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Best of 2017: Indigenous rights 50 years after the referendum


In the face of historically low levels of Indigenous representation within Australian parliaments, the Indigenous caucus between Commonwealth, State and Territory Labor representatives points to some progress.

Front page of Abo Call newspaperWhat it identifies is an essential aspect of citizenship rights that sits parallel to principles like democracy and diversity, which are fundamental to our political system. Political participation, particularly with regard to Indigenous peoples, ought to be fully protected and upheld by all levels of government.

Our country's political system arose, in the wake of colonisation, out of a racist mentality that leaned towards establishing boundaries among its citizens according to their ethnicity and cultural identity. Those boundaries have bred racial inequality and discrimination into the minds of many Australians but also, more importantly, into the structures of governance themselves.

Thus, we see a lack of laws and processes that might include Indigenous Australians fairly and equally into Australia's Westminster-style political system, that would afford Indigenous Australians a say about laws and policies that affect their affairs.

So where do we go from here? The Labor caucus is aimed at increasing Indigenous voter engagement figures, increasing Indigenous Labor candidacy, and developing strategic plans that encourage Indigenous students to become young leaders in Parliament. Those are all necessary and noteworthy causes.

But I look also at what laws are in existence, particularly with regard to our constitution as it still stands, and question how far we have really come.

For instance, section 25 of the Australian Constitution conflicts with the Labor caucus' aim to drive Indigenous voter engagement. It gives a State and Territory government power to disqualify persons from voting at elections, according to their race. The term 'race' has been predominantly applied only to Indigenous peoples, usually to our detriment, so that our citizenship rights are limited.

It is nothing new. My great grandfather Jack Patten recognised the different standards the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments applied when making laws and policies that targeted Indigenous peoples' citizenship rights versus those of non-Indigenous Australians.


"Our government needs to pick up where it left off in 1967 and recognise the importance of protecting the full citizenship rights of its Indigenous peoples."


Patten was the president of the Aborigines Progressive Association, with Bill Ferguson as secretary. They, along with many other strong Indigenous leaders and activists in the 1930s civil rights movement, fought long and hard prior to the 1967 referendum for racial and social equality in Australia. Their aim was to stop the continuation of colonisation by establishing Australia's first Aboriginal Day of Mourning on Australia Day in 1938, and enacting a ten-point policy (the 'long range policy plan') published in the Abo Call the same year.

The policy plan expanded upon a range of factors that underpin full citizenship rights of Indigenous peoples. It extended far beyond political participation and included housing, access to education and equal distribution of wages, to name a few. This was the first policy endorsed by Indigenous peoples at the time, and gave them a political voice to protect their rights and affairs.

Taking today's Labor caucus discussions alongside the Aborigines Progressive Association policy plan, it seems to me that the fundamental consideration is citizenship rights. Political participation can be loosely defined as citizen activities affecting politics. You cannot have one without the other if you're advocating for true racial equality of Indigenous peoples.

Our political system has struggled to overcome legislative and political flaws from its past connected to racial inequality and discrimination. This is why progress with citizenship rights and political participation has been flawed and limited. Although our governance structure is built on concepts like democracy and equality before the law, the longer those Indigenous rights continue to go unrecognised, the more those concepts are called into question. Distrust is formed between Indigenous citizens and the government, which widens the cultural divide between both 'races'.

It is for this reason that we need continued movement towards federal change, promoting legislative and political racial equality. Our government needs to pick up where it left off in 1967 and recognise the importance of protecting the full citizenship rights of its Indigenous peoples. Internationally recognised legal concepts like 'self-determination' should guide Australian governments towards political and federal legislative reform. That theory aims to empower indigenous peoples from colonised states to self-govern and self-administer on their own cultural affairs. It is driven by political and cultural equality and respect of colonised indigenous peoples. Increasing the Indigenous political voice at decision-making level will enhance our ability to protect the full citizenship rights to which we are entitled.

So, in looking at our past, and in recognising discussions among our political representatives that affect our future, now is the time for all Australians to reclaim that political movement and reconnect with the idea of further reform as represented in the 1967 Referendum. When that happens we can continue our political progression as a nation and recognise the full citizenship rights of all Australians.



Dani LarkinDani Larkin is a Bunjalung woman who grew up on the Aboriginal community Baryulgil. She is an admitted lawyer and has practiced in a variety of areas of law. 

This article was originally pubished on 22 March 2017.


Topic tags: Dani Larkin, 1967 referendum



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