By the mid 1960s, opposition to assimilation by First Nations people was strengthening and a civil rights movement was growing under the banner of self-determination.

What's self-determination?

International law defines self-determination as the right of all peoples to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. The intended outworking of self-determination policy approaches was First Nations participation in policy and decision-making, and in individual and community leadership. Finally First Nations people could regain control over their lives.

New challenges

Many First Nations people had spent years – in some cases their entire lives – in mission and government reserve communities. In these environments, everything from employment opportunities to daily supplies and schedules were managed by external agencies.

First Nations people who‘d been denied the opportunity to manage their own finances were now receiving regular payments, and people who’d long been denied leadership roles were asked to manage complex administration and unfamiliar bureaucracy.

Many communities didn’t have the capacity – the skills, training and experience – to manage their own affairs according to the government’s requirements. In some cases, this resulted in new challenges and problems.

Indigenous civil rights campaign

During the 1950s, there was growing international moral outrage at the way countries like America and South Africa treated African American populations. Australia was also beginning to receive criticism on this front, with the London Anti-Slavery Society threatening to bring Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people before the United Nations.[1]

Responding to this growing sense of urgency for national action, a group of existing state bodies united to form the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement in 1958. Over the next 15 years, the Council campaigned for constitutional change, equal wages, access to social service benefits, and land rights.

Meanwhile, several grassroots First Nations organisations were also establishing themselves in the fight against discrimination. In 1964, students at the University of Sydney formed Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA), a group led by Charles Perkins, a third-year student and Arrernte and Kalkadoon man born in Alice Springs.

In 1965, SAFA organised the ‘Freedom Ride’, a bus tour of western and coastal New South Wales towns, which sought to:

  • raise public awareness about the poor state of Aboriginal people’s health, education and housing
  • expose the socially discriminatory barriers that existed between Aboriginal people and white residents
  • encourage and support First Nations people to resist discrimination.

The Freedom Ride received substantial publicity and raised public awareness of racial discrimination in Australia, strengthening the Indigenous civil rights campaigns that followed.[2]

1967 Referendum

In 1967, after 10 years of campaigning, the Australian government held a referendum to change the Australian Constitution; amending two parts that excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

90% of the Australian population voted in favour of these changes, indicating a positive shift in mainstream attitudes towards First Nations people. The 1967 Referendum has come to symbolise the broader struggle for First Nations social justice fought over these decades.[3]

Indigenous land rights movement

The Indigenous land rights movement also gained momentum in the early 1960s, as huge quantities of bauxite were discovered in northern Australia, on Aboriginal missions and reserves. It was the beginning of a mining boom, and also a struggle for land rights for First Nations Peoples who’d lived on these lands since time immemorial.[4]

Gove Peninsula land rights case

In 1963, the Menzies government authorised plans to mine the Gove Peninsula, in the vicinity of the Yirrkala mission in Arnhem Land. Yirrkala residents responded via two petitions written on bark in Gupapuyngu language, presented to the House of Representatives. This was the beginning of a seven-year legal struggle for Yirrkala claimants’ rights to their land.

Although the claim wasn’t successful, the Yirrkala bark petition raised the profile of Indigenous land rights in Australia, and prompted similar claims across the continent, such as in Lake Tyers in south-western Victoria, and that of Gurindji strikers in the Northern Territory. Both these later campaigns resulted in the return of lands to Traditional Custodians.[5] 

Self-determination becomes the official approach to Indigenous affairs

When the Whitlam government came to power in 1972, self-determination replaced assimilation as the official approach to Indigenous affairs.

In 1990, the Hawke government established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), a government body, comprised of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with the role of maximising First Nations participation in the development and implementation of policies.

Challenges of self-determination

Some very significant progress had been made as a result of the Indigenous civil rights movement, and on the surface, self-determination sounded great for First Nations people. However, in reality the transition was complex and challenging for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.

In 1990, the House Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs tabled a report that was highly critical of the way self-determination policies had been implemented in First Nations communities. Some criticisms included:

  • Programs, policies and structures had been imposed without adequate consultation, which was inconsistent with the notion of Aboriginal communities being self-determining and having the ability to influence and control their own affairs.
  • The imposition of council management structures on Aboriginal communities ignored the existence of traditional decision-making processes.
  • Aboriginal people hadn’t been assisted to develop the capacity to manage their communities according to the government’s requirements.[6]

In many cases, these failures resulted in further challenges and issues in First Nations communities.

The end of a policy era

Self-determination remained government policy until the election of the Howard government in 1996. During the Howard years, ATSIC was abolished, allegedly due to mismanagement, causing some people to claim that the self-determination approach had failed. Others argue that ATSIC was never sufficiently independent from government interference, concluding that self-determination has never been properly tested in Australia, despite previous governments adopting the term to describe their top-down approaches.

The concept of self-determination as a process whereby First Nations communities take control of their futures and decide how to address the challenges remains central to Indigenous rights activism and is fundamental to the United Nations International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.