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[Reconciliation]. Courtesy of Manningham Gallery.

Wayne Quilliam, [Reconciliation 2008]. Courtesy of Manningham Gallery.

Reconciliation is about unity and respect between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous Australians. It is about respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and valuing justice and equity for all Australians.

The reconciliation movement is said to have begun with the 1967 referendum in which 90 per cent of Australians voted to remove clauses in the Australian Constitution which discriminated against Indigenous Australians.

As a result of the referendum, Aboriginal people were to be counted in the census. The referendum established citizenship status and confirmed voting rights for all Indigenous Australians. The right to vote for Aboriginal people was legislated for by the Commonwealth in 1962 and by all States by 1965 when Queensland, as the last state, provided for Indigenous enfranchisement.

As a consequence of the referendum result, Aboriginal affairs was seen as a joint Commonwealth-State responsibility and an Office of Aboriginal Affairs was established by the then Prime Minister, Harold Holt. This later became the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. It was almost ten years later before the power given to the Commonwealth by the 1967 referendum was actually used by the Commonwealth Government under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to make laws for the benefit of Aboriginal people.

Civil rights campaigns 1957–1967

From the late 1950s, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists came together to campaign for equal civil rights for Indigenous Australians, and to bring about the repeal of laws which deprived Indigenous Australians of civil liberties.

The first of these campaigns arose from the 'Warburton Ranges controversy' when the report of a select committee, which inquired into the state of Aborigines, was tabled in the Western Australian parliament in December 1956. The Select Committee made recommendations and held that a case could be made for the Commonwealth to fund some of the recommendations. The Commonwealth advised that this was not possible under the Constitution. This issue received wide-spread press coverage. On 29 April 1957 a petition was launched for a referendum to make Aboriginal affairs a federal responsibility by the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship at Sydney Town Hall.

Albert Namatjira signing autographs

Albert Namatjira signing autographs, c. 1950. Courtesy of National Library of Australia nla.pic-an24156393.

Under the restriction of various state laws it was impossible to be both an Australian citizen and an Aborigine. These acts were referred to as 'dog collar acts' due to their restrictive nature especially in relation to Aborigines association with their own families. This was particularly controversial in relation to the famous Arrente painter Albert Namatjira.

From his first exhibition in 1938, Namatjira's popularity as a landscape painter of his Arrente country grew. His exhibitions sold out as soon as they were opened and, by the 1950s, Namatjira reproductions adorned the walls of many Australian middle-class living rooms. In 1954 Namatjira was presented to Queen Elizabeth, and, three years later, at 55 years of age, with the passage of the Welfare Ordinance, Albert Namatjira became an Australian citizen, although his adult children and other relatives were listed as wards.
Indigenous Rights

The press and the Australian public were outraged at the gaol sentence imposed on Albert Namatjira when he was arrested for sharing alcohol with his family in 1958.

In February 1958, at a meeting in Adelaide, activists from all mainland states formed a national pressure group, the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA). The first two goals of this new body were repeal of all legislation which discriminated against the Aborigines and amendment to the Commonwealth Constitution to give the Commonwealth Government power to legislate for Aborigines as with all other citizens.

The Freedom Ride of 1965 was a civil campaign which focused on the appalling living conditions which Aboriginal people endured living outside the towns, led by Charles Perkins. In the towns, Aboriginal people were routinely barred from clubs, swimming pools and cafes. The Freedom ride was an organised bus tour of western and coastal New South Wales towns, including Walgett, Gulargambone, Kempsey, Bowraville and Moree, by a group of University of Sydney students. The aim of the ride was to encourage and support Aboriginal people themselves to resist discrimination as well as ensure media coverage.

Other civil rights campaigns in the 1960s included the campaign for social service benefits, especially the old age pension and unemployment benefits which were denied to Aborigines in the 1950s, and access to earnings in the Queensland Trust Fund.

A campaign for equal wages and the Wave Hill walk-off

A campaign for equal wages in the 1960s contributed to a 1968 decision by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission ruling on equal wages in the cattle industry. The achievement of equal wages in the pastoral industry however was a hollow victory as 'families and whole communities were turned off properties where they had worked for generations. People drifted into towns and were given 'sit down' money (unemployment benefits). They were no longer able to fulfil obligations to their country.'

Vincent Lingiari and Mick Rangiari

Vincent Lingiari and Mick Rangiari at the sign they asked Frank Hardy to make, 1966. Courtesy of National Archives of Australia.

In August 1966, Aboriginal pastoral workers at Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory walked off the job, unhappy with their poor working conditions and disrespectful treatment. The next year the group moved to Wattie Creek, a place of significance to themselves as Gurindji people. The erected a sign which included the word 'Gurindji', asserting a claim to Gurindji lands.

From wage rights to land rights

While the Aboriginal struggle to regain lands taken from them, using the laws and the parliamentary system of government, has a long history (beginning in 1846 when Aboriginal Tasmanians petitioned Queen Victoria); the Wave Hill walk off was a significant event in the struggle for defining Aboriginal land rights with the Commonwealth government.

The [Wave Hill] walk off ... drew attention to the fact that they were working on Gurindji land, the land of their forebears. The dispute widened and deepened. It became a claim for land. (Indigenous Rights)

'Gurindji Blues' was recorded by RCA records in 1971 with a young Yolngu spokesman, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, accompanying Ted Egan, the singer/songwriter who had a long association with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

In 1972, a new government led by Gough Whitlam, promised to legislate for land rights. After a national campaign across 5 states involving unions, petitioning the Governor-General and the NT Administration; the Commonwealth exercised its power in relation to the Northern Territory pastoral lease at Wave Hill.

The original Wave Hill lease was surrendered and two new leases were issued: one to the Vesteys and one to the Murramulla Gurindji Company. On 16 August 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam went to Daguragu to issue the deeds. At the same time as he handed over the deeds, he poured a handful of Daguragu soil into Vincent Lingiari's hand, symbolising that the landed belonged always to the Gurindji people. The Wave Hill walk off site is now listed as a heritage site.

In 1976, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act recognised Aborigines as traditional land owners for the first time in Commonwealth legislation, based upon proof of their traditional association with the land.

The existence of native title rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at Australian law based on their historic rights as Indigenous people was recognised in the judgment of the High Court of Australia in 1992 with the Mabo case.

National Reconciliation Week

National Reconciliation Week was first celebrated in 1996. National Reconciliation Week aims to give people across Australia the opportunity to focus on reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It is a time to 'reflect on achievements so far and on what must still be done to achieve reconciliation' (Reconciliation Australia).

Each year, National Reconciliation Week has a different theme. Some past themes have been Communities working Together (1998), Walking Together (1999), Sharing our future: The next steps (2000), Reconciliation: Keeping the Flame Alive (2001), and Reconciliation: It's Not Hard to Understand (2003). The theme for 2011 is Let's talk recognition!.

National Reconciliation Week falls between 27 May and 3 June – two significant dates in the relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum and Mabo Day, the anniversary of the 1992 High Court judgment in the Mabo case.

27 May: Anniversary of the 1967 referendum

Trade unionists marching for Aboriginal citizenship

Trade unionists marching for Aboriginal citizenship, Brisbane May Day procession, 1966. Courtesy of the University of Queensland.

27 May is the anniversary of the 1967 referendum. The referendum altered the Australian Constitution (s. 127 and s. 51 xxvi) so that Aborigines could be included in the census count and so that the Commonwealth could make laws with respect to Aborigines as a race. Its intent was to end discrimination against Indigenous Australians.

The referendum provided the federal government with a clear mandate to implement policies to benefit Indigenous Australians. Also, counting Indigenous Australians in population statistics made the desperate state of Aboriginal health apparent. [For more information see 1967 referendum at Reconciliation @ QUT.]

3 June: Mabo Day – Anniversary of the High Court judgment on the Mabo case

Eddie Mabo was from Mer, one of the Murray Islands off the coast of Northern Australia. He argued in the High Court that Murray Islanders' rights to their land were not extinguished by the annexation of the islands by the State of Queensland, or by subsequent Queensland or federal governments' legislation.

On the 3 June the High Court of Australia handed down its judgment on the Mabo case. The High Court agreed with this view, and the idea of 'terra nullius' – that Australia had been empty of people when settled by the British – was abandoned and the pre-existing rights of Indigenous Australians acknowledged. This was a massive boost to the struggle for the recognition of Aboriginal land rights, yet the movement for land and sea rights continues.

Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and Reconciliation Australia

Dr Evelyn Scott

Karen Mork, Council Chairperson Dr Evelyn Scott received a standing ovation at Corroboree 2000, 2000. From the Final Report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Australasian Legal Information Institute.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was established under the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991 and was charged with this mission:

The object of the establishment of the Council is to promote a process of reconciliation between Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and the wider Australian community...
Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991, Section 5

The Council worked closely with the Australian Local Government Association to have the issue of reconciliation on the local community agenda.

In January 2000, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was replaced with a new private body, Reconciliation Australia. Reconciliation Australia is the current peak national organisation building and promoting reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Corroboree 2000

Participants in the Corroboree 2000

Robert James Wallace, Participants in the Corroboree 2000 'Sorry' Sydney Harbour Bridge Walk, 28th May, 2000. Photograph courtesy of Robert James Wallace.

On 27–28 May 2000, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation convened a major national event, Corroboree 2000, which was a landmark for reconciliation in Australia. This event honoured and celebrated the achievements of reconciliation so far, and set a framework for continuing the process beyond 2000.

On Sunday 28 May 2000 more than 250,000 people participated in the Corroboree 2000 Bridge Walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of Indigenous Australians. The event highlighted the issue of a lack of an apology by the (then) Australian Government to the Stolen Generations.

Reconciling the Nation, 2000

In 2000, Unfinished Business: Reconciling the Nation was broadcast by SBS over ten days. It featured nine new films, six existing films and live coverage of the Sydney Harbour Bridge Walk. The season of Indigenous film coincided with Corroboree 2000, Reconciliation Week and National Sorry Day.

Vinnie (Kelton Pell)

Sally McKenzie, Vinnie (Kelton Pell) in 'Confessions of a Headhunter', 2000. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

One of the documentaries broadcast, Whiteys Like Us (Landers 1999), provides an interesting insight into a group of white Australians participating in a Reconciliation Learning Circle. In the film, some members express resentment: 'why are they getting more than me?' echoing common myths about welfare and living conditions for Indigenous Australians. However, the group also demonstrates a desire for understanding and to move forward. The documentary leaves the viewer with the question of whether the issues will ever truly be acted upon by the non-Indigenous community.

Fiction films screened as part of Unfinished Business include Confessions Of A Headhunter (Riley 2000) and Road (McKenzie 2000). Both films explore the experience of Indigenous people in contemporary urban Australia. In Confessions Of A Headhunter Frank (Bruce Hutchinson), with the help of his cousin, lashes out after a statue of the Indigenous warrior Yagan is beheaded. The film combines mystery and comedy and highlights the lack of recognition there is for the struggle of Indigenous Australians against colonisation.

A Wukidi ceremony for Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, 2003

Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, a Yolngu elder from northeast Arnhem Land, was found guilty of the murder of a white policeman and sentenced to death in 1934. After a controversial trial in the Northern Territory Supreme Court, Dhakiyarr was sentenced to death. An appeal to the High Court made this the first case of an Aboriginal Australian to be heard in that court.

Dhakiyarr's case drew national and international attention to the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia. The case, however, ended in tragedy for Dhakiyarr and his family. On 8 November 1934 the High Court directed that Dhakiyarr be released and returned to his country. Within 24 hours of his release from gaol Dhakiyarr vanished.

The records on Dhakiyarr's case end in the mystery of his disappearance in Darwin in November 1934. In June 2003, seventy years after Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda speared policeman Albert McColl, the families gathered at the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory for a Wukidi ceremony that would free Dhakiyarr's spirit and enable reconciliation between the Wirrpanda and McColl families. A Wukidi ceremony is part of Yolngu law, and resolves a conflict between tribes that have wronged each other.

Formal apology to Australia's Indigenous peoples, 2008

Welcome to Country

Julie Dyson, Welcome to Country

(Djakapurra Munyarryun, The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson MP, Leader of the Opposition; The Hon Kevin Rudd MP, Prime Minister; Albert David; Denis Nuie; Ryuichi Fujimura; Matthew Doyle; Arnold Marika; Glen Doyle), Parliament House, Canberra, 13 February, 2008. Courtesy of Julie Dyson, Ausdance National.

On the 13th of February 2008, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, tabled a motion in parliament apologising to Australia's Indigenous peoples, particularly the Stolen Generations and their families and communities, for laws and policies which had 'inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.' The apology included a proposal for a policy commission to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in 'life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.'

Respect and healing

Flora MacDonald, from the ACT Branch of Australians for Reconciliation, says:

...we need to include Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders in our communities so that we can all learn from one another and develop a real awareness, understanding, appreciation and respect for the culture and history of Indigenous Australia...Its basis is the inclusion of the Indigenous peoples of Australia, not their exclusion. And that is healing for all of us.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation suggested that the following activities may be suitable:
  • Take part in planned National Reconciliation Week events and activities - your local Council and/or Australians for Reconciliation coordinator may be able to assist you.
  • Ask your local Council, school and/or library to fly the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Australian flags throughout the week.
  • Ask an Indigenous community member to lead a heritage walk through your area and invite members of your community.
  • Ask local businesses to display reconciliation posters.
  • Reconciliation is about sharing history – find out about the Indigenous history of your area; ask a local Indigenous person to come and talk to you and your group.

Useful links

Listen, look and play

1967 referendum


Last updated: 4 May 2015

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