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A rightful place for the nation in this country: land, truth and treaty in south eastern Australia

Professor Heidi Norman, Inaugural E. G. Whitlam Research Fellow
A lunchtime symposium delivered at the Whitlam Institute on Monday, 10 September 2018.

Professor Heidi Norman presented a symposium on her research into land rights in south eastern Australia, reflecting on the legacy of the Whitlam Government which, she says, was the first government in Australia that seriously took on the issue of land rights.


For Australia’s Indigenous citizens the Whitlam government would commence legislation of land rights in the Northern Territory, create the Aboriginal land purchase fund, establish a mechanism for Aboriginal organisations to form and pursue community social and economic aspirations and, a separate department for Aboriginal Affairs. Swiftly, the Whitlam Government’s reforms finally amounted to the Commonwealth fully engaging its responsibility enabled by the 1967 referendum and heralded a new era of self-determination.

Since Whitlam’s comprehension of land rights as a central demand of the state there have been significant developments. Utilising statutory land rights laws and native title laws, a ‘land titling revolution’ has occurred where Indigenous peoples have rights and/or exclusive title over significant Australian land mass. In the Northern Territory the entire coastline and some 50% of the land has been recovered either as direct ownership or registered interest over land. Nationally, Aboriginal land recovery sits at 40%. However, the land titling revolution that has occurred in Australia since the 1970s is predominantly in northern Australia and over territory where Indigenous people’s political geography and identity remain dominant and over land of high conservation and bio-diversity value. In south eastern Australia, where significant Indigenous populations live, land recovery has been slow, frustrating and limited in conception. Recognition of Native Title rights has ranged from slow and protracted through to non-existent.

This research by the Whitlam Institute’s inaugural E. G. Whitlam Research fellow, Professor Heidi Norman, explores land rights in south eastern Australia, (NSW, Victoria and Tasmania) as territories where colonial occupation has been most sustained. The research reveals how people experienced dispossession in a compressed time period in nearly always violent circumstances and where, with responsible government, settler society developed regimes to variously manage, engage, reform or classify Aboriginal lives. Professor Norman’s research seeks to understand how statutory land laws in each of the states have developed, the conditions that gave rise to these land laws, their objectives and what more needs to done in light of renewed momentum for agreement-making and settlement, truth-telling and national voice.


About the presenter:

Heidi Norman is the Whitlam Institute’s inaugural E. G. Whitlam Research Fellow. Heidi is Professor of Indigenous Economies in the Faculty of Arts and Social and Sciences (FASS) at the University of Technology, Sydney. She researches and publishes in the areas of NSW Aboriginal history and politics with a particular focus on land and its management and the Aboriginal administrative domain. Her research includes a study of Aboriginal Land rights in NSW (2015) and new area of research is focused on Aboriginal people’s approaches to the management of their land estate.

About the responders:

Rodney Dillon is the Indigenous Rights Advisor for Amnesty International and a former Tasmanian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner. Rodney has spent his life fighting for the rights of Indigenous Australians. A Palawa elder, Rodney is the Indigenous Campaigner for Amnesty

International and co-chair of the Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Community Alliance. He has been instrumental in the repatriation of Indigenous remains from overseas, including changes to British repatriation policies. He is a former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner for Tasmania, serving for three terms, and a member of the Stolen Generations Alliance: Australians for Truth, Justice and Healing, which saw Tasmania become the first state to remunerate members of the stolen generation. He has been involved in Aboriginal fishing rights at state and national levels, and chaired a World Indigenous Fishing Conference in Vancouver. He also pushed for the continuing presence of the Tent Embassy in Canberra. He is a founding member of the South East Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and current Chair of the newly formed Weetapoona Aboriginal Corporation. He regularly visits Indigenous inmates, especially those who do not have regular visitors or who are ill in hospital. Rodney’s favourite achievement is the purchase of a sheep station on Bruny Island for Tasmania’s Aboriginal people. He has dedicated his life to helping all Aboriginal people.

Professor Timothy Rowse is a former Professorial Fellow in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts and is Emeritus Professor in the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. Although much of what Tim writes can best be described as History, his formal training has been in Government, Sociology and Anthropology. Tim has taught at Macquarie University, the Australian National University and Harvard University (where he held the Australian Studies chair in 2003-4), and he has held research appointments at the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland and the ANU. Since the early 1980s, his research has focused on the relationships between Indigenous and other Australians, in Central Australia (where he lived from 1989 to 1996) and in the national political sphere. In the 1990s, this and other interests led him to write two books about the life and works of Dr H.C. Coombs.

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