It’s time to take next steps

June 12, 2017

The Eddie Mabo display in the new Treasures gallery at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. (AAP Image/Alan Porritt)

This year, during Reconciliation Week, we reflected on two significant anniversaries in Australia’s reconciliation journey.

May 26 marked the 50th anniversary of Australia’s most successful referendum and a defining event in our country’s history.

The 1967 referendum saw more than 90 per cent of Australians vote to give the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and recognise them in the national census.

For the first time Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be included in the population.

June 3 was the 25th anniversary of the High Court of Australia’s landmark Mabo decision that overturned the concept of ‘‘Terra Nullius’’ (or Nobody’s Land).

At the time of the First Fleet arrival in 1788, the British settlers acted as if Australia was uninhabited.

The so-called ‘‘barbarian’’ theory of law was applied whereby Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were considered to be so ‘‘low in the scale of social organisation’’ that they were not entitled to have their laws and customs recognised.

So instead of admitting it was invading land which belonged to Aboriginal people, Britain acted as if it was settling on empty land.

This allowed the British settlers to claim the land without compensation.

The Mabo decision changed this.

Eddie Mabo argued successfully in the High Court that Australian law was based on racial discrimination and a false understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ law and culture.

In their decision, Justices William Deane and Mary Gaudron ‘‘accepted as beyond real doubt or intelligent dispute’’ that Australia was occupied by a million or more Aboriginal people.

They recognised the ‘‘elaborate and obligatory’’ local laws and customs under which people lived and accepted that the boundaries of their tribal lands were ‘‘long-standing and defined’’.

There was legal recognition — for the first time — of the complex social organisation and customs of Aboriginal people.

However, as George Williams, Dean of Law at the University of NSW pointed out, ‘‘the case has not proved to be the panacea that many had hoped. It has not borne out the inflated expectations of the time, with native title often proving elusive and no further rights beyond land being recognised.’’

As a result there has been a focus on achieving changes in the political sphere rather than through the courts.

As George Williams went on to note, ‘‘it is no surprise that Aboriginal people are instead seeking justice and political empowerment through constitutional change and negotiated agreements, such as treaties’’.

National Reconciliation Week reminded us that big changes, such as the 1967 Referendum and the 1992 Mabo decision take persistence and courage.

And this year’s theme ‘‘Let’s take the next steps’’, reminds us all we still have much work to do.

So as we reflect on these significant milestones, we ask you to be a part of the next big steps in our nation’s reconciliation journey.

Become a member of the Shepparton Region Reconciliation Group, email respect@mcmedia.com.au, or find out more by going to Reconciliation Victoria’s website www.reconciliation vic.org.au

Let’s take the next steps together.

- Shepparton Region Reconciliation Group

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