Based in Adelaide, Australia, Empire Times is the student publication of Flinders University. It covers campus news and provides a platform for emerging student talent.

A History of Indigenous Rights

A History of Indigenous Rights

Indigenous rights have been a tumultuous and not entirely successful movement in Australian history. As a writer, I feel it most important to acknowledge my position as a white woman of European descent with no ancestry native to this land, and I pay utmost respect to the traditional owners of this land, both past and present.

Professor John Maynard, grandson of Fred Maynard, the Indigenous rights activist and first president of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA), has noted that opposition to the invasion of this country is not some ‘new-found strength’ that Aboriginal people have suddenly discovered. It did not spring from the Mabo decision or the Native Title Act 1993, nor was its birth a result of the vibrant 1960s, which culminated in the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra.

In 1788, before leaving England, Gov. Phillips’ instructions before leaving Britain were:

You are to endeavour by every possible means to open an Intercourse with the Natives and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all Our Subjects to live in amity and kindness with them. And if any of Our Subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or give them any unnecessary Interruption in the exercise of their several occupations. It is our Will and Pleasure that you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the Offence.

Yet the arrival of Europeans signaled the beginning of destruction of Aboriginal society. Loss of food sources as settlements spread over Indigenous lands meant that Aboriginal people became dependent on welfare and many moved to mission stations. Loss of population also occurred as land resources were overtaken with sheep and cattle, and waterways were fouled by Europeans. Though there are highly contested figures around the loss of life during early colonization, the occurrence of murders and all out massacres during clashes are undisputed by historians.

Over the past two centuries, government legislation and policy has sought to both liberate and restrict Indigenous rights. In 1924, the formation of the AAPA signaled the beginning of Indigenous political activism. Its aim was to ‘improve the material conditions of Aboriginal people and end political oppression’. The AAPA campaigned for both land rights and civil freedoms. Although their efforts did provide a foundation on which future generations continued to build, they were strongly resisted by white authorities and little headway was achieved.

In 1920s, 19th century racial ideology still pervaded society. J.W. Bleakley’s 1928 report on the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal administration addressed what was deemed the ‘half-caste question’. He differentiated between people with no racial admixture (‘full bloods’), through to those of only one-eighth Aboriginal descent (‘octoroons’). As Richard Broome has remarked, these gradations reflected the racist idea that people of mixed race were on a continuum between civilisation and barbarism, wherein the lighter the skin, the more civilised and intelligent the person was claimed to be. Through the early 1930s, the laws governing Indigenous marriages and sexual relations between races were strengthened. The use of alcohol, too, was strictly governed and provisions restricted. In South Australia, as well as Western Australia, the definition of Aboriginal was widened greatly to bring more under scrutiny.

In 1938 the Melbourne Argus claimed that Australia’s Indigenous people were ‘a backward and lowly race’ soon to be extinct. The Aboriginal population had declined to about 60,000 Australia-wide by 1930, and this seemed to prove the commonly held view that Aboriginal people would ‘fade’ before so-called ‘modern civilisation.’ Aboriginal Protection Acts maintained rigid control over Aboriginal people which amounted to a loss of civil rights including the right of freedom of movement, of association and marriage, the right to control one’s property and earnings, and the right to vote, drink, work, carry guns, and own dogs. Those such as Charles Perkins, who led the ‘Freedom Rides’ throughout northern New South Wales during the 1960s, exposed the socially and legally entrenched racism within our society. Perkins visited NSW towns and establishments such as the local RSL and swimming pools which openly refused entry and service to Aboriginal people.

Yet, the one area of frustration for Indigenous Australians has continued to be land rights. From the very earliest days of European arrival, justice has been sought in the form of letters, petitions, and appeals for rights and access to lands. This has generally netted little gain. However, in 1992, a landmark decision was made when Meriam man Eddie Mabo was successful in having native title recognized by the High Court of Australia. This was followed by the legislating of the Native Title Act in 1993. With the Wik decision of 1996, whereby it was deemed that native title and pastoral leases could co-exist, it seemed that there was much to celebrate in the realm of Aboriginal land rights. But things did not continue in this vein. A series of amendments to the Native Title Act under then Prime Minister John Howard, saw a watering down of rights and stagnation in activism for Indigenous rights.

In 2011, Kevin Rudd reflected on his 2008 public apology to the Indigenous community for the appalling past of White Europeans in Australia. He spoke of his ‘act of reconciliation as a bridge – a bridge that had to be crossed before the practical work of reconciliation could begin.’ The question remains, what is the practical work to be done? There is far more to this history which I am unable to cover in such a space, and any discussion thus far can only be a starting point to propel future action. In recent times, social movements emerging from the younger generation have focused on pride, acceptance, and celebrating multiculturalism. It seems hopeful that discriminatory ideology has finally found its place of distaste in the minds and mouths of millennials. But what of justice, of stolen land that remains unacknowledged?

Culture, like an onion, has many layers. It begins at the micro-level, with changes in the culture of a university or workplace that lead to changes in a community, city, and country. Further than the critical steps of reconciliation and the macro scope of legislation which should make every effort to remove systematic racial discrimination, the elimination of the slightest sentiment of stigmatism and prejudice is an issue that should be at the forefront of young Australian minds.

Words by


Broome, Richard. Aboriginal Australians: A History since 1788, fully rev. 4th ed. (Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin 2010), pp.239-241

Governor Phillip's Instructions, 17 April 1787, Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol. I, pp. 13-14

Maynard, John. ‘Fred Maynard and the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA): One God, One Aim, One destiny’, Aboriginal History, Vol. 21 (1997), ANU Press Stable, pp. 1-13. URL: Accessed: 23-06-2019

Perkins, Charles. A Bastard Like Me, 1975, Sydney; Ure Smith, pp. 74-91

Ritter, David. ‘The Judgement of the World: The Yorta Yorta Case and the “Tide of History”’, Australian Historical Studies, 2008, 35:123, pp. 106-112

Rudd, Kevin. National Indigenous apology anniversary [online]. INDIGENOUS LAW BULLETIN, Vol. 7, No. 23, March / April 2011: 35.  Availability: <;dn=20112861;res=AGISPT> ISSN: 1328-5475. [cited 23 Jun 19].

An Interview with Kate Ellis

An Interview with Kate Ellis

The Death of iTunes

The Death of iTunes