Discovering Democracy Units
HomeThe UnitsTeacher NotesState & Territory LinksKey TermsA Guide to Government & Law in AustraliaSelected SourcesESL InformationCivics and Citizenship Education About DDUDownloadsSitemapSearchHelpDiscovering Democracy Banner

Focus question 4: What is Australia's record on Indigenous people's rights?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: Aboriginal people and human rights ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: Securing human rights ESL Activity 2
Unit assessment task ESL Assessment task
Assessment criteria  


Australia enjoys a reputation as a country in which human rights have been observed and protected to a very high degree. However, two groups which are often mentioned as not enjoying the same benefits of the nation as most others are the Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people.

Indigenous Australians are over-represented in statistics for poor health, welfare dependency, imprisonment rates and other 'poor quality of life' criteria.

The Australian Constitution and some Acts of Parliament passed in the early part of the twentieth century effectively meant that the Aboriginal people were not full citizens of the new nation.

Section 127 of the Constitution (now repealed) said:

In reckoning the numbers of people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.

Section 41 of the Constitution said:

No adult person who has or acquires a right to vote at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of a State shall, while the right continues, be prevented by any law of the Commonwealth from voting at elections for either House of the Parliament of the Commonwealth.

These sections of the Constitution meant that Aboriginal people were not counted in the census but, like all adult Australians, they could vote in federal elections if they also had the vote in their home State or Territory. However, in the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902 the following clause was inserted:

No Aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific, except New Zealand, shall be entitled to have his name placed on the Electoral Roll, unless so entitled under Section 41 of the Constitution.

The same Act that gave the right to vote to all women in Commonwealth elections actually took it away from some Aboriginal people. (All Aboriginal men and women received the right to vote in federal elections in 1962.)

Before 1901, the individual colonies (later 'States') had full responsibility for making laws that affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as groups. In Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia there were restrictions on what work Indigenous people could do, and there were personal restrictions on the movement of Aboriginal people in all colonies except South Australia and Tasmania. These restrictions did not apply to any other Australians.

This situation did not change with the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Section 51 of the Constitution said:

The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:

(xxvi) The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.

(The words 'other than the aboriginal race' were struck out following the 1967 referendum.)

Activity 1: Aboriginal people and human rights

1a Look at Sources A to E. List examples of absence or violation of human rights among Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people.

1b What effect might the status of Indigenous Australians as 'second-class citizens' have had on their quality of life?

Source A

A letter from an Aboriginal Australian

Robe S.E.
Mr. Sexton,

Being a half Caste fisherman of Robe I had very much pleasure of reading the paragraph in the news of 20/11/37 of aboriginals such as my self being classed Australian natives I myself was born in the year 1870 & at the age of 45 years 1915 I enlisted myself to serve King & Country I served 3 years & was wounded & gassed & invalided home in [1918]. Now I humbly plead to you & others who take such interest in us unfortunates to give me my right to be classed as an ordinary Australian citizen, with Australian rights. Foreners [foreigners] such as Italiants ect. can live here for a certain term & be naturalized & have Australian rights: so why can't I who have been classed good enough to fight for my King and Country have these same privileges instead of being classed as just an ordinary Abo.

Gammage, Bill & Spearritt, Peter (eds) 1987, Australians '38, Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates, Sydney, p 88. Reproduced courtesy of The Macquarie Library Pty Ltd.

Source B

Letter to the editor 1912

Australia boasts of the White Australia policy, and rightly so. I do not blame the children for their skins - God help them that they had no choice in the matter - but it appears to me that if we compel black and white to intermingle in schools we are practically encouraging the future fathers and mothers in this State in the belief that there are no differences in the races ... The Brotherhood of Man is a very good theory, but the welfare of our little White Australians is of far greater importance than the possible hardship inflicted on, I trust, a very small minority of our citizens.

West Australian, 28/5/1912. Courtesy The Western Australian.

Source C

Memories of Patricia O'Shane

Refer to page 69 of Commonwealth of Australia 1998, Discovering Democracy Middle Secondary Units, Curriculum Corporation, Melbourne.

Source D

Memories of Noel Blair

Refer to page 69 of Commonwealth of Australia 1998, Discovering Democracy Middle Secondary Units, Curriculum Corporation, Melbourne.

Source E

Freedom rides 1965

In 1965 a group of about 30 people, primarily university students and a small number of Aboriginal people, made a bus trip from Sydney through towns in rural New South Wales. Their aim was to draw attention to racism in those areas - for example the exclusion of Indigenous people from public baths. They called themselves 'freedom riders'. They drew the attention of national newspapers and TV to the racially based policies and practices of many areas.

The first clashes were at Walgett, where Aborigines were banned from the RSL - despite the fact that many Aborigines were ex-servicemen who had fought in World War II. There were clashes with some locals, and the bus was run off the road at one stage. Then the bus went to Moree.

One of the leaders, Charles Perkins, later wrote about his experiences:

The next day we began to fully investigate what was going on in Moree. We found out the Council had discriminatory laws against Aborigines who were not allowed to go inside the Council chambers, nor use the toilets. A number of hotels were not serving Aborigines ... The biggest point of discrimination was the local swimming pool. Aboriginal adults were not allowed to swim there at all. Aboriginal children were let in on a Wednesday afternoon during school hours between one and three. But then, after the school hours finished, the whistle blew and all the Aboriginal kids had to get out and only the white kids were allowed to stay. The swimming pool was the one point we thought we would hit at first ...

When we got down to the pool I said, 'I want a ticket for myself and these ten Aboriginal kids behind me. Here's the money.'

'Sorry, darkies not allowed in,' replied the baths manager. The manager was a real tough-looking bloke too. He frightened me.

We decided to block up the gate: 'Nobody gets through unless we get through with all the Aboriginal kids!' And the crowd came, hundreds of them ...

Then the police arrived ... The mayor ordered the police to have us removed from the gate entrance. They took hold of my arm and the struggle started. There was a lot of pushing and shoving and spitting. Rotten tomatoes, fruit and eggs began to fly, then the stones were coming over and bottles too ...

The crowd got ugly then. One of our students ... was punched to the ground by one of the tough boys who did not like what we were doing.

The mob from the hotel across the road decided that they were going to show these university students and niggers and black so-and-so's whose town this was. They came over and did most of the kicking, throwing and punching, and the spitting ...

The situation looked very bad. The police then said, 'Right, we'll let them in.'

They let the kids in for a swim and we went in with them.

We had broken the ban! Everybody came in! We saw the kids into the pool first and we had a swim with them. The Aboriginal kids had broken the ban for the first time in the history of Moree ... It was a wonderful moment ...

So that was our first confrontation with Moree. A confrontation which resulted in turning the town upside-down.

Before we left we said to the Aborigines, 'If you are banned again, we'll be back.' We also told that to the mayor and the police. We did have to go back, too.

Excerpts from Perkins, Charles 1975, A Bastard Like Me, Ure Smith, pp 87-91.

Courtesy Charles Perkins.

Changes to laws

By 1967 most of these discriminatory laws had been abolished. In that year the Commonwealth Government proposed an amendment to the Constitution to give the overriding power to make laws concerning Indigenous Australians to the Commonwealth Parliament.

Once the Commonwealth Government had the power to make laws, it passed a number of Acts affecting Indigenous Australians, including the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

Activity 2: Securing human rights

Read the text below and decide how the Racial Discrimination Act might have helped to ensure that Indigenous Australians had citizenship rights equal to those of other Australians.

The Racial Discrimination Act

This legislation was passed to outlaw any acts which discriminate against any Australians on the basis of race. It was passed particularly to protect Indigenous Australians against discrimination. Commonwealth legislation overrules State or Territory legislation in areas in which they all share law-making powers. The Racial Discrimination Act could be then used to overrule any remaining or future discriminatory State or Territory laws.

The Racial Discrimination Act was based on international principles - The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination.

The passing of the Racial Discrimination Act meant that Australia had adopted international standards of anti-discrimination, and could therefore be judged internationally by those standards.

Unit assessment task

Reread the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and choose one right to investigate. Use the vertical files in your library, websites and organisations such as Councils for Civil Liberties and Amnesty International.

Prepare a report which outlines:

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

ESL activities

Back to 'Human Rights - At a glance'

AcknowledgementsLegal Information