WARNING: This page may contain names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are now deceased.
Whitlam’s 1972 election campaign speech was clear on the need to accord Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the rights, justice and opportunities that had been denied to them for so long.
He articulated a commitment to ‘legislate to give aborigines land rights – not just because their case is beyond argument, but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation’. He argued that Australians ‘ought to be angry – with an unrelenting anger – that our aborigines have the world’s highest infant mortality rate.’ Indigenous Affairs was therefore the policy area in which the Whitlam Government effected some of its most transformational change. Under the Whitlam Government, a policy of ‘self determination’ was adopted, whereby the Commonwealth would support decision-making by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples themselves, and relinquish the paternalistic control that previous governments had wielded over the lives of Australia's First Nations Peoples. The Whitlam Government sought to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to claim back the land to which they were entitled, to allow them more input into policy-making, and to abolish discriminatory practices that limited their freedoms and opportunities. Many of these reforms initiated by the Whitlam Government were continued by the Fraser Government.
Return of the Gurindji people's land
On August 16, 1975, Gough Whitlam returned traditional lands in the Northern Territory to the Gurindji people. This brought an end to their long struggle to reclaim their traditional country. Since 1966, the Gurindji people had been on strike against Vestey’s – the agricultural business occupying the land. Their protest was against the poor working conditions they suffered and the alienation of their land rights. Over the ensuing decade, the Gurindji people gained nation-wide attention and support for their campaign.
Once it came to power, the Whitlam Government purchased lands on behalf of the Gurindji people. The ceremony to officially hand back the land to the Gurindji people took place on August 16th, 1975 at Daguragu. Whitlam made a short speech before taking some sand and pouring it into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, the leader of the protest movement.
Whitlam's now famous gesture of pouring sand into Lingiari's hands was intended to symbolically reverse a similar act in 1834, when John Batman, the founder of Melbourne claimed land in that area from its indigenous people, and an Aboriginal elder had poured earth from his land into Batman’s hands. Whether Batman’s ‘treaty’ was a fair exchange, or whether the Aboriginal people with whom it was negotiated were even properly informed of its meaning has been seriously questioned. Some historians have also argued that the signatures of the local Aboriginal people on the treaty were forged. Just as Batman’s act was a symbol of the nearly two centuries of dispossession inflicted upon Australia’s indigenous people, Whitlam’s act has become an iconic symbol of reconciliation and the achievements of the land rights movement.
Establishment of the Aboriginal Land Fund & Aboriginal Loans Commission
The Whitlam Government came to office at a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were only just beginning to enjoy economic rights that had been denied to them for decades. Not only had they been dispossessed of their land, but their economic rights, such as the right to apply for loans, were severely restricted. The withholding of these rights curtailed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ economic independence and agency.
The Aboriginal Loans Commission was created to empower indigenous people to exercise more financial control over their lives by providing access to loans to establish businesses, to pay health and education expenses, and for the purchase of property with a view to home ownership. It was designed to support the economic independence of indigenous people, and grant the access to the financial tools that had been withheld from them for decades.
In December 1974, the Whitlam Government created the Aboriginal Land Fund. Its purpose was to grant funding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations so that they could buy back traditional lands that were owned by private interests. The Land Fund funded the purchase of 59 properties for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Establishment of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee
The Whitlam Government sought to improve dialogue between indigenous communities and the government, and seek their input into the formation of policies that affected them. To that end, it created the National Aboriginal Consultative Council, an elected body of 40 members who were to advise the Aboriginal Affairs Minister. Any person over 18 who identified as Aboriginal, and was recognised as Aboriginal by their community could vote in elections for the NACC. Although the Fraser Government later replaced this body with the National Aboriginal Conference, the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee was an important step in bringing indigenous people closer to the policy-making process, and in improving the dialogue between indigenous people and the Australian government.
Drafting of the Land Rights Act
The Whitlam Government drafted the first Commonwealth legislation to grant land rights to Aboriginal peoples. The Aboriginal Land (Northern Territory) Bill was introduced to parliament in October 1975, but the Whitlam Government was dismissed before the legislation could pass the Senate. However, the Fraser Government passed legislation based largely on the Whitlam Government’s bill the next year.
The legislation allowed crown land to be granted to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory if they could demonstrate their traditional connections to that land. Lands granted were to be held by Land Trusts as an inalienable freehold title.
The Land Rights Act also gave indigenous communities the right to control mining exploration on Aboriginal lands, and created an obligation for mining companies to consult with indigenous people before beginning mineral exploration. The protection of Aboriginal sacred sites was also enforced by this legislation.
The Whitlam Government passed legislation that abolished discriminatory treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. When the Queensland Government failed to amend or repeal laws that were discriminatory towards indigenous peoples, the Whitlam Government passed legislation to override them. This legislation extinguished provisions that restricted the property rights of Aboriginal people, allowed unequal legal representation of Aboriginal people, and allowed unfair working conditions and wages to be imposed on them.
The Whitlam Government also amended the Migration Act to abolish the provision which required indigenous people to apply for special permission to leave Australia.
The Racial Discrimination Act passed by the Whitlam Government also ensured that Aboriginal people could not be discriminated against with regard to their access to employment, their pay and working conditions, their equal treatment before the law, their access to housing and accommodation or their access to goods and services.
Funded Legal Services
Inadequate representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian legal system continued to be a barrier to their equality in society. In order to improve Aboriginal peoples’ agency in legal processes, the Whitlam Government sought to offer improved legal support services. Accordingly, significant funding was made available to legal aid and advice services with strong links to indigenous communities. The government allocated $7.8 million to the Aboriginal Legal Service for this purpose, and to assist it in opening branch offices around Australia that could offer free legal assistance to Aboriginal peoples, and to provide them with legal representation.