one country for the first time, many Australians would feel a bit cheated at the loss of the holiday. It’s also a bit like having your birthday at Christmas when the whole western world already celebrates a different occasion.

For many Aussies Australia Day is simply a family day for beaches, barbecues and beer - the last hurrah of summer before children go back to school and work resumes in earnest, so why not keep that spirit and make it say, on the last weekend in January or early February, which have no negative connotations for anyone. On January 26,  we could instead reflect on the effect the arrival of white settlers had upon the indigenous population and what has been lost thereby. We could also examine past and present injustices inflicted on Aboriginal people in this country and try to do something about them.

Changing Perceptions

At least things have improved since I went to Primary School. In the 1960s we were taught that Australian history began in 1788 and that there were no Aboriginal people left in Tasmania at all – that they had either died out or been peacefully relocated to Flinders Island. Since then we have learned that Australian History began at least 65,000 years ago and that Australia was not an empty land there for the taking by the British. Dispossession had been anything but  peaceful and Aboriginal people who survived were pushed to the margins,  exploited as stock hands, domestics and worse on stations and Aboriginal children were taken from their families in order to better adapt them to white society -a practice which continued until the 1970s. However, some improvements have occurred since. Here are some of the landmark changes:

Changes in Legal Status

·        1967 -  Indigenous people were included in the Census for the first time and Aboriginal Affairs become a federal responsibility rather than being left to individual states. Although Aboriginal people also gained voting rights in 1967, this was voluntary and not formalised until 1984        

            ·      1974 - Australia's Anti -discrimination Law is passed

·         1976  -  Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) passed

·         1978 - Permanent Authority created for the protection of sacred sites

·         1985  - Uluru (Ayres Rock) one of the most sacred sites in Aboriginal culture, is returned to its traditional owners


Uluru - that Monolith in the centre of Australia is one of Aboriginal Australia's most sacred sites. It was formally handed back to its traditional owners in 1985

-This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND


·         1992 -  The notion of “Terra Nullis” – Australia as an unoccupied land, is overturned by the High Court in the Mabo Land Rights case

·         1993 -  The Native Title Act is passed giving Aboriginal people rights over lands which they have clearly occupied

·         1997 - “Bringing them Home” – the stories of children taken from their parents are published. See the film “Rabbit -proof Fence”  for example, to understand how heartbreaking this was. This practice continued until 1967

·        1998 - The first “Sorry Day” was  held to remember these “Stolen Generations."

    ·        1998  - Pastoralists and mining companies had long been concerned about the impact of Native                 Title on their leases so some Native Title claims which were deemed inconvenient were                     extinguished.

Overcoming Historic Disadvantage

  •  Aboriginal Art with its unique techniques and designs is now highly sought after internationally and has become a $200 million a year industry. You can now find it on  everything from  tea towels to fashion garments and even appliances. I’m not sure if the following is a respectful use of Aboriginal art, but it does show how much more widely it is being applied and coming into the mainstream. Beware of imitations however, and be sure that copyright and sacred meanings are respected and that Aboriginal people are at least reaping some of the benefit as well as being fully consulted. Read more here about history and style

  • The "Bush Tucker” industry is also booming with producers unable to keep up with demand. At present only 1% of this $20 million industry involves Aboriginal people, but a social enterprise in Sydney's Redfern is hoping to change that with its employment project for young people

  •  In the Media we are also seeing more accurate depictions of Aboriginal people and more productions with Aboriginal producers, writers and actors and not in supporting roles or as tokens, but as stars in their own right. I'm thinking here of television series such as “Total Control,” and  “Mystery Road.” 
  • Aboriginal Land Management practices have been incorporated in a number areas especially with respect to fire management. Approximately 770 Indigenous Rangers are employed throughout Australia to manage natural and cultural sites, eradicate introduced species and otherwise take care of the land.

Unfinished Business

Despite these advances much remains to be done. Thee living standards of Aboriginal people still lag behind those of other Australians -in life expectancy, housing, education and employment. More Indigenous Australians are in gaol and youth detention centres. Aboriginal people continue to die in custody at an alarming rate despite a Royal Commission in 1987 and more of them commit suicide.  The  “Closing the Gap” initiative begun in 2019 was to address many of these issues, yet although there has been some improvement particularly in the area of early childhood  education, some glaring anomalies remain and many baselines have not been updated since 2016.

Despite laws to the contrary, destruction of aboriginal heritage also continues as for example, the recent demolition of the Juukan Gorge, a sacred site in WA . 

New forms of discrimination and oppression such as the Intervention in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, have replaced the earlier ones. Both it and the Indue Card - a cashless welfare card - involved withholding funds and  restricting what and where people could purchase goods. While the Indue  card was also issued to other welfare recipients, 78% of them were issued to Aboriginal people. Although intended to curb alcohol use and reduce absenteeism at school, it resulted in more violence, more suicides, more child abuse and more malnutrition.  In some communities, elders themselves have decided to ban alcohol because of the health effects on their people, particularly with respect to preventing FASD (foetal alcohol syndrome).

Fortunately our new Labor Government has repealed some of the more draconian measures, but Aboriginal children are once again being removed from families to be put into foster care at a greater rate than other Australians. While presumably well – intention as was the removal of children in previous generations, it also smacks of the same paternalistic approach and denies Aboriginal agency in their own affairs. You can read more about this here.

Constitutional Recognition and the Voice to Parliament

 Given that at least three existing laws been overturned on the whim of whichever government is in power, to the detriment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, they are now calling for change to the Australian Constitution to not only recognise their ownership of the land prior to colonisation but to enshrine their right to be involved in any decision -making which concerns them. For this reason, the Voice to Parliament as it is called, which will shortly be the subject of a referendum. 

At present Australia remains the only country which has not yet granted constitutional recognition to its indigenous people and the move is strongly endorsed by the UN. Furthermore, Article 15 of the Declaration of  Human Rights says that the dignity and diversity of cultures must be respected and States must take action in conjunction with Indigenous people to combat prejudice and to promote tolerance, understanding and good relations. While overt Racism has been curbed through anti - discrimination laws, it still simmers away beneath the surface and occasionally erupts in unpleasant ways. Since this also applies to other cultures  both within and outside Australia, Australia, I hope to explore this topic more fully shortly.

Written while living on Muinina lands, Nipaluna (Tasmania)