Aboriginal Land Rights

Bella R Wilson

What was their level of success and support?

Please be aware that this flyer contains images of deceased people and may be upsetting for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island people.

Key Figures

Vincent Lingiari

Vincent Lingiari lived from 1908 to 1988. He and his parents were employed on the Wave Hill cattle farm, which was situated on Aboriginal land. None of the Indigenous workers on the farm were payed well, and usually were not payed at all.

On the 23rd of August, 1966, Lingiari led 200 employees of the farm to go on strike to demand better pay, rations and protection of Indigenous women. This became known as the Gurindji Strike, and lasted for nine years - the longest strike in Australian history. The campaign was supported by several civil rights groups, including FCAATSI.

Eventually the owners of the cattle station offered better pay and rations, however Lingiari was not satisfied - his goals had grown. He now wanted possession of the land returned to the Gurindji people.

In 1974, the Woodward Royal Commission suggested that Aboriginal Land Councils should be set up in order to represent Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people in their claim for land. The next year his struggle finally ended - Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handed back the land. This was done in a symbolic way, with Whitlam passing a handful of soil into Lingiari's hands.

John Howard

John Howard was born on the 26th of July 1939. He was the 25th Prime Minister of Australia, and served 11 years from 1996 to 2007 – the second longest serving Prime Minister in Australia’s history. He first entered parliament in 1975 as the Minister for Business and Consumer affairs, and eventually wound up as leader of the Liberal Party, who were the opposition when he acquired the position. He is well known for making controversial decisions regarding Indigenous Australians.

Some of his first acts as Prime Minister were to appoint an administrator to make decisions for ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island Commission), however this was stopped in the senate, and to then cut funding to the ATSIC.

On the 4th of September 1997, he went on the 7:30 report, and brought with him a map with certain areas coloured brown. These areas represented land that Indigenous Australians could claim. He said “What has happened with Native title is that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction, particularly after the Wik decision. What I have done with this legislation is bring it back to the middle. Let me just show your viewers that this shows 78 per cent of the landmass of Australia coloured brown on this map. Now, the Labor Party and the Democrats are effectively saying that the Aboriginal people of Australia should have the potential right of veto over further development of 78 per cent of the landmass of Australia.” (Graham, 2007).

Between 1997 and 2007 he made many more decisions concerning Indigenous Australians, including removing reconciliation from the Government's agenda. In 2007 the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act was passed, giving the government the power to take possession of Aboriginal land for five years and hold back 50% of all welfare payments for necessary items. This, as well as his actions on the 7:30 Report, show that he was not in favour of giving Indigenous Australians more land rights - in fact, he may gave been interested in taking them away.

(National Archives of Australia, n.d.)

These two contrasting figures clearly show that support for Indigenous land rights has been mixed. People like Vincent Lingiari have helped with the progress of the movement, however there are still issues. John Howard has shown that he is not in favour of land rights for Aboriginal people, impeding on both the success and support of the movement.

Key Events

Wik Decision

in 1993, on the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, the Native Title Act of 1993 was put to the test. Two indigenous groups, the Wik and Thayorre peoples, lay claim to a piece of land upon which the government had granted a pastoral lease. The Wik and Thayorre people wished to coexist peacefully with the farmers. Denny Bowenda wrote in Native Title, "We don't want to keep people off our land. We want to share. We don't want to drive the pastoralists away. They are not our enemies. We helped to build that industry and we need it to be strong for our future too. ... We want the government to recognise that we are the traditional owners of those lands. Our law is the first law..." (Pearson History 2013)

In January 1996, the high court ruled that the pastoral leases overpowered the claim to land from the Wik people. They then appealed to the court, and in December of that year, the high court found that the pastoral lease did not give the farmers exclusive rights to the land - it merely gave them the right to farm the land, construct fences, et cetera. The court then found that the Wik people and the farmers could live together.

This decision was quite controversial to the Australian people, some of which took it very negatively. Scare tactics were used to frighten the Australian public into thinking that Indigenous Australians were going to take their homes.

(Pearson History, 2013) (Mazel, 2002)

Redfern Park Speech

The Redfern Park Speech was delivered on the 10th of December 1992 by then-Prime Minister Paul Keating. It was the first attempt at an apology to Indigenous Australians.

"... it was we who did the dispossessing. 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. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask - how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us." (Pearson N, 2012)

The Redfern Park Speech greatly boosted reconciliation efforts in Australia, and it paved the way for similar speeches, such as Kevin Rudd's apology to Indigenous Australians on behalf of the Australian population. While there are still major issues in Australia surrounding reconciliation, the Redfern Park Speech opened a door for future apologies to be made.

(SBS, 2012)

As seen in the aftermath of the Wik Decision, land rights were not 100% supported by the Australian population as many people believed that Indigenous Australians would occupy their homes. The effort to give land rights to indigenous Australians has not been entirely successful, as Kevin Rudd only recently apologised to the Stolen Generation.


What did the people think?

"...our [National Farmer's Federation] primary concern has always been certainty for the people who use the land for economic benefit - our farmers - and that means that they simply must have exclusive occupancy of their land." -Donald McGauchie in The Age, 1997 (Pearson History, 2013)

“If you want to find out about Australia put a sticker supporting Aboriginal causes on your car... The reconciliation stickers seemed to be OK, but anything stronger than that eg Treaty or Land Rights causes a hostile reaction.” -An anonymous subscriber to an Australian newsletter (Creative Spirits 2013)

Farmers were not pleased with acts such as the Native Title Act because they were afraid they would lose their land. Opinions were mixed within the general population, and still are with people willing to fly the Aboriginal flag, and others ripping it down.

What did the politicians think?

"Land rights is fundamentally wrong, because what land rights inevitably leads to is a large scale alienation of enormous sections of Australia to a very few people". -John Howard, 1998 (Allum, 1999)

Pauline Hanson has said:

"I draw the line when told I must pay and continue paying for something that happened over 200 years ago."

"Well, where the hell do I go? I was born here.”

(Creative Spirits 2013)

Bob Hawke signed a statement saying:

"The Government affirms that it is committed to work for a negotiated Treaty with Aboriginal people … The Government hopes that these negotiations can commence before the end of 1988 and will lead to an agreed Treaty in the life of this Parliament." (Windschuttle, 2001)

The opinions of politicians contrasted greatly. In general, liberal politicians were in favour of land rights, and more conservative politicians were not.

How about the Economists?

"The committee is convinced that the ownership of land and other resources is the first necessary step towards providing Aboriginal people with the means to improve their economic status" (Miller, 1985)

"Despite the optimistic views in the 1970s and 1980s that Aboriginal land rights would provide a vehicle for Aboriginal economic advancement, the evidence to date suggests that the major positive impacts have been non-economic. Land rights have provided Aboriginal land owners and residents of Aboriginal land with important cultural benefits." (Altman, 1990)

Economists in the 1970s and 1980s believed that land rights would benefit Aboriginal Australians in a major way, however this has not happened to the extent that they predicted.

Clearly Indigenous land rights were and are not completely supported by the population of Australia.

Was the pursuit of Indigenous Land Rights 100% successful and fully supported by the Australian population?

Clearly the Australian population was not unanimously in support of Aboriginal land rights. This is demonstrated by figures such as John Howard and Pauline Hanson who have spoken out in opposition of Indigenous land rights. The general population's opinion of land rights was and is mixed, with some flying the Aboriginal flag and others tearing it down. While figures like Vincent Lingiari have greatly advanced the land rights movement, this does in no way mean that the movement is 100% supported by the Australian population.

The success of the pursuit of Indigenous land rights has also been mixed. The nation has periods of progress, and then periods where this progress is undone or slows. This was shown by the Keating government passing bills to give Indigenous people land rights, then the Howard government perpetuating the belief that Aboriginal people already had sufficient land rights, then Kevin Rudd formally apologising to Aboriginal people. While the country is progressing, the matter of Indigenous land rights is not yet resolved.


Addison, P & Et al., T 2013, Pearson History, Pearson Australia, China.

Agreements, Treaties and Negotiated Settlements Project, 2011 The Wik Peoples v The State of Queensland & Ors; The Thayorre People v The State of Queensland & Ors [1996] High Court of Australia (23 December 1996),University of Melbourne, accessed 9 September 2013, <http://www.atns.net.au/agreement.asp?EntityID=775>.

Egan, T n.d. Vincent Lingiari (1919–1988), Australian Dictionary of Biography, accessed 7 September 2013, <http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/lingiari-vincent-14178>.

Graham, C 2007 The PM and Aboriginal Australia — a timeline, Crikey, accessed 7 September 2013, <http://www.crikey.com.au/2007/10/12/the-pm-and-aboriginal-australia-a-timeline/>.

Indigenous Australian Timeline, n.d. New South Wales Government, accessed3 September 2013, <http://www.teachingheritage.nsw.edu.au/section03/timeindig.php>.

National Archives of Australia, n.d. John Howard, Australian Government, accessed 15 September 2013, <http://primeministers.naa.gov.au/primeministers/howard/>.

Racism in Aboriginal Australia, n.d. Creative Spirits, accessed 14 September 2013, <http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/racism-in-aboriginal-australia>.

Special Broadcasting Service, 2012 20 years on: The Redfern Park speech,Australian Government, accessed 12 September 2013, <http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2012/12/10/20-years-redfern-park-speech>.

The 1967 Referendum Fact Sheet, n.d. National Archives of Australia, accessed3 September 2013, <http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/fact-sheets/fs150.aspx>.

Windschuttle, K 2001 Why there should be no Aboriginal treaty, The Sydney Line, accessed 14 September 2013, <http://www.sydneyline.com/Aboriginal%20Treaty.htm>.