Chapter 7 - Prime Minister, 1972–75
Whitlam first met Indigenous Australians while serving in the Royal Australian Air Force at bases in Queensland and the Northern Territory. However, he had been alerted to 'flaws in the Australian Constitution' – negative and exclusionary references to Aboriginal people – when he attended the 1942 Constitutional Convention in Canberra.
The Whitlam Institute holds materials reflecting Whitlam's concerns in this area, such as a 1972 press statement and speeches made in 1981 and 1997. Whitlam's visit to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy for a meeting with Indigenous leaders while Opposition leader and his subsequent 1972 press statement on land rights were regarded by participants as 'one of the greatest coups ever for the Aboriginal advancement movement'. An article in Identity (July 1972) described the meeting, along with a photo that captured the pivotal moment when Paul Coe questioned Whitlam about the ALP's Aboriginal policies. Just days after the 1972 election, Whitlam announced a Royal Commission into Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory, which led to Australia's first Aboriginal land rights legislation. The Whitlam government's Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Bill was passed only in the House of Representatives; it was on the Senate list for the day on which his government was dismissed.
The Australian National University holds records relevant to the struggle of the Gurindji people for land rights, which became obvious nationally when they walked off Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory in 1966. Whitlam conducted a hand back ceremony at Daguragu on 16 August 1975. The National Archives of Australia holds important collections of photographs of the Gurindji Camp (taken in 1967), the handing over of the lease (1975), and further developments in 1980. See Prime Ministers at the Australian National University: an archival guide for information about the ANU's collection that relates to the Gurindji strike and national campaign. See also the National Archives' fact sheet on the Wave Hill 'walk-off.'
|Aboriginal land rights press release, 6 August 1972
Whitlam's press release states:
The only way to keep faith with the Aboriginal people and to redeem the overwhelming national pledge recorded in the 1967 Referendum would be immediate recognition of Aboriginal land and mineral rights.
|Australia's international obligations on Aborigines, 31 October 1981
Delivered at a seminar in Sydney on 31 October 1981, this speech includes Whitlam's reproach of the Holt, Gorton and McMahon governments for failing to make use of the Commonwealth powers in relation to Aboriginal affairs that were granted by the 1967 referendum.
|Dragging the Chain 1897–1997: The Second Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, 29 August 1997
In this lecture, Whitlam recounted the federal parliament's dismal record on Aboriginal rights from 1902 to 1997, including its failure to act on the possibilities following the 1967 referendum, which had granted the federal government power to legislate for Aboriginal people, and on the implementation of the Genocide Convention of 1948:
If the Convention had been enacted in the 1950s, most of the harrowing events which were described in evidence to the Inquiry [into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families] would not have occurred.