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Aboriginal Rights Page 5

The Flag

In 1971 the growing Aboriginal rights movement created a new national rallying symbol. The Aboriginal flag designed by Harold Thomas was first raised in Victoria Square, Adelaide, on National Aborigines Day, 9 July 1971. Other significant events to occur in the same year were the appointment of Neville Bonner as Australia's first Aboriginal Senator and the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the census for the first time.

But the small gains just demonstrated how much still had to be achieved. Amid the celebrations marking the bicentenary of Cook's landing at Botany Bay, Aboriginal Australians had claims for land rights and compensation rejected by the government. As a protest a tent was erected on the lawns in front of Parliament House, Canberra, it came to be known as the 'Aboriginal Tent Embassy' and was a focal point for national protest.

In the years since some significant advances have occurred, the period of the late 1980's and early 1990's are marked by two of these, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody and the High Court of Australia judgment in the case of Mabo and others v Queensland.

Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody conducted by Commissioner Elliott Johnston, QC from 1987 to 1991 "was established ... in response to a growing public concern that deaths in custody of Aboriginal people were too common and public explanations were too evasive." It noted that between "1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989, ninety-nine Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 1 people died in the custody of prison, police or juvenile detention institutions."

Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

First International Indigenous Women's Conference

In July 1989 the First International Indigenous Women's Conference was held in Adelaide.

The conference was attended by delegates from all states and territories of Australia and 16 other countries including New Zealand, the United States, Samiland / Norway, Canada, Palestine and France.

The Conference Convenor and Chairperson was Joanne Willmot, supported by the members of the Aboriginal Women's Working Party, Jackie Huggins, Sandra Saunders, Dot Davey, Marg Crosbie, Heather Brown, Jane Branford, Muriel Van Der Byl and Eva Johnson.

Two days of welcome ceremony, 7th - 8th July 1989 preceeded the conference during which 17 workshops were held; Women in the Arts, Indigenous lifestyles and living conditions, Tjilbuke Trail, Yuen Manda - Mornington Island, Torrens Strait Islanders Workshop, How do we define ourselves, Pitjantjatjara Women, Land Rights, Working with governments, Sovereignty, Education, Women studies in education, Employment, Women's multi-purpose centres, The Pitjanjatjara / Coober Pedy Women, Survival for our children, and Domestic violence / Women's Refuges. Each workshop made several recommedations published in the Conference Report.

Eddie Mabo

In the judgment of Mabo and others v Queensland, 3 June 1992, the High Court stated, "six members of the Court (Dawson J. dissenting) are in agreement that the common law of this country recognizes a form of native title which, in the cases where it has not been extinguished, reflects the entitlement of the indigenous inhabitants, in accordance with their laws or customs, to their traditional lands and that, subject to the effect of some particular Crown leases, the land entitlement of the Murray Islanders in accordance with their laws or customs is preserved, as native title, under the law of Queensland."

National Archives of Australia - founding Documents - Mabo v Queensland No. 2 1992 (Cth)

Kumarangk [Hindmarsh Island Bridge]

The most contentious issue related to Aboriginal rights in South Australia during the 1990s was the debate that occurred in relation to the construction of a bridge from Goolwa to Kumarangk [Hindmarsh Island]. The issue arose in the context of the development of a marina and bridge being approved for the Island in 1990. Although construction of the bridge began in October 1993 it was soon halted in response to protests. In early 1994 objection to the bridge construction suggested the site for the bridge was sacred and related to sacred women's business for the local Ngarrindjeri women. Protests, legal action and emergency declarations under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act of 1984, led to the first report, the Saunder's Report, finding that Ngarrindjeri women considered the area crucial for the Ngarrindjeri people. On 8 July 1994 Minister Tickner issued a declaration protecting the proposed site for 25 years. This declaration was overturned in the Federal Court on appeal.

During this period debate continued in the community and the media about the accuracy of the claims of secret women's business. In response the South Australian government established the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission in June 1995, with Iris Stevens as Royal Commissioner to inquire. After much controversy the Commissioner reported that the claims of women's business "emerged in response to a need of the anti-bridge lobby ... the women's business was unknown to the twelve dissident Ngarrindjeri women who gave evidence ... the whole claim of the "women's business" from its inception was a fabrication".

In December of 1995 the Ngarrindjeri people lodged another application for heritage protection of the bridge site under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act. Judge Jane Mathews was appointed by Senator Rosemary Crowley on 16 January 1996 to report on the application. Mathews concluded that there was insufficient evidence that the construction of the bridge would desecrate the area. In response the Liberal Government introduced the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Act, 1997. This Act states that "The Heritage Protection Act does not authorise the making of a declaration in relation to the preservation or protection of an area or object from any of the following activities: (a) the construction of a bridge, and associated works ... in the Hindmarsh Island bridge area." The legislation was challenged in the High Court by a group of Ngarrindjeri women (Kartinyeri v The Commonwealth [1998] HCA 22), claiming the Commonwealth did not have power to make laws to the detriment of Aborigines. But the challenge failed without the court definitively stating if section 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution, "The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to: - .... (xxvi.) The people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws" permitted legislation detrimental to Aborigines.

Effectively this was the end of the campaign, the state government declaring its intention to build the bridge as soon as possible. Construction of the bridge began in November 1999 and it was opened on 4 March 2001. Whether the controversy was a contest of Aboriginal against European, heritage against capital, women against courts, or a mix of all these, it played a major role in bringing issues of Aboriginal culture and land rights before the national media and their mainly white audience.

The Bridge

2007 Reconciliation march
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Aboriginal flag
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Aboriginal soldier at Swan Reach.
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Aborigines celebrate national day
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Crowd at Sorry Day Celebrations in Elder Park.
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Don Dunstan and Aboriginal leaders
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Finding common ground : First Indigenous Women's Confer
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Finding Common Ground. First International Indigenous W
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Hon. Mike Rann, Premier of South Australia and Nerida S
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Jamie, a tiny hero is dead
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John Stanley, Willy Rankine and Leonard Campbell of Poi
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March for human rights and justice
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