For close to a century, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have called and fought for a seat at the table.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander have called for a political voice in one form or another for close to 100 years.
Over this time their aims have remained resolute: to represent First Nations peoples in matters that affect their communities and to ensure that their perspectives are heard in the development and implementation of policies and programs.
Representative bodies are one way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can share perspectives and be heard.
Below is a brief history of the many ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bodies and leaders have fought to be heard.
The Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) was formed in 1924 in Sydney, led by Fred Maynard. It was Australia’s first organised, united Aboriginal activist group.
It advocated several key demands in protecting the rights of Aboriginal peoples such as self-determination, protecting children and families, land rights and cultural protection, directing much of its criticism and campaigning against the NSW Aborigines Protection Board.
The AAPA campagined frequently for Aboriginal representation to government, with Maynard quoted as calling for:
Aboriginal representative in the federal parliament, or failing it, to have an [A]boriginal ambassador appointed to live in Canberra to watch over his people’s interests and advise the federal authorities.
At its height, the AAPA had 13 branches, four subbranches and more than 600 members in NSW.
There is strong evidence the organisation was broken up through the combined efforts of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board, missionaries, and the police.
Read more about the AAPA, in the words of Fred Maynard’s grandson Professor John Maynard.
The Australian Aborigines’ League was established in Melbourne in 1932 by 71-year-old Yorta Yorta man, William Cooper.
The League worked to repeal discriminatory legislation, petitioned the King for Aboriginal representation in parliament, and organised the Day of Mourning protest on Australia Day in 1938 to draw attention to the living conditions of Aboriginal people and to push for citizen rights.
The League was reinstated after the death of Cooper in 1941 by Sir Pastor Douglas Nicholls and Eric and Bill Onus. In the 1960s it became the Victorian branch of the Aborigines Advancement League.
The Day of Mourning protest became inspiration for Australia Day protests, and in 1957 the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC) was formed, which continues to this day as NAIDOC.
The Aboriginal Advancement League was founded in 1957 by Sir Pastor Doug Nicholls as the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (VAAL) and remains the oldest Aboriginal rights organisation in Australia still in operation.
The League’s early focus included lobbying for a referendum to change the constitution to allow legislation on issues affecting Aboriginal people. Today, it provides a number of services, including family support, food assistance, home visits, advocacy, counselling and educational programs, drug and alcohol awareness and funeral services.
The Aboriginal Advancement League continues today. Read more about their work.
In 1968, the Australian government of Prime Minister Gorton established the Council for Aboriginal Affairs (CAA), notably composed of three non-Indigenous men. The government also established a small Office of Aboriginal Affairs (OAA) within the Prime Minister’s department.
In 1973, the Whitlam government established the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA), marking a shift in government policy towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The department was the first separate department dedicated solely to Aboriginal affairs in Australia and was staffed by both First Nations and non-Indigenous employees.
The Department was responsible for matters related to First Nations people; creating policies that advanced the welfare of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and for special laws pertaining to First Nations people.
The National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) was established by the Whitlam government in 1972, making it the first national body elected by Aboriginal people in Australia.
The creation of the NAC was a bold political initiative, giving a national representative voice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but also marking a shift towards self-determination and self-management.
Its main role was to provide advice to the government, and it was comprised of 36 representatives from across the country who were elected by their own communities.
The National Aboriginal Conference (NAC) was established by the government in 1977 with 35 elected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives from all over Australia.
In 1979, the Second National Conference passed a resolution requesting the execution of a treaty between Aboriginal nations and the Australian government. The government, however, was opposed to the use of the word ‘treaty.’ The NAC instead adopted the Yolgnu word ‘Makarrata’ – meaning ‘coming together after a struggle’.
The initial Makarrata proposals put forward were for a treaty, covenant or convention which could include provision for matters such as:
- The protection of Indigenous identity, language, law and culture
- The recognition and restoration of rights to land
- The conditions governing mining and exploration of natural resources on Indigenous land
- Compensation to Indigenous Australians for the loss of traditional lands and to their traditional way of life
- The right of Indigenous Australians to control their own affairs and to establish their own associations for this purpose.
The Hawke government established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in 1990 to promote First Nations self-management and self-sufficiency, maximise participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in government policy, and coordinate government policy affecting First Nations people.
From the outset, ATSIC and its relationship with the Australian Government was criticised from a range of standpoints. The Commission was strongly supported by some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but there was disagreement about whether self-determination could be realised within the machinery of government or needed to be outside of it.
In 2005 the Howard government disbanded ATSIC.
The Aboriginal Provisional Government (APG) was established on 16 July 1990 by Elders from different communities across Australia.
Its main goal is to campaign for Aboriginal sovereignty over Australia and the establishment of an Aboriginal nation-state, arguing sovereignty was never ceded.
The APG has several functions, including issuing Aboriginal passports and birth certificates, and sending diplomatic delegations overseas.
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples was established in 2010 as a national representative body for Aboriginal Australians, following the abolition of ATSIC.
The Congress was owned and controlled by its membership, independent of government, and did not deliver services or programs.
The Congress had five primary objectives, including setting the standard for engagement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, participating in parliamentary processes, and ensuring the UN Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Peoples was implemented.
However, in late 2013, the government stopped funding the Congress, arguing that it was not functioning as a representative body and failed to transition away from government funding. The organisation officially folded in 2016, highlighting the importance of independent funding for Aboriginal representative organisations.
In 2019, approximately 50 peak Aboriginal community-controlled organisations joined hands to form the Coalition of Peaks, a representative group that aims to partner with governments at all levels.
After conducting several consultations across the country, the Coalition of Peaks signed a historic formal partnership agreement with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in March 2019.
The agreement is related to the Closing the Gap policy, which governments have successively failed to meet.
Through this partnership, the Coalition of Peaks hopes to have a formal say in the design, implementation, and evaluation of policies, programs, and services that impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
This agreement means that for the first time, First Nations people, through their community-controlled peak organizations and members, will be able to share decisions with governments regarding Closing the Gap policy under a formal arrangement.
These bodies have played a crucial role in advancing self-determination, justice and reconciliation. They had advocated for greater autonomy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and have modelled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander solutions and governance to wider Australia.
Ultimately, when First Nations peoples are in the decision-making seat, outcomes for their communities are better.