Delivering on the grand bargain

I AM PROUD to be an Aboriginal woman and a descendant of the Tagalaka clan from Croydon in North Queensland. My mother, Myrtle Rose Casey, once said to me, ‘Never forget where you have come from but you don’t have to go back there.’ She was talking about a time when we lived in shacks on the outskirts of Cairns. As I began writing the Mabo Oration to honour Eddie Koiki Mabo last year, I realised that many young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may be aware of the High Court Mabo judgment in 1992, but not of the negotiated settlement that followed the judgment – what is known as the ‘grand bargain’. This lack of knowledge is of concern to me, especially since more than half of our population are children and young adults.

The history of the struggles and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our pursuit of equality and justice have been fought over two basic issues: the right to be equal Australian citizens and the right to assert our special status as the original owners of this land. Next year we will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum that enabled the Constitution to be amended so the Commonwealth could make laws for Aboriginal people and to delete section 127 which excluded Aboriginal people from being counted in the census.

The referendum campaign gained momentum over the decade prior to 27 May 1967. In 1958 a new national organisation called the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement was established. The majority of members were white and four were Aboriginal people including Bert Groves, who was elected as one of the vice presidents, Bill Onus, Pastor Doug Nicholls and Jeff Barnes. It is important to recognise there have been many in the broader Australian and international community who have been at the forefront of campaigning for the recognition of rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Aboriginal participation in the movement grew to include Joe McGinness and Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Joe was later to become the president of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Lady Jessie Street of the Anti-Slavery Society played a major role in pursuing constitutional reform and pushing it to the forefront of the fight for Aboriginal rights. Faith Bandler fully supported Street’s claims that constitutional change would give Aborigines ‘full citizenship rights and nothing less’. However, Shirley Andrews told Street in June 1962: ‘It seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse to be concentrating exclusively on the legal aspects of discrimination and ignoring the economic ones.’

This commentary reflects the confusion around what the campaigners were seeking, namely full citizenship rights, when in fact the Australian Constitution does not define Australian citizenship – an issue that is still causing angst among today’s constitutional experts.

In the end, FCAATSI agreed to seek the deletion of the words ‘other than the aboriginal race in any state’ from section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution – the so-called ‘race power’. This amendment, Gordon Bryant stated, would enable the Commonwealth Government ‘to set up a system…to give special benefits and assistance to Aborigines’.

After the referendum, the Constitution was left without any mention of Indigenous peoples, though the ‘race power’ – an artefact of the infamous White Australia Policy – remained. In 1998, the High Court in the Hindmarsh Island Bridge case determined that parliament could use the race power to make laws to the detriment of Indigenous Australians. These issues are informing current discussions about Indigenous constitutional recognition.


MANY PEOPLE NOW believe that the 1967 referendum gave Indigenous people the vote. It didn’t. The history of the Indigenous franchise is in fact very complicated. From 1850, the Australian colonies were given the right to govern themselves through their own parliaments. For the most part, colonial laws enabled all men above the age of twenty-one to vote in elections. In 1885 and 1893 respectively, Queensland and Western Australia passed laws that specifically excluded Indigenous people from the vote. Interestingly, in 1895 South Australia made laws that gave all adults the vote, including all women and therefore all Indigenous women. These laws also applied in the Northern Territory.

The new Commonwealth of Australia came into existence on 1 January 1901. Indigenous people on colonial electoral rolls were able to vote in elections for the new Commonwealth Parliament. However, to protect ‘white Australia’, the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902 specifically excluded ‘any aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa, or the islands of the Pacific, except New Zealand’ from voting unless they were on the rolls before 1901. In 1924 there was an embarrassing court case involving an Indian British subject, Mitta Bullosh, who was on the roll to vote in Victorian elections. A court decided that Bullosh should be allowed to vote in Commonwealth elections. To resolve doubts and respond to pressure from Britain and British India, the Commonwealth Government in 1925 extended the franchise to all Indians living in Australia.

There was a partial breakthrough in Indigenous voting rights in 1949. The Commonwealth Parliament granted the right to vote in federal elections to Indigenous people who had completed military service or who already had the right to vote in their state. Finally, in 1983, the last hurdle in the achievement of equal voting rights was crossed when a Commonwealth Parliamentary Committee recommended that compulsory enrolment should apply to all Australians including Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders.

In 1966, Vincent Lingiari became a national figure when he led the walk off of Aboriginal employees at Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory, initially to protest poor working conditions and very low wages. The Gurindji strikers established the Wattie Creek Camp and demanded the return of some of their traditional land. What began as an employee-rights action turned into a land rights protest. The strike lasted until 1975, when Gough Whitlam’s government negotiated with the owners of Wave Hill to give the Gurindji people back some of their land, initially in the form of a Crown lease.

At the same time, the Whitlam government was developing the Northern Territory Land Rights Act. This was legislated in 1976 by the Fraser government, and remains Australia’s most significant land rights legislation. Land rights across the states have been a mixed bag. Large areas of arid South Australia have been transferred to Traditional Owners. In more intensely settled states, land rights have been more confined, though there is a relatively generous Land Rights Act in New South Wales.

In Queensland in the mid-1980s, in the usual effort to forestall Commonwealth intervention, the Bjelke-Petersen government gave discrete Indigenous communities ‘deeds of grant in trust’ over former reserve land. These deeds could be converted to leasehold. In 1991, the Goss government legislated a more expansive framework for land rights, allowing some claims for land. In Western Australia land rights legislation has been all but non-existent.

The Western Australian Government led by Brian Burke was also instrumental in undermining the Hawke government’s push for National Land Rights. After Bob Hawke became prime minister in 1983, a national law was planned that would bind all states to five principles that would extend to the rest of Australia some of the benefits available to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory – including inalienable freehold title, control of mining on Aboriginal land, and access to mining royalty equivalent funds.

The government watered down its proposals and found itself wedged between powerful mining interests on the one hand and the Northern Territory land councils on the other. The land councils were up in arms at the prospect of losing rights acquired in the Land Rights Act.

National Land Rights was abandoned. Aboriginal people felt utterly betrayed. Bob Hawke had also promised a treaty, or compact, with Indigenous Australians at Barunga in the Northern Territory in 1987. Another promise that was never delivered.


LIKE MANY ABORIGINAL and Torres Strait Islander people, I have always believed I had the responsibility to speak out and to help in any way I could. I was a little older than thirteen in the 1960s when, attending homework classes arranged by the One People of Australia League, I explained how my parents were finding it hard to find a house. Not long after we had a house to rent.

At that time I began to realise how unfairly I and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students were being treated. Living in Cairns, I didn’t fully appreciate how Australia had developed and continues to develop laws and policies that are racist and not conducive to creating and maintaining a just society. I will return to this issue later.

Though we were all poor, lived in old and dilapidated houses and were confronted with discrimination on a daily basis, there was a great community spirit. On the one hand there was the agitating for justice and civil rights and on the other the organisation of social activities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families came together for dances, huge weddings and weekend card games. Our fathers worked as labourers in various places: Cairns City Council, the Queensland Railways, the wharves, sugar cane farms, sawmills. We marched every year in the Labor Day parade.

Like many others at that time I left school before completing Year 10, then had a child and married very young. I earned a living from cleaning and babysitting. But I grew to expect more from my life. I saved money to attend the local business college. With assistance from the newly introduced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Study Grants Scheme, I graduated with distinction in 1974 and accepted a position as a typist–receptionist at the recently opened Cairns office of the Commonwealth Department of Education. The study grants scheme was one of the many Whitlam government initiatives for Indigenous Australians. Another was the Racial Discrimination Act.

Shortly after joining the department, I was advised I could not be appointed permanently because I didn’t have a Year 10 certificate or ‘Junior’, as it was then called. In the space of six months I studied by correspondence for the certificate and gained a permanent position in the Commonwealth Public Service.

I became increasingly aware of the racist attitudes in the broader community, the inadequacies of the education system and of the restrictive Acts and policies of the then Queensland Government. When attempting to rent my first flat, I was told by the landlord he would not rent to Aboriginal people. When I bought my first wardrobe it had a stamp on the back ‘European labour only used’.

But my most difficult learning experience by far was to do with my father. He was born just outside of Croydon around 1909. When he reached sixty-five as shown on his driver’s licence he had to retire from the Cairns City Council and applied for the aged pension. He was advised he needed to provide a copy of his birth certificate. This was not possible, as Aboriginal births were not registered at that time. After much discussion with the social security department, I contacted the local state member of parliament. He obtained the department’s acceptance of a signed declaration confirming my father was born around the time in question by a suitably qualified person.

My father’s mother was Aboriginal and his father a white cattle station owner. There was a family member on his father’s side who lived in Cairns, so we visited her to seek her agreement to make the declaration. My father had worked since he was around seven years old, first on the cattle station and then in Cairns where he was highly respected. He had to sit and listen while this old lady considered she could ‘possibly’ recall he was born at that time and eventually signed the document. I hold no animosity against her for her patronising words – she was of that era. My father was a man of few words and never told me what he thought, but it left me with an indelible memory and did, I suspect, confirm my unconscious resolve that government policies and systems needed to change.


BY THIS TIME I had already joined the local Aboriginal Housing Society and not too much later I became president of the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Consultative Committee. As a public servant in the Commonwealth Department of Education, I quickly gathered that recruitment practices and regulations severely limited employment and promotion opportunities for women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is important here to acknowledge a chap called Joe Kelly, head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Secondary and Study Schemes in Queensland in the mid 1970s, who strongly pursued the creation of the first ‘identified’ positions.

In the early 1980s I met Clyde Holding, the Hawke government’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, when he visited Cairns, and at his request wrote to him outlining the impediments I saw. This was a time of transformational change in the public service brought about by the Public Service Reform Act 1984, sponsored by Minister John Dawkins and public servant Dr Peter Wilenski. In 1984 I went to Canberra as one of a team of two, to write Australia’s first Equal Opportunity Plan in the Department of Education where Wilenski was the Secretary.

As you can imagine, some long-standing public service mandarins were less than happy about these developments, including John Stone who resigned as Treasury Secretary in August 1984. In a 2013 memoir published online for Quadrant, Stone strongly criticised Wilenski and the Public Service Reform Act as ‘setting in train the politicisation of the Commonwealth public service’. In the early 1990s I was in the Commonwealth Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, where I helped to establish the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation under the chairmanship of Patrick Dodson and deputy chairmanship of Sir Ronald Wilson. The process of reconciliation was intended to conclude with the treaty or compact Bob Hawke had promised at Barunga. In 1994, I received a call from a colleague who had worked with me in the Prime Minister’s department. This resulted in my being given the task of co-ordinating the development, design and construction of the National Museum of Australia and building a new home for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. In 1999 I was appointed director of the National Museum.

It was an interesting career choice, not taken lightly. Museums are culturally significant, visited by millions of people, including school children. I could see how museums could help to create greater awareness of important issues: looking after the environment, raising the status of women, educating people on the culture and history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It also meant I would be in a position to negotiate and speed up the repatriation of Indigenous human remains and secret-sacred objects from museums in Australia and overseas, an issue I had been concerned about for many years. The National Museum of Australia opened on 11 March 2001 as the largest single Commonwealth-funded project for the Centenary of Federation celebrations. We used an innovative construction agreement called alliancing and the project was completed on time and within budget. Speaking at the opening of the museum, Prime Minister John Howard told the audience:

What [the Museum] does unusually, and I think very attractively, is seek to interpret the history of our nation. Not only in terms of events and objects but also in terms of the life experience of people from different backgrounds, Indigenous people, people who came to this country having been born elsewhere, and people who have been born in this nation…

It will, I think, over time change the way in which people view museums, because this museum and what its concepts seek to do is to interpret and relate history and the experience of our country in a somewhat different way. Quite properly and inevitably there will be debate in the future about that way of interpreting our history and that way of relating those events. But importantly, it represents a quite different way of presenting the history and culture of a nation…

The great majority of visitors loved the museum, and by the end of 2002 it had exceeded our estimated visitor numbers by several hundred thousand. However, it had also become the battleground for the conservative warriors fighting the culture wars. These included Miranda Devine, Leo Schofield and Keith Windschuttle, as well as the late Christopher Pearson and David Barnett, both of whom were members of the museum council.

In 2003, in his closing address at the Liberal Party National Convention in Adelaide, Prime Minister Howard said:

We no longer naval gaze about what an Australian is. We no longer are mesmerised by the self-appointed cultural dieticians who tell us that in some way they know better what an Australian ought to be than all of us who know what an Australian has always been and always will be. We have ended that long seemingly perpetual symposium on our self-identity that seemed to occupy the ten years between the middle of the 1980s and the defeat of the Keating government in 1996.

About a month before my contract was due to end, I was called to the minister’s office and advised that, though I had done a very good job in building the museum, my contract would be extended only for one year while the government looked for a person with a doctorate. I immediately recalled my high school experience and thought, We are now in the twenty-first century and in reality how little had changed.

I also knew that, for some, I had dared to inhabit their sacred ground, and that simply wouldn’t do! John Mulvaney, distinguished pioneering archaeologist and co-author of the Prehistory of Australia (Penguin Books, 1975), wrote of this time:

Having witnessed the behaviour of Barnett and Pearson towards council members, the director and important international visitors to the museum, including their denial of the validity of oral traditions, combined with their vocal objections to aspects of the Aboriginal exhibits, I am convinced that they were not only disrespectful towards, but completely rejected Indigenous belief systems. Surely this was in conflict with membership of a museum council that is concerned with the traditional culture of Aboriginal people?

Under these circumstances, the failure to renew Casey’s tenure is an affront to Aboriginal Australians. This, associated with the fact that no Aboriginal has served on the museum’s council (or the council of the National Gallery of Australia – despite that institution’s extensive collection of Aboriginal art), has profoundly influenced my attitude towards museum affairs, the integrity of which, I believe, has been undermined by a racially biased policy.

After my departure, the museum council in 2006 refused to approve the listing on the National Collections Register of a painting by one of our most recognised Aboriginal artists, Queenie McKenzie, on the basis it reflected her interpretation of the Mistake Creek massacre of Aboriginal people, the facts of which were being disputed by the culture warriors. This decision was reversed in 2012, recognising a great work of art and the legitimacy of our Indigenous oral traditions.


IT WAS A lack of recognition and respect for Eddie Mabo’s Torres Strait Islander customs and traditions that drove him to take on the might of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government. Mabo was a Queenslander from a humble background, though his legacy extraordinary and its consequences immeasurable. I should also pay tribute to the other plaintiffs: Reverend David Passi, Sam Passi, James Rice and Celuia Mapo Salee. Also vital to note is that the Mabo judgment would not have been possible without the Koowarta decision. In the 1970s, John Koowarta and his community approached the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission for finance to help with the purchase of a pastoral property on Cape York. This was agreed to, but required the approval of the Queensland Minister for Lands. When that approval was refused, Koowarta commenced proceedings against the Queensland Government. In response, Queensland brought a separate action seeking a declaration that the Commonwealth’s Racial Discrimination Act was invalid. The High Court’s judgment upheld the validity of the Racial Discrimination Act by a majority of four to three. But Bjelke-Petersen subsequently converted the land into a national park, nullifying the pastoral lease. John Koowarta died in 1991, and it took another twenty years for the Queensland Government to make amends. In 2010 Premier Anna Bligh passed a law revoking part of the national park, and in 2012 her successor, Campbell Newman, went up to Cape York with the title deeds and delivered an unexpected apology.

Meanwhile, in 1982, Eddie Mabo and his fellow litigants had commenced proceedings to claim title to Mer – Murray Island – and associated islands and reefs on behalf of its Traditional Owners. In an attempt to thwart this claim, the Bjelke-Petersen government passed the Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Act 1985 to extinguish any property rights the Meriam people may have had before its enactment. In 1988, following the Koowarta decision, the High Court struck down this legislation because it was inconsistent with the Racial Discrimination Act.

In 1992, the High Court decided in Mabo No. 2 that customary native title could be recognised by common law, reversing the longstanding doctrine of terra nullius – that the land of Australia had belonged to no one when the British arrived. In some quarters, the decision was condemned for its activism, and the fear of judicial activism currently haunts debates about Indigenous constitutional recognition. Many benefits have flowed from the Mabo judgment and the recognition of native title to land – these benefits have been both practical and symbolic.

The Mabo judgment forced the government to the negotiating table with Indigenous people for the first time in Australia’s history. The Native Title Act was the central part of the national settlement, providing a means to have native title determined as well as other processes. As part of the complex negotiations to put in place a statutory framework for native title, the Indigenous leaders agreed to the validation of government acts to extinguish native title between 1975, when the Racial Discrimination Act came into force, and the date of the Native Title Act. This meant land title certainty for other Australians. Their backyards were safe. Many Indigenous Australians were unlikely to benefit from the Native Title Act because their traditional land had already been alienated. So the Land Account – then called the Land Fund – was legislated to provide some compensation for the widespread dispossession of Indigenous peoples since 1788.

In effect, there was a ‘grand bargain’. This put in place processes to allow for the orderly recognition of native title, and some compensation for dispossession, without creating widespread uncertainty in the broader community. Disappointingly, governments have never delivered on a third part of the agreed settlement, the Native Title Social Justice Package.


THE NATIVE TITLE Act has not lived up to the expectations of some of our people. For others, however, the Act has provided access to land and resources, and a right to negotiate about the future of land that is, or may be, subject to native title. We have seen native title recognised in places that would not have been anticipated when the Native Title Act was first legislated. In South-East Queensland, the 2011 Quandamooka determination recognising native title rights over North Stradbroke Island was a game changer, as will be the Noongar native title settlement in south-west Western Australia. These are amazing achievements. They are a testament to the resilience, courage and leadership of Traditional Owners and others involved in these settlements.

Until October 2015, I chaired the Indigenous Land Corporation, one of the institutions set up after the Mabo judgment. The ILC has unique independence from government. It has its own source of revenue, the Land Account – the compensatory fund legislated as part of the ‘grand bargain’. Its board has a majority of Indigenous directors. They are appointed by the Indigenous Affairs Minister but cannot be directed by the minister. The ILC currently has the discretion and flexibility to pursue Indigenous benefits over the longer term, at arm’s length from political or budgetary cycles.

In December 2013, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion, initiated a review of the two agencies I then chaired: Indigenous Business Australia and the Indigenous Land Corporation. I have no doubt that Minister Scullion wanted them to merge. As Opposition Spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs, he was quoted in relation to the appointment of the corporation’s CEO, that the ‘position…might not exist after the election’.

The ILC board saw the review as a threat to a basic part of the native title settlement: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Account. In a merged agency, the Land Account’s revenues would inevitably be used, sooner or later, for purposes other than those originally legislated. In the face of this threat, the ILC developed a draft Bill to amend our governing legislation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act 2005. The Draft Stronger Land Account Bill was released in March 2014, and endorsed on the same day by a group of senior Indigenous leaders, including three who had helped to negotiate the Mabo settlement and served on the first ILC Board: Lowitja O’Donoghue, David Ross and Noel Pearson. The Stronger Land Account Bill has five main purposes: to protect and strengthen the Land Account by making the purpose explicit; it seeks to ensure that funds from the Land Account can be used only for land-related purposes; it supports a request from the Torres Strait Regional Authority that the remit be extended to sea; it would enable the Land Account’s capital base to increase over time, to cater for the land-related needs of a growing Indigenous population; and contains measures promoting more Indigenous involvement. This can only be a good thing, as we are a tiny minority of the Australian population, dependent on the goodwill of others in a system where the majority rules.

The government-dominated committee that inquired into the Stronger Land Account Bill recommended against its legislation. I believe this is wrong as a matter of principle. This is good legislation, which any government should adopt. It was offered on its merits. Though government established the ILC, its board can legitimately advocate issues of Indigenous rights that relate to the ILC’s functions.

The government’s own reviewers, Ernst & Young, found that both the ILC and IBA are operating well. They recommended some reorientation of effort, but considered that the two agencies should remain as stand-alone entities, given their different histories and purposes. The Land Account will remain fundamentally vulnerable because parliament has the power to withdraw it, to legislate its abolition.


IN THE PAST, there have been many calls to reach some kind of ‘final settlement’ between the Australian state and Indigenous Australians, including several pushes for a ‘treaty’. There have also been various ways of representing Indigenous interests within the Australian polity. We have had successive, sometimes simultaneous, models of advisory bodies, some appointed by government, some with elected representatives, one – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission – with powers over some Commonwealth funding for Indigenous Australians. The abolition of ATSIC was a great loss to Indigenous Australia. There is no doubt ATSIC had faults; it should have been reformed, not destroyed.

The last Labor government put in place the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, designed to exist at an independent distance from government. While the current government has no power to abolish, it has ceased funding the Congress.

The fact remains that Indigenous Australians are relatively powerless in the face of the Australian state, a point that has been made strongly in recent debates about recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution. Despite a political consensus on Indigenous issues, there are certain policy emphases close to the heart of Coalition governments. The Liberal and National Parties tend to prioritise Indigenous economic development over a purely ‘land rights’ approach; Coalition ministers have a habit of calling Indigenous Australians ‘land rich, dirt poor’. This brings us to current conversations, exciting but also fraught with risk, about how Indigenous land can be made a more effective base for Indigenous economic development.

There is a widespread perception that communal title on Indigenous land inhibits economic development. Some Indigenous leaders are looking for systematic change in the laws and regulations to which native title and other Indigenous-held land is subject – issues discussed at the summit convened by the Australian Human Rights Commission in Broome in May 2015. There have been various attempts to overcome the perceived tenure problem. The Northern Territory Land Rights Act has been amended to enable the leasing of whole townships to a Commonwealth entity, which can then sub-lease blocks to individuals, families or businesses.

New legislation in Queensland, pushed through in the dying days of Newman government, gives Aboriginal councils the option to transfer the tenure of selected lots in their communities to freehold, with the ultimate aim of allowing people to buy and sell their homes. The federal government is currently leading the Council of Australian Governments inquiry into Indigenous land administration and use. Some Indigenous groups, most notably the Northern and Central Land Councils in the Northern Territory, are wary of this inquiry. The land councils support development for Indigenous Australians, but see a single-minded emphasis on economic development as code for undermining Indigenous rights. Minister Scullion has previously attempted, unsuccessfully, to introduce a regulation that would weaken the land councils by devolving some of their functions and resources to regional corporations. The land councils are also worried that Indigenous rights will be trampled in the apparent rush to develop Northern Australia. There is a view in high-level policy circles within government that land rights are part of the ‘Indigenous problem’. I refute this view categorically. Land is central to our culture and identity. It is central to our self-determination and to our future.

I strongly believe it is possible to balance maintaining the integrity of Indigenous land rights with a range of economic and social developments. However, any changes to the nature of Indigenous land titles need to respect and preserve hard-won Indigenous gains. Indigenous people will need first to understand and then to consent to any changes to their property rights. And important institutions, such as the land councils, shouldn’t be threatened or undermined just because they take a stand against some part of the agenda of the government of the day.

Policies aimed at unlocking opportunities must go beyond imposing on Indigenous Australians standard private-property rights that risk the loss of land from the Indigenous estate. We need to look for innovative tenure arrangements, and governments must meet their responsibilities to invest in the administrative infrastructure to manage these tenure arrangements.


THE ILC’s EXPERIENCE shows that other pre-conditions for economic development need to be in place. An evidence-based approach to reform would note the different economic-development outcomes occurring across different tenure types and seek to identify the real common denominators of economic development on Indigenous-held land. The ILC’s political travails over the last year and a half are symptoms of wider problems – the way short-term aims affect matters of fundamental importance.

When the Western Australian Government announced that it intended to close many Indigenous communities, poor and remote-living Aboriginal Western Australians were threatened with another dispossession – they face an object lesson in the power of the state.

To me, it seems that not just Indigenous peoples, but all Australians are suffering from the fraught practice of modern politics – the entrenched short-termism, the way party positions trump evidence, the sheer exhaustion of political language. Truly innovative changes are needed in Indigenous policy settings, but can our politics deliver this?


This is an edited version of the 2015 Mabo Oration, ‘The Mabo High Court judgment: Was it the agent for change and recognition?’, delivered on 10 August 2015 at QPAC, Brisbane.

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