Indigenous land rights

By Monica Hatswell

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

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

Key events with Aboriginal land rights

1901: Commonwealth of Australia formed. Indigenous Australians are excluded from the census, and the lawmaking powers of the Commonwealth Parliament. Because of White Australian Policy, Indigenous people are excluded from the vote, pensions, employment in post offices, enlistment in Armed Forces, and maternity allowance.

1949: The Australian Citizenship Act gives Indigenous Australians the vote in Commonwealth elections, if they are enrolled for State elections, or have served in the Armed Forces.

1958: The Federal Council of the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) begins a ten year campaign to end Constitution's discrimination against Indigenous people.

1962: All Indigenous people are given the vote in Commonwealth elections.

1967: Referendum held – 90.7% of Australians vote YES to count Indigenous Australians in the census and to give the Commonwealth Government the power to make laws for them.

1972: Tent Embassy established outside Parliament House. It adopts the Indigenous flag.

Whitlam Government elected; White Australia Policy abolished. Department of Aboriginal Affairs established. Self-determination adopted as policy for Indigenous people.

1975: Whitlam hands back title to Gurindji people.

1976: Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT)

1985: Uluru handed back to traditional owners.

1993: Native Title Act.

1997: At the National Reconciliation Conference on 27th May, hundreds of people turn their backs on Howard during his speech, in protest at his refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations.

2008 - 13th February: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says 'Sorry' to the Stolen Generations.

2010 - 8th November: Prime Minister Julia Gillard announces plans to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.

(Timeline: Indigenous rights movement, 2010)

(Campaigning for land rights, 1963-68, 2008)

Key figures

  • Chicka Dixon
  • Gary Foley
  • Malcolm Fraser
  • Pearl Gibbs
  • Bob Hawke
  • John Howard
  • Paul Keating
  • Eddie Mabo
  • Lowitja (Lois) O’Donoghue
  • Gough Whitlam
  • Edward Woodward
  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal

(Native title issues & problems, n.d.)

(Person History year 10, 2013)

A change to the Australian Constitution is accomplished through a set process; both Houses of Parliament need to support the change that is being suggested, and a referendum is held. This requires all Australian citizens to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the amendment. A successful referendum requires a majority of electors nationwide, and a majority of states to vote ‘Yes’ to the alteration.

In the table above we can see that not all states agreed to the amendment, and that both Queensland and Western Australia voted 'No' to all changes to the Constitution . This also shows that not all of the public was supportive of the Aboriginals rights.

Gurindji people fight

In 1966 the Gurindji people, led by Vincent Lingiari, held a strike against poor conditions and pay. The strike was originally about wage issues, but then became a claim for the return of some of their traditional land.
The Gurindji strike was one of the first indigenous Australian strikes to gain widespread support for indigenous land rights. The Gurindji dispute was a significant turning point, and a critical symbol of growing the Aboriginal land rights struggle. Nine years later, in 1975, the Gurindji claim was successful, and their land was handed back to the people by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and native title legislation was enacted.

(Gurindji strike - The Wave Hill walk-off, 1966)

Gough Whitlam Vincent Lingiari
(Gough Whitlam Vincent Lingiari, 2011)

Public and political opinion of Aboriginal land rights

The first nationwide public opinion research regarding Aboriginal Land Rights, conducted in 1984, found that 47% of the respondents indicated ‘greater support’ for Aboriginal Land Rights, while 39% were ‘unsupportive’ (Goot & Rowse, 2007:67).

Twelve years later, a study seeking public opinion towards Mabo, was conducted in 1996 (three years after the Mabo decision). Between 1984 and 1996, it would appear that there was still no unanimous public support for returning land to the Aboriginal people (Marks and McDonnel, 1996:34) The results for the 1984 and 1996 are similar in terms of the proportions of respondents with supportive and unsupportive attitudes towards Aboriginal Land Rights.

People in rural areas compared to those in inner metropolitan are over 50% more likely to say that the change in Aboriginal land rights has gone too far. It is interesting that of all the states, those living in Queensland are about 40% more likely to consider that the change has gone too far. Those born overseas, irrespective of whether born in mainly English-speaking or non-English speaking countries, are more likely to feel that the changes has not gone too far compared to the Australian born. The never-married Australians, most of whom are young, are more likely than others to have reported that the change in Aboriginal land rights has not gone too far. In general, females are about 20% less likely to say that the change has gone too far. (Alisonvan Den Eynde, et al)

Throughout 1972, political reaction to the protest of the tent embassy on the front lawn of the country’s most significant government building was mixed, and the government was very embarrassed.

(The history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, 2012)

(NSW Aboriginal Land Council's 25th land right anniversary celebrations, 2010)
(A Short History of NSWALC, 2009)

Quote by Scott Cecil Bennett, published in 1989

A glance at the referendum figures suggests that not all Australians had been carried away by the excitement of the occasion, and there were some who were still not prepared to grant Aborigines a place among legitimate Australian interests. This reluctance appears to have been most widespread in those areas that had most direct contact with Aborigines. Even in the statewide figures the differences between the States seems to have been significant, for the three States with the highest proportions of Aborigines in their populations [Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland] were also the States that recorded the biggest ‘No’ votes ...

This ‘proximity’ argument gains credence when divisional and subdivisional figures are studied. Most Aborigines were living in rural areas, and there was a marked difference between rural and urban returns, with 48 rural divisions returning a 13.15 percent ‘No’ vote, compared with a 7.4 percent figure in 74 urban divisions...Within divisions, the subdivisions with the highest and/or most obvious populations of Aborigines recorded the highest proportion of ‘No’ votes. The most spectacular was the subdivision of Georgetown in the northern Queensland division of Leichhardt, where there was actually a 62.92 percent ‘No’ majority. Elsewhere, particular towns such as Ceduna (SA), Moree (NSW) and Kalgoorlie (WA) returned ‘No’ votes well above their State figures...Many Australians were prepared to accept the Aboriginal case, but the greatest proportion of these came from urban areas on the eastern seaboard. Residents of rural areas or of the outlying States were less prepared to do so...- Scott Cecil Bennett

(Person History year 10, 2013)

It is quite clear from the information above, that the pursuit of Indigenous Land Rights was not 100% successful at first, and was not fully supported by the Australian population. Although the push for Indigenous Land Rights was not completely successful, after a while they gained more rights, and got some of their native land back. For the Indigenous Australians the whole progression of gaining entitlements, and land rights, will be a drawn out and at times tedious process, because of the court battles and public opposition.


Albert, T & et al 2013, Person History year 10, Person, Melbourne, Victoria.

Indigenous Australians Overview, 2010 Australian Museum, accessed 23 August 2013, <>.

Reconciliaction, 2011 Land Rights Fact Sheet, Reconciliaction Network, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.

Public Opinion about Indigenous Australian Land Rights., n.d. Wilderness School, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.

van Den Eynde, A & et al n.d. PUBLIC OPINION ABOUT ABORIGINAL LAND RIGHTS IN AUSTRALIA, Pdf, accessed 2 September 2013, <>.

Timeline: Indigenous rights movement, 2010 SBS, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.

Picture Bibliography

Gurindji strike - The Wave Hill walk-off, 1966, Photograph, ABC, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.

A Short History of NSWALC., 2009, Photograph, New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.

Campaigning for land rights, 1963-68, 1968, Photograph, National Museum Australia, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.

Leslie, T 2012, The history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Photograph, ABC News, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.

Native title issues & problems, 2013, Illustration, Creative Spirits, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.

Mackinolty, C 2008, Poster from the NSW Aboriginal Land Council's 25th land right anniversary celebrations, Illustration, Treaty Republic, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.

AboriginalOz, 1975 Gough Whitlam Vincent Lingiari, online video, November 2011, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.