Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s comment that Australia was an ‘unsettled or scarcely settled great south land’ prior to colonisation, could hardly have come at a more inopportune time: on the eve of NAIDOC week.
NAIDOC week has its roots in the Aboriginal rights movement’s boycott of Australia Day. Between 1940 and1955, every year on the Sunday prior to Australia day, Aborigines Day – a day of mourning – was held. To coordinate this annual event, the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC), was established. After 1955 and in a change of tone, NADOC shifted Aborigines Day to the first Sunday in July, so as to be a distinct day - one that was both a protest against inequality, and a celebration of Aboriginal peoples’ achievements.
NADOC subsequently grew to incorporate the diversity of Torres Strait Islander peoples, and became the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC). Likewise, the single memorial day expanded to encompass a whole week of reflection, celebration and acknowledgment.
Despite the Prime Minister’s unfortunate prelude, this year NAIDOC week was celebrated around the country with a plethora of events: marches, exhibitions, performances, food stalls and memorials, to name but a few. As in other years, it was an opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to celebrate and rejoice in all that they have achieved in a myriad of fields.
The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the United Nations in 2007, is certainly worth celebrating. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, and their representatives, were involved in drafting this seminal instrument over two decades, and continue to use it as an important source of rights protection. After initially refusing to do so, the Australian Government endorsed the Declaration in 2009. While the Declaration is non-binding, it has strong moral and political force.
Implicit in the Declaration is an acknowledgement that Indigenous peoples lands were settled, owned and occupied by them prior to colonisation. In Australia, while the landmark case of Mabo, to some degree, recognised this at law; and while the endorsement of the Declaration established this as a matter of international principle; many Australians have known for a very long time – and indeed have come to celebrate – the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people always were and always will be the traditional owners and custodians of Australia.
The Prime Minister should know this too, and so his comment, whether accidental or deliberate, is inexcusable. A far more fitting beginning to NAIDOC week would have been for the Prime Minister to acknowledge and commit to upholding the rights of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to further commit to implementing Australia’s obligations under the Declaration. Equally, the Prime Minister would be wise to heed the words of a former Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, who once said, “Australia’s treatment of her aboriginal people will be the very thing upon which the rest of the world will judge Australia and Australians – not just now, but in the greater perspective of history.”
Ruth Barson is Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre.