For much of their history, Australias major parties did not perceive a need to have Aboriginal affairs policies, but this altered in the 1960s and 1970s as the Aboriginal interest came to occupy a more prominent position.
The policies of recent major governments, those being the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Coalition, consisting of the Liberal Party and National Party, have changed drastically since the Federation of Australia. The approaches throughout history of these major parties will be discussed briefly in order to gain an understanding of the foundation of each partys beliefs and platforms in regards to Aborigines. The main political issues facing Aborigines in society today will be identified, and subsequently the main political parties approach and policies will be distinguished in relation to each issue. Finally, recent policies and legislation introduced by the main political parties will be introduced and discussed.
From 1937, the approach of all governments was one of assimilation, whereby Aborigines would submit to indoctrination in white ways before taking their place in the general Australian community. However, in time this policy came under intensifying attack on all sides, with critics claiming the policy denied these individuals of their Aboriginal culture, and enforced the notion of the superiority of the white culture. For a time, integration became a policy of the Commonwealth, though it was hard to identify the distinction between assimilation and integration. As attitudes changed, State governments began to amend many of the laws that denied Aborigines equality with whites. In 1967, all parties maintained the proposed Constitutional amendment. Although attitudes had begun to change, little had been done to encroach such altered attitudes in definite government policies.
The Labor Party made the most positive pitch for these interests, and at its 1971 Federal Conference, Gough Whitlam led the party into conceiving the most detailed Aboriginal affairs policy yet adopted up until this period, by a major party. This called for the establishment of a full Aboriginal affairs department. Whitlam guaranteed that a Labor government would not falter to override any State laws which discriminated against Aborigines, or which supervised Aborigines, or which reduced the opportunities for Aborigines to conduct themselves as they wished. Shifting aside assimilation and integration, Labor adopted self-determination, a policy which spoke of Aborigines ultimately being able to decide the pace and nature of their future development, where they would take a real and effective responsibility for their own affairs. After becoming Prime Minister, Whitlam took it further with his talk of restoring to Aborigines their lost power of self-determination in economic, social and political affairs.
Within a year of its election, the Whitlam government was discovering that its position among Aborigines was sliding outrageously. There was also indications that advancement on land rights was frustratingly slow.
Despite Aboriginal complaints, there is no doubt that the Whitlam government did a lot for the Aboriginal people. Apart from the creation of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) and the passage of anti-discrimination legislation, a lot of money was spent, much of it usefully. During the Fraser years, Labor was proud of the work of the Whitlam government, which, it claimed, had developed achievements and advances, which remain unparalleled in the history of our politics since the British occupation.
The Liberal Party was slower than the ALP in devising policies in these areas. However, the party did support the 1967 amendment, and soon after, the Coalition moved to establish the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, an advisory body that was given considerable funds to determine Aboriginal needs so that the Commonwealth could undertake action. The Liberals were prepared to cast aside assimilationist ideas in their identification of Aborigines fundamental right to maintain their racial identity and traditional lifestyle or, if preferred, to adopt partially or entirely a European lifestyle. The Liberal Partys Aboriginal Affairs policy emerged as self-management, a policy that was held to distinguish Liberal policy from that of Labor, stressing as it did that Aborigines should not only be responsible for their future development, but also accountable for the success or failure of such development.
National Party politicians have been far less prepared than the Liberals to accept that Aborigines require special assistance to meet their needs.
The primary political issues faced by Aborigines today include Aboriginal death in custody, reconciliation, land rights including native title and the Mabo decision, and the Stolen Generation. There are other issues, however these appear to be the major contemporary issues by way of the media focus they have gained and policies and legislation relating to them.
In regards to reconciliation, the Liberal Party is committed to reconciliation. They are working with the Reconciliation Council in order to develop a written understanding between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians that will recognise the prior occupation of this country by indigenous people and their place in the Australian community.
However, in 1999 it was reported that the UN Committee felt the Liberal Governments approach to native title laws were in breach of Australias international legal obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Under previous Liberal Governments, Australia was a strong and proud voice against racial discrimination. If this being the case, then it would appear to be the present Liberal governments policies not fully supporting Aborigines and land rights, rather than an overall representation of the Liberal Party in general.
The ALP however, recognises the wrongs of the past and accepts the responsibility to address the issues associated with the mistakes of the past so that Australia can move on. This entails commissioning indigenous Australians and working with them towards a lasting settlement. The foundation for a lasting settlement, and thus reconciliation, between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians was laid with the establishment of The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, made up of 25 indigenous and non-indigenous Australians was established to lead the process of reconciliation. The aim of the process was to profoundly alter the basis of relations between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the wider community in the lead up to the Centenary of Australian Federation in 2001.
Aboriginal deaths in custody is another major issue, and has only recently been recognised in the last twenty years or so by the major political parties of Australia.
In July 1997 a summit was assembled on the issue of deaths in custody, and also issues applicable to the over-representation of indigenous people in the criminal justice system. The Liberal Party reached an agreement with all states and territories to develop critical plans, in association with indigenous people, for the coordination of funding and service delivery aimed at reducing indigenous over-representation in the criminal justice system. This shows that the Liberal government is addressing the problem of Aboriginal deaths in custody, and giving weight to the issue in regards to their policies.
While governments did in fact begin to respond to some of the affects of forcible removal during the 1980s, it was during the Labor governments reign that the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its report in 1991. The Commission set out a responsibility for all governments to address these effects comprehensively. They investigated 99 deaths in custody that had happened between 1980 and 31 May 1989, and was prompted by the gross over-representation of indigenous people both in custody and it was thought, in the statistics of those who died there.
Land rights is probably the most diverse and long-standing issue, it is also probably had the most success in regards to cases being won, legislation being enacted, and people becoming aware of the existence of such rights.
The struggle over land rights has been a bitter one from first contact to today, with much of the initial debate hinging on whether or not non-indigenous law could recognise indigenous land ownership.
In Australia, besides Queensland, much of the argument has centred on whether Aboriginal systems of land occupancy were recognisably ownership institution under conventional Australian law. Since they depended on religious and cultural, rather than economic ties to the land, title appeared to be vested in corporate groups such as clans rather than individuals, and land was an inalienable property.
The Liberal Partys role in land rights consists of amendments to the Native Title Act in 1998. The Coalition government had a policy of amending the Native Title Act as part of their platform for the 1996 election. The amendment provides for a fair and workable solution that amends many of the problems in the preceding unworkable Act. It also resonates the Governments desire to assure a fair outcome for all interests. The Native Title Act:
? established a National Title Tribunal to assist in the mediation of claims;
? allowed for the establishment of an Indigenous Land Fund to support those whose native title had already been quenched; and
? put in place procedures to defend native title by requiring that native title holders be consulted in advance if governments propose to grant certain interests in their land to mining companies or other parties. This is called the Right to Negotiate.
However, the Native Title Amendment Act 1998 did not entirely benefit the Aborigines because this Amendment Act explicitly extinguished native title rights on pastoral leases.
The Labor Party also has strong policies in regards to the issue of land rights. Policies of the Beazley Labor Party in regards to Aboriginal land rights include native title being recognised as a property right by the common law of Australia. Native title holders are entitled to the complete protection of the law in utilising their rights, this protection also includes sacred sites. Land Councils are to be sufficiently resourced and conferred statutory responsibilities for the representation of Aboriginal interests in regards to land. The Labor Party also strongly feel that access to land and security of title are necessary to allow indigenous Australians to fully utilise their economic, social and cultural rights.
One of the most disputed and probably by far the most emotional issue for those involved, is that of the Stolen Generation. The Stolen Generation involves children of mixed descent, and sometimes fully descended children, being forcibly removed from their Aboriginal parents in an intentional policy of separating them from the influence of their indigenous culture, and thus forcing them to live as non-indigenous people. This became known as the policy of assimilation.
Former governments, including the current one, have begun to offer remedies to begin changing what has been done. One such example of beginning to right the wrongs is in the form of the Bringing Them Home Report, which was commissioned by the previous government, in August 1995, and tabled in May 1997. The report stated that facilitating family reunions is the most essential and vital requirement of separated families. In light of the overall report, the Liberal government developed a package consisting of $63 million in order to address family separation and its consequences, concentrating on family reunion and counselling. Other programs included in the $63 million package are link-up services, access to records, family support and parenting programs and an oral history project. Since funding was provided, Link-Up has assisted over 9400 people nationally in two years, involving 370 reunions. The Liberal Partys policies claim that they will continue to assist those families living with the repercussions of separation.
The Labor Party also has similar policies and attitudes to the Liberal Party in relation to the Stolen Generation. Labor also feels that the solutions to the issue of the Stolen Generation includes counselling arrangements, the linking up of families, looking after peoples concerns psychologically who have been associated with this, and also compensation.
The only difference, and probably a very major one, is that the Labor Party promises to make a national apology on behalf of the Commonwealth for any wrongs and hardships faced by the indigenous people as a result of policies of the past governments. The Liberal Party to this day has refused to do this, however they are still committed to assisting those affected by removal in a similar way to the Labor Party.
In recent policy campaigns for the future election, Labor has promised, after full and inclusive negotiation with the Stolen Generations, to make a full response to the Brining Them Home Report. This response will include investigating non-adversarial methods of focusing on the need for compensation through procedures such as consultation, conciliation and negotiation.
It was acknowledged from the outset that even the original Native Title Act would not help those who had been removed from their land and social networks and generations past by various pieces of legislation and government policies. Some such concerns have been addressed over the years by the establishment of Councils and bodies, however solutions to many of the major issues, and minor ones not mentioned here, are far beyond the reach of any committee or advisory board established by governments and political parties. However, this is not to say that the policies and legislation enacted by political parties are not helping, but simply to point out that the Aboriginal affairs is a diverse and very complicated area to legislate and maintain.