Australian Indigenous Rights

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Aboriginal civil rights have been a highly debated topic in Australia for the past century. From the 1920’s to the constitutional referendum in 1967 many events occurred that shaped the advancement of Aboriginal rights. The sheer volume of significant events during this time period are too great to enlighten on all of them so I will aim to touch on the rights of Aboriginal people before this time period, the foundation of Aboriginal political activism, the Day of Mourning and the Cummeragunja walk off, International pressure against Australia, and the 1967 referendum. It was not until the late 1930’s and 1940’s that really caused the Aboriginal rights movement to really surge with the combination of international pressure on the Australian government grouped with Aboriginal political activism during this time period.

In order to get an understanding of the progress of Aboriginal Rights from the 1920’s all the way to the 1967 Referendum we must look at the Aboriginal Rights before this time frame. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia came into effect in 1901 officially making Aborigines a “state responsibility” (Prentis, 2008). The constitution came into effect during a time period where Aborigines had no political power and were essentially excluded from gaining Australian citizenship (Chesterman, 1997). There were two sections of the Constitution that lead to great debate and the constant struggle for the advancement of Aboriginal rights for the next seventy years. Sections 51 of the Constitution states “The Parliament shall subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to…(xxvi) The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws” (Attwood, 2007). Many, including Chesterman, have considered this section of the Constitution to exclude people of the Aboriginal race regarding laws. However looking deeper this policy was mainly focused on dealing with “alien races” rather than the native races. The confusion that arose from this section was the interpretation by the States that were authorized control over Aboriginal affairs in the given State. Section 127 of the Constitution deliberately states that Aboriginal natives shall not be counted in the population of Australia. This section of the Constitution should reveal a glowing issue with racist views of Australian’s during this time period.

With these two sections being written and put into effect in 1901 the Commonwealth was effectively rejecting citizenship rights to Aborigines. Aborigines’ rights were even further diminished when in 1902 the Commonwealth introduced the Franchise Act. The Franchise Act of 1902 stated, “No aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand, shall be entitled to have his name placed on an electoral roll, unless so entitled under Section 41 of the Constitution” (Attwood, 2007). The racial politics occurring during this time effectively barred Aboriginal people from voting. The Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902 ended up disenfranchising Aboriginal people for almost sixty years.

With the 1920’s we start to see formation of political groups that speak out for Aboriginal rights. The Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association was formed in 1925, lead by Fred Maynard. The AAPA was one of the first Aboriginal political organizations formed in the 1920’s. The aims of the organization set a precedent for other Aboriginal protest groups and speak out against the political oppression Aboriginal people faced (Maynard, 1997). Although the group did not last for an extensive period of time the foundation they laid for political activism played a significant role in the advancement of Aboriginal rights. Very early on the AAPA petitioned the Protection Board on civil rights and land rights. Fred Maynard and the...
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