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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

After self-government in 1978

Although the Commonwealth granted the Northern Territory self–government from 1978, it retained responsibility for a number of matters, including Aboriginal people.

The Commonwealth has in this time been involved in a significant number of events involving Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 1987–91

In 1987 there was growing public concern that Aboriginal deaths in police custody or prison were too common and poorly explained. In September 1987 the Prime Minister announced that all states and the Northern Territory had given their support to establish a joint Federal and State Royal Commission to investigate Aboriginal deaths in custody, and announced the appointment of the Hon Mr Justice Muirhead as Royal Commissioner. The Commissioner was to investigate deaths in Australia since 1 January 1980 of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders while in police custody, prison or other place of detention, and any subsequent action taken in respect of those deaths. In 1988 the number of commissioners was increased and terms of reference were broadened to take account of social, cultural and legal factors that might have had a bearing on the deaths.

The Commission presented an interim report in December 1988 and a five-volume final report in April 1991.12 It made 399 recommendations, largely concentrating on the areas of procedures in custody, liaison with Aboriginal groups, police education, and improved accessibility to information.

Agreement was reached in May 1993 for the Royal Commission's records to be placed in the custody of National Archives in the capital city of the State or Territory in which they were created or drawn together, but records not clearly related to a State or Territory were to be held in Canberra. The National Archives has prepared Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: The Royal Commission and its records, 1987–91 which lists the records and outlines the access arrangements agreed to by the Federal, State and Northern Territory governments.

Selected records of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody held in Darwin
National Archives, Darwin
Transcript folders – individual case hearings, 1987–91 A8570
Individual case hearings, 1987–91 A8574
General submission files, 1987–91 A8575
Research cases of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 1987–90 A8582
Transcript folders – special hearings, 1987–90 A8568
General correspondence of G Barbaro, Instructing Solicitor, Northern Territory, 1987–90 D4089
Press clippings, 1987–90 D4090
General correspondence records – Northern Territory Office, 1988–90 D4086
General correspondence records of M Dodson, Counsel Assisting, Northern Territory, 1988–90 D4087
Case files, 1988–90 D4091
Exhibit records, 1988–90 D4096
General correspondence of C Caruana, Instructing Solicitor, Northern Territory, 1988–90 D4114
Miscellaneous underlying issues records, 1988–90 D4106
General correspondence of D Allen, Instructing Solicitor, Northern Territory, 1988–90 D4148
Administration files, 1988–90 D4179
Register – list of cases in the Northern Territory, 1988–90 E1167
Transcript folders underlying issues hearings, 1989–90 A8569
General correspondence records – Aboriginal Issues Unit Alice Springs, 1989–90 D4088
Miscellaneous underlying issues – records of the Aboriginal Issues Unit, Alice Springs, 1989–90 D4094
General correspondence records of Commissioner P L Dodson, 1989–90 D4131
List of indexable headings, 1989–90 E1165

National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, 1995–97

In August 1979 a conference of Australia's social welfare Ministers – Federal and State and Territory – was held in Darwin. The meeting recommended that an Aboriginal child care agency be established. This agency would help to reunite parents and children who were affected by previous policies of forced removal of Aboriginal children. This in turn led to the creation of the KARU (child) independent community controlled child care agency.

To commemorate the International Year of the World's Indigenous People in 1993, the National Archives developed the Between Two Worlds exhibition in which a number of former children told their stories. The exhibition toured the country over the next few years.

In October 1994 the Going Home conference was held in Darwin, with representatives from every State and Territory meeting to share experiences and to devise strategies to meet the needs of those children and their families affected by government removal policies.

In May 1995 the Federal Attorney-General referred the issue of past and ongoing practices of separation of Indigenous children from their families to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). The Inquiry was asked to trace past laws, practices and policies involving the removal of children and make recommendations concerning the current adequacy of laws, services and procedures for dealing with people who were affected by those former policies and practices. The HREOC President, Sir Ronald Wilson, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Dodson, took primary responsibility for conducting the hearings of the Inquiry. They were assisted by other HREOC Commissioners and by the Queensland Discrimination Commissioner.

As the records of the inquiry are less than 30 years old and cannot be accessed yet under the Archives Act, any requests for access are referred by the Archives to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, the agency controlling the records.

The Inquiry's report, Bringing Them Home, was published in April 1997.13 It made a number of wide-ranging recommendations covering reparation, including an acknowledgement and apology, guarantees against repetition, measures of restitution and rehabilitation, and monetary compensation. There were also specific recommendations including a number relating to records held by government and non-government agencies relevant to people wanting to link up with family and community. These recommendations covered freezing the destruction of relevant records, and indexing and arrangements for access.

As part of its response to the Inquiry's recommendations, the Australian Government provided funding to the National Archives to index records, to the National Library for an oral history project, to agencies to develop Indigenous family support and parenting programs, to boost culture and language maintenance programs, to establish a national network of family linkup services, for 50 new counselors, and to expand the network
of regional centres for emotional and social wellbeing.14

With the funding provided, the National Archives developed its Bringing Them Home name index, in consultation with Aboriginal people affected by former government removal policies. The index includes over 420,000 entries that were extracted from the most important files relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people held in the Darwin, Melbourne and Canberra offices. Those wishing to have searches of the index undertaken should contact the National Archives' reference service.15

In response to the recommendations on assisting access to records of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and HREOC's National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, the National Archives developed Memoranda of Understanding covering access to records by people affected by former government removal policies. Memoranda were developed between 1997 and 2002 with the Northern Territory, Victorian and South Australian Aboriginal communities.16

In 1997 the Northern Territory Archives Service signed a similar agreement with the Northern Territory Aboriginal community, known as the Protocol for Access to Northern Territory Government Records by Aboriginal People Researching Their Families.

As a result of two record forums held in the Northern Territory that brought together government and non-government organisations that hold records and family history information which may be useful to Aboriginal researchers, the National Archives published Tracking Families: A Guide to Aboriginal Records Relating to the Northern Territory in 2006. It covers at a general level relevant records held by government agencies, church groups and various libraries and research centres in the Territory, access arrangements and contact details.17

National Emergency Response ('the Intervention'), 2007

In August 2006 the Northern Territory Government created the Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, which was asked to investigate claims that Aboriginal children, particularly those in remote communities, were being subjected to physical and sexual abuse. The Board's report, Little Children Are Sacred, was presented in June 2007. It concluded that the sexual abuse of children in Indigenous communities had reached crisis levels, and demanded that it be designated as an issue of urgent national significance by both the Australian and Territory governments.

The Commonwealth Government response was contained in the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Act 2007, passed in August 2007, which provided a package of changes to welfare provisions, law enforcement, land tenure, and other measures to counter claims of abuse and neglect of Aboriginal children throughout the Territory. The measures adopted by the Australian Government are known collectively as 'the Intervention'.

The National Archives currently holds no records relating to the Intervention.


Chapter notes | All notes

12 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: Interim Report, Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1989), volume 2, paper 20; National Report, volumes 1–4, Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1991), volume 12; National Report, volume 5; Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1991), volume 13.

13 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (Sydney, 1997).

14 'Bringing Them Home': Government Initiatives: Statement tabled in Commonwealth Parliament out of session on 16 December 1997.

15 Fact Sheet 175 – Bringing Them Home name index on the National Archives' website:

16 See Fact Sheet 114 – Memorandum of Understanding with Northern Territory Aboriginal people; Fact Sheet 205 – Memorandum of Understanding with the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency; and Fact Sheet 209 – Memorandum of Understanding with SA Indigenous people on the National Archives' website:

17 National Archives of Australia, Tracking Families (Canberra, 2006).


Chapter 8
Aboriginal People of the Northern Territory