Indigenous Land Rights

History Research Assignment


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


"It is my father's land, my grandfather's land, my grandmother's land. I am related to it, it gives me my identity. If I don't fight for it, then I will be moved out of it and [it] will be the loss of my identity."
—Father Dave Passi, 1990 (The Land 2009)

For at least 50 000 years, Aboriginals have inhabited Australian land. Shown in the words of Father Dave Passi, it was an important feature of their culture, and hence, the need for land rights was essential. Land rights were important because they recognised Aboriginals as the traditional owners of Australian land (Aboriginal Land Rights Q&A 2009). They were also of huge significance because they were the only way Aboriginals could obtain secure ownership of what has been, and continues to be, central to their culture and traditions (Aboriginal Land Rights Q&A 2009). The following points explore whether the pursuit for Indigenous Land Rights was 100% successful and fully supported by the Australian population.

Key Figures

There were many key figures throughout the pursuit of Indigenous Land Rights. Ranging from Aboriginal activists to politicians, these included:

  • Activists: Eddie Mabo, Gary Foley, Chicka Dixon, Pearl Gibbs and Paul Coe
  • Prime Ministers: William McMahon, Paul Keating, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke


There were many goals set during the pursuit for Indigenous Land Rights. These goals included:

  • Land rights
  • Fair wages
  • Improved working conditions
  • Better treatment from the white society
  • Larger input into government policies

Key Events and Political Achievements

  • 1770: Australia was declared ‘terra nullius’, or ‘land belonging to no-one’ by the British Government. As a result of ‘terra nullius’, thousands of Indigenous Australians lost their land (Skirk n.d.).
  • 1966: The modern land rights movement began with the Wave Hill Strike. Led by Vincent Lingiari, 200 Gurindji men, women and children walked off Wave Hill Station. Although it started as a protest against low wages and poor working conditions, the Gurindji people also protested for better food and treatment. Throughout their campaign, claims for land rights were also made, as the Gurindji people wanted “to have a say in controlling and working the land”. This strike lasted 9 years (Darlington, R et al. 2004, pg. 190).
  • 1972: On the 26th of January, Prime Minister William McMahon established new land right policies, which allowed companies to mine on Aboriginal reserves (Howitt, B et al. 2013, pg. 139). Known as the Tent Embassy, activists held a protest camp to oppose these policies. Whilst protesting, they also demanded $6 billion compensation, full land rights, self-determination and sovereignty. It took place on the lawn of Parliament House, where a group of tents were erected to embarrass the McMahon Coalition, which refused to recognise Indigenous land rights (Darlington, R et al. 2004, pg. 190).
  • 1973: The Aboriginal Land Rights Commission was established under the Whitlam Government (Reconciliation 2011). Headed by Justice Woodward, it was formed to explore ways for Aboriginals to attain land rights in the Northern Territory. This was a huge political achievement because, for the first time, the federal government was seriously addressing the Indigenous land rights problem (Skwirk n.d.).
  • 1975: The Aboriginal Land Fund was formed. Established by the Whitlam Government, it focused on granting funds to Indigenous organisations. It primarily assisted Aboriginals with buying back their traditional lands (Whitlam Institute 2013). In the same year, on August the 16th, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam returned traditional land to the Gurindji people. A ceremony was held to formally return their land.
  • 1976: Under the Fraser Government, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was passed in parliament. It enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to take legal ownership of their land (Howitt, B et al. 2013).
  • 1982: Led by Eddie Mabo, the Mabo Case made the issue of land rights widely recognised across Australia. It was a case where the Indigenous people of Mer Island fought for land rights until they received native title, declaring them as the rightful and traditional owners of the land (Skwirk n.d.). Although it took 10 years, this case encouraged other Indigenous people to begin land right cases.
  • 1985: Uluru was returned to its traditional owners (Howitt, B et al. 2013, pg. 105). This was an extremely controversial event, with people both strongly opposing and supporting the return. The diverse views were a result of their differing opinions on the broader land rights movement and legislation.
  • 1991: The Council for Reconciliation Act was passed. It adopted a vision statement, which helped to define reconciliation: “A united Australia which respects this land of ours; values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage; and provides justice and equity for all” (Darlington, R et al. 2004, pg. 200). With most work done at a local level, its primary role was to promote reconciliation across Australia.
  • 1994: The Native Title Act was established. It was an initiative of the Keating Government, which stated, “ownership could only be claimed over vacant lands” (Howitt, B et al. 2013, pg. 142). This law enabled Indigenous Australians to apply for formal recognition of their land interests.
  • 1996: It was announced that the Wik people could not claim land because the grant of pastoral lease under Queensland law extinguished native title rights. There were many questions brought to the High Court, including whether the pastoral lease conferred rights to exclusive possession by the pastoralists (Howitt, B et al. 2013, pg. 142-143). On the December of 1996, the decision of the High Court was handed down. Since it was discovered that a pastoral lease did not give pastoralists exclusive rights to the land, the High Court decided that farmers and the Wik people could co-exist. Known as the Wik decision, this decision received strong and widespread criticism and negative reactions from pastoralists and some politicians.
  • 1997: John Howard introduced the ‘Ten Point Plan’ (Howitt, B et al. 2013, pg. 143).



Opinions on Indigenous land rights were extremely obvious from some of Australia’s former Prime ministers. This includes the opinions of Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and John Howard.

Support from the Whitlam and Fraser Governments made a huge contribution to the Indigenous Land Rights campaign. During Whitlam’s Prime ministership, he established the Aboriginal Land Fund and returned traditional land, both of which demonstrated his commitment to achieving land rights in Australia. Fraser also did many works for Aboriginal people. He introduced the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, a law, which ‘was a significant step in legally acknowledging Aboriginal rights to land’ and has ‘helped pave the way for Indigenous peoples around the country’ (Aboriginal Land Rights Q&A 2009).

In contrast, the laws and regulations implemented by Hawke and Howard showed that they opposed the idea of land rights. Despite promising that the Hawke government would introduce land rights legislation, upon election, the proposed legislation was abandoned (Howitt, B et al. 2013, pg. 141). The Hawke Government also announced a Preferred National Land Rights Model, which allowed mining on Aboriginal land without consent, prevented land claims and restricted eligibility for excisions. The ‘Ten Point Plan’ proposal by the Howard Government was also considered a ‘backward step in land rights’ (Howitt, B et al. 2013, pg. 143). It reduced the amount of claimable land and imposed limitations upon Aboriginal ability to negotiate with industries and mining companies.


From an economical perspective, the opinions of mining companies on land rights were the most predominant. In 1984, mining industries, with the support of Labor Premier Burke, created a ‘major scare’ campaign against land rights. By December that year, Burke had successfully introduced legislation, which denied Aboriginal communities the right to ban mining (Aboriginal land rights 2013). The following quote from Aboriginal activist, Paul Coe, summarizes how the Aboriginals felt towards the economical affairs surrounding Indigenous land rights.

“What happened to land rights was that the mining industry was too powerful, the pastoral industry was too powerful and the Commonwealth government didn’t have the will to stand up to those vested interest groups.” —Paul Coe, Aboriginal activist (Aboriginal land rights 2013)


In the late 1960s and 1970s, Aboriginal rights campaigns gained wider approval and support across Australia (Darling, R et al. 2004, pg. 190). Many European Australians became aware of the injustices suffered by Aboriginal people, and felt that changes needed to be made towards Aboriginals. A number of them believed that, for Australia to move forward, it was essential for the federal government to improve the rights and conditions of Indigenous peoples (Howitt, B et al. 2013, pg. 133). Despite the huge support, however, some states, including Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia, greatly opposed granting Aboriginals any rights. This is shown in the table below (Howitt, B et al. 2013, pg. 133).

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Response to Essay Question

As explored in the above investigation, the pursuit of Indigenous Land Rights was definitely not 100% successful or fully supported by the Australian population. Only some supported the idea, shown in the conflicting views amongst politicians and members of the Australian public. Prime ministers, such as Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, greatly supported land rights, evident in their establishments and the legislations they passed. Amongst the most important include the Aboriginal Land Fund and the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Described as a ‘significant step in legally acknowledging Aboriginal rights’ (Aboriginal Land Rights Q&A 2009), the contribution of these politicians undoubtedly demonstrated a huge support for land rights in Australia. Prime ministers, including Bob Hawke and John Howard, however, opposed the idea of land rights. This was shown in Hawke’s broken promises and Howard’s proposal of the ‘Ten Point Plan’. Their actions were counterproductive and were often described as a ‘backward step in land rights’ (Howitt, B et al. 2013, pg. 143). Shown in events, such as the Wave Hill Strike, the pursuit for land rights was also not completely successful. The Wave Hill Strike lasted 9 years, and, although the Gurindji people were eventually able to claim their land, not all Indigenous peoples around Australia were able to enjoy the same land rights. Therefore, despite doing much to improve the Indigenous society, the pursuit of Indigenous Land Rights was definitely not 100% successful or fully supported by the Australian population.



Aboriginal Land Rights Q&A, 2009 Reconciliation Australia, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.

Aboriginal land rights, 2013 Creative Spirits, accessed 15 September 2013, <>.

Reconciliation, 2011 Land Rights Fact Sheet, Reconciliation, accessed 15 September 2013, <>.

Skwirk, n.d. Mabo, Red Apple Education Ltd., accessed 17 September 2013, <>.

The Land, 2009 Australian Museum, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.

The Right Honourable Malcolm Fraser AC CH, n.d. NSW Government, Education and Communities 2013, accessed 14 September 2013, <>.

Whitlam Institute, 2013 Indigenous Australians, University of Western Sydney, NSW, accessed 10 September 2013, <>.


Darlington, R, Greer, V & Hospodaryk, J 2004, History zone 2: Australia since 1901, Heinemann, Victoria.

Howitt, B et al. 2013, Pearson History S.B., Pearson Australia, Melbourne, Victoria.