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Taking liberties with Indigenous civil liberties

By Stephen Hagan - posted Thursday, 16 December 2004

Two significant events have dominated the international headlines in recent months: The elections in Afghanistan and the impending elections in Iraq. Many lives, military and civilian, have been lost to give the people of those countries - women included - the opportunity to exercise their basic civil liberty - the right to vote.

In the United States the 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments to the Constitution refer to a right to vote in the course of prohibiting voting discrimination based on one's race, sex, or (adult) age.

Although New Zealand was the first country in the world to accord the vote to women in 1893, South Australia led the world in not only enfranchising women in 1894 but also making them eligible to sit in Parliament. By 1909 all Australian states and the Commonwealth had enfranchised most women


Legislation to regulate voting rights and procedures, the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, specifically excluded “any Aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa, or the islands of the Pacific, except New Zealand” from voting unless they were actually on the roll before 1901.

Active service in World War II by our Indigenous diggers was a powerful argument in favor of the right to vote. Many Australians felt if they were good enough to fight and die for their country, they were good enough to vote in its elections.

The new Commonwealth Act (no. 31) of 1962 specifically repealed section 39(5) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (successor of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902) restoring Indigenous peoples' right to vote. Then came the famous 1967 referendum that gave Indigenous people long overdue citizenship rights.

The formation of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC), and its successor, the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC) were two early government experiments in elected Aboriginal representation. The Whitlam Government established the NACC in November 1973 as an advisory body to the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The NACC was an elected assembly of 40 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people representing over 800 communities.

A review of the NACC commissioned by the Fraser Government after its election in 1975 found that the NACC had not been an effective mechanism for providing advice to the Minister. The NAC differed from the NACC in that its structure included representatives elected to state branches, and from the state branches a ten-member national executive was elected. Unlike the NACC - which had insufficient time to establish itself as a national Indigenous political voice before the end of the Whitlam Government - the NAC took on a high profile role as advocate of Indigenous political rights.

When the traditional owners of Noonkanbah, Western Australia, received an emphatic no from the Federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to intervene to stop the WA government from approving mineral exploration on their sacred sites they sought assistance from the NAC. My father Jim Hagan, then Chairman of the NAC, with fellow colleagues Jimmy Bindery and Reg Birch, took the Noonkanbah’s traditional owners’ case to the United Nations. The Fraser government was shocked that the matter, deemed a local concern, was now being debated at an international level.


In so doing my father became the first Indigenous Australian to address the United Nations in Geneva and although his historic address did not bring about the desired outcome for the Noonkanbah custodians it did pave the way for future Indigenous representation at the Swiss capital. On his return he succinctly put his views on the success of his United Nations campaign when he addressed the Foreign Affairs Association in Canberra on April 28, 1981.
After all, the problems of the Aboriginal people … alcohol, unemployment, disease, illiteracy, social unacceptability … are all problems that stem directly from the white man’s invasion of our land. Before you came we did not have such problems, so can you wonder that we seek compensations, that we seek guarantees, and that we will not sit back and merely accept social welfare payments.
It is another irony that we have had to turn to strangers for solace and understanding and it is the warmth of their response that has made our international venture an avenue of real hope.
Will we go overseas again? Of course we will. And we will continue to speak with a voice of authority no matter where. No one knows Australia like an Aboriginal … no one is an Australian as an Aboriginal … no one can tell us what we want or what we need more than our own people. No one can spread this message further than an Aboriginal.

Twenty-three years later John Howard, speaking on ABC Television, insensitively involved himself in the Palm Island debate by saying, “The most important civil liberty is to stay alive, and unless people are given the opportunity to do so then you can’t really start even talking about civil liberties.”

Well Mr Howard this whole debate is exactly about “civil liberties” and the right to vote is among the most important civil liberties we have.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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