Rights for Aborigines

Rights for Aborigines

Rights for Aborigines

Rights for Aborigines

Excerpt

In Melbourne, on the evening of 10 April 1967, one of Australia's most senior leaders, 60-year-old Bill Onus, launched his state's referendum campaign for constitutional change on behalf of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. The referendum was a matter of Aborigines' rights, Onus was reported as saying. 'It is a fundamental question of human rights, the case of one man being equal to the other … Australians must vote to give the Aborigine full citizenship rights.' This was how most Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal campaigners represented the referendum, which has since become a famous event in Australia's political history. Voters were asked whether Aborigines should be granted the same rights as other Australians, irrespective of race. The overwhelming majority voted yes.

Yet, Onus, who was known as a fine orator, said something else that April night. The reporter—and probably most of the audience—did not hear this but it was recorded by ABC television and has been preserved on videotape in its archives. Listening to it 30 years later I was immediately struck by the fact that I had not 'heard' this remark in any newspaper report of this speech or any other speech Onus made in April and May 1967. 'In this year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and sixtyseven', Onus asserted, 'we cannot help but wonder why it has taken the white Australians just on 200 years to recognise us as a race of people'. Here, it seems to me, Onus, on behalf of his people, was addressing a plea to white Australians for a different kind of political recognition. Aborigines, he was saying, not only wanted to be recognised by white Australians as fellow human beings and granted the same rights and privileges that Australian citizens enjoyed—civil rights. They also wanted to be recognised as a race, as an identifiable group of people who had a historical claim to a different set of rights because they were the country's aborigines—Aboriginal rights.

Onus' speech goes to the heart of the subject matter of this book— campaigns for rights for Aborigines in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—and to an ongoing debate in this country as well as other settler societies. What rights should indigenous peoples be granted, and on what basis? How should a democratic nation state accommodate the interests of a disadvantaged aboriginal minority? In particular, this book . . .

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