The Coming of the Light is celebrated annually by Torres Strait Islander peoples on 1 July. It marks the adoption of Christianity through island communities during the late nineteenth century. The Reverend Samuel MacFarlane, of the London Missionary Society, arrived at Erub Island in the Torres Strait on 1 July 1871, introducing Christianity to the region. Since then, Torres Strait Islanders, whether living in the islands or on the mainland, celebrate this anniversary.
It might have symbolic resonance, then, that today, 1 July, in my series about the themes of NAIDOC WEEK, we turn to the next series of themes that are from the period of the Labor Government (2007–2013). It was after eleven years of regressive conservative government at the federal level that Kevin Rudd led the Labor Party back into government in December 2007. Although Rudd was a control freak who ultimately undid his own position of leadership, that of Julia Gillard, and then his own government, his time in leadership did shine some important lights onto Australia society.
During the the almost six years of the Labor Government, led by Rudd, then Julia Gillard, then Rudd once again, the National Apology to the Stolen Generation was made. On 13 February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood in Parliament to deliver the National Apology to Australia’s Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Apology recognised the injustices of past government policies, particularly as they related to the Stolen Generations.
For more than a decade, the Howard government had resisted making any apology. The stance that Howard took when he opened the 1997 Australian Reconciliation Convention, which we noted in the previous post, remained his opinion in the ensuing years. Still today, 25 years after that speech, Howard remains unmoved; he has called the apology that Rudd gave “meaningless” and “an empty gesture”.
But on 13 February 2008, newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke the federal government’s formal apology to Indigenous Australians. Rudd apologised on behalf of Parliament ‘for indignity and degradation’, declaring it was time to start ‘righting the wrongs of the past’. As he recognised the Stolen Generations, he affirmed that the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families ‘inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians’.
The key words of apology are worth remembering again:
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations,
their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters,
for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted
on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
The themes of NAIDOC WEEK in those six years were:
2007: 50 Years: Looking Forward, Looking Blak
This theme looks back to 1957, when the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC) was formed. It had support and co-operation from Federal and State Governments, the churches, and major Indigenous organisations. Its aim was to promote Aboriginal Sunday as a day to focus community attention on the nation’s Aboriginal people.
In 1940, the National Missionary Council of Australia (NMCA) had given its support to a permanent annual Aborigines Day. The NMCA encouraged churches to observe the Sunday before the Australia Day weekend as “Aboriginal Sunday’. In 1955, the NMCA changed the date to the first Sunday in July.
In 1985, NADOC agreed to change the dates of the week from July to September, and in 1988, the committee’s name was changed to NAIDOC – National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee – to acknowledge Torres Strait Islander people. In 1991, the committee decided to shift the celebrations back to the first week in July (Sunday to Sunday) starting from 1992.
The committee was wound up in the mid-1990s when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) assumed control of NAIDOC Week, making decisions on the theme, venue and poster.
2008: Advance Australia Fair?
This theme recalls both the 1972 theme, Advance Australia Where?, and, of course, the title of the song that became Australia’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. The question mark in both themes is very significant—the themes are asking questions about the direction of Australia as a country (in 1972) and drawing attention to the continuing injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples (in 2008). The questions still stand today.
The artwork used was striking: a large blue SORRY overlaid with a version of the national coat of arms, gesturing the kangaroo and emu, and the five stars of the Southern Cross.
2009: Honouring Our Elders, Nurturing Our Youth
This theme is evocative of the 1976 theme, when Trucanini was remembered and honoured. It sits along with earlier themes that gave recognition, both to the culture of Indigenous peoples: 1978, Cultural Revival is Survival; Take a Journey of Discovery, 1984; Recognise and Share the Survival of the Oldest Culture in the World; 1990, Don’t Destroy, Learn and Enjoy our Cultural Heritage; as well as the importance of young people: 1979, What About Our Kids?; and 1994, Families are the basis of our existence: Maintain the Link.
2010: Unsung Heroes: Closing the Gap by Leading the Way
For the last fifteen years, we have had a national policy known as Closing the Gap. The gap refers to the the inequalities in health and life-expectation that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This inequality includes: shorter life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, poorer health, and lower levels of education and employment.
Indigenous Australians have a lower life expectancy than non-Indigenous Australians. Non-Indigenous girls born in 2010-2012 in Australia can expect to live a decade longer than Indigenous girls born the same year (84.3 years and 73.7 years respectively). The gap for men is even larger, with a 69.1 year life expectancy for Indigenous men and 79.9 years for non-Indigenous men
Indigenous women also experience approximately double the level of maternal mortality in 2016. In 2016, Indigenous children experienced 1.7 times higher levels of malnutrition than non-Indigenous children. In 2015, the Indigenous suicide rate was double that of the general population; Indigenous suicide increased from 5% of total Australian suicide in 1991, to 50% in 2010, despite Indigenous people making up only 3% of the total Australian population. The most drastic increase occurred among young people 10-24 years old, where Indigenous youth suicide rose from 10% in 1991 to 80% in 2010.
The employment to population rate for Indigenous 15–64 year olds was around 48% in 2014-15, compared to 75% for non-Indigenous Australians. Median weekly income for Indigenous Australians was $542 in 2014-15 compared with $852 for non-Indigenous Australians.
The Gap (or actually, the many gaps) still exist; despite an annual report on how the federal government is attempting to Close the Gap, there is still much ground to be covered.
2011: Change: the next step is ours
This was an invitation to the whole population of Australia to join and work for change for the better for First Peoples.
2012: Spirit of the Tent Embassy: 40 years on
The Tent Embassy had been established in 1972. See the blog I wrote earlier in the year for the 50th anniversary, in 2022, of the Tent Embassy.
2013: We value the vision: Yirrkala Bark Petitions
This theme commemorates events of 50 years earlier. Yolngu people from Yirrkala in eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory sent petitions to the Commonwealth Parliament in August 1963. On 13 March that year the Government had removed more than 300 square kilometres of land from the Arnhem Land reserve, with the purpose of being able to mine the bauxite which had been found there. Work started without talking to the people about their land.
The text of the petition was in two languages, English and Gupapuyngu. It was printed on paper then glued to a piece of bark that had been painted traditionally. The petition, signed by nine men and three women, stated that 500 people were residents of the land that was being removed, and that the whole deal had been kept secret from them.
It also declared that sacred sites in the area, such as Melville Bay, were vital to their livelihoods, and that the area had been used for hunting and food-gathering since time immemorial. The petition asked parliament to appoint a committee to hear the views of the Yolngu. They also asked that no arrangements be entered into with any company which would destroy their livelihoods and independence.
Two Labor parliamentarians, Kim Beazley (senior) and Gordon Bryant visited Reverend Edgar Wells, Superintendent of the Yirrkala Methodist church mission, in July 1963. Yolngu leaders made plain their objection to the lack of consultation and secrecy of the Government’s agreement with Nabalco, and their concern about the impact of mining on the land unless their voices were heard.
The petitions were not successful; mining commenced in 1968. The Yolngu people began a court case, in which Justice Richard Blackburn ruled against the Yolngu claimants in 1971. He recognised that they had been living on the land for thousands of years, but found that any rights they had before colonisation had been invalidated by the Crown. The Australian legal system had been built around the concept of terra nullius, meaning ‘land belonging to no one’.
The Yolngu eventually received native title to their land in 1978, under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, which established a procedure for transferring 50 per cent of land in the Territory to Aboriginal ownership. The mining leases, which they had objected to since 1963, were excluded from the provisions of the Act, and also from the Yolngu native title claim.
The Yirrkala bark petitions were the first example of a native title litigation in Australia. They paved the way for the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission and the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. In 1992 the concept of terra nullius, which had been used in the Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd judgement, was challenged by the High Court of Australia. Mabo v Queensland recognised the people of Murray Island as native titleholders to their land.
Information on the Yirrkala Petitions is taken from https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/yirrkala-bark-petitions