4.6. What is the history of (non-)recognition?
Since the colonisation of Australia, Indigenous people have been excluded from the Constitution and from other ‘legal and governance structures’. Many commentators from both sides of politics have confirmed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to experience discrimination and inequality of opportunity today. Persistent failures to act on calls for greater equality and the right to self-determination have greatly limited the welfare of Indigenous Australian citizens.
The non-recognition of Australia’s First Nations people can be traced back to British colonisation. Settlers effectively dismissed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their rights to the land on which they had lived for tens of thousands of years. Many commentators today wrongly suggest that the doctrine of terra nullius was used from the first years of settlement to legitimate the displacement of Aboriginal peoples. This is one of the recurrent misinterpretations of Australian history. It is suggested that the colonisers believed that this continent was an empty land ready for exploitation and needing to be filled. The exploitation part of that is right, but the terra nullius bit involves a misreading of British colonial policy and the anachronistic attachment of an old Latin name that only came into regular currency in the late-nineteenth century.
In reality, from the beginning Australia was seen as a potential political extension of British sovereignty, through a series of policies. The first was the doctrine of sovereignty adopted from the writings of the seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke, according to which rights were acquired by occupying and working lands that had previously been in a state of nature. The second was the official belief that Aboriginal people were nomadic savages who did not have the status of civilised people. The third was the strategic need to negate the presence of other European powers by settling and working the land.
When Australia was federated in 1901, the Indigenous population was only mentioned in order to ‘exclude them from society’. Unlike many of our Western counterparts, Australia never established a treaty or other form of agreement with our Indigenous peoples. Despite such attempts to alienate Indigenous Australians and hopes stated explicitly by some that they would ‘simply die out’, the Aboriginal population showed more resolve than anticipated. In the 1950s, the failure of Australia’s assimilation policies became the subject of increasing international scrutiny, as a result of which the government’s focus shifted toward the integration of First Nations people. This produced only a limited effect; as the twentieth century progressed, international attention on Australia’s disregard for the rights of tribal and Indigenous communities continued to increase.
Matters were made worse by the fact that attempts to achieve greater equality did not always have the desired effect. Despite the successful 1967 referendum, which repealed the explicitly discriminatory section 127 of the Constitution, and the more widespread ‘political goodwill’ towards Indigenous Australians, discrimination and inequality persisted in the following decades. While there were arguably good intentions behind ‘self-determination’ policies from 1973 until the end of the Howard administration, these did not produce significant practical economic or social benefits for Indigenous Australians.
In the 1990s, widespread hopes developed that decisive improvements in legislation concerning Indigenous communities would at last occur. Under Prime Minister Hawke, the idea of reconciliation became increasingly popular, particularly after the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was created. The Constitutional Centenary Foundation was also established, though its lack of Indigenous representation limited its effectiveness. However, multiple attempts to promote formal legal recognition ultimately fell ‘well-short of community expectations’.  This can partially be traced to a lack of community consensus and political leadership. In 1988, Bob Hawke accepted the Barunga Statement and promised to sign a treaty during his time in government but then ‘succumbed’ to the controversy the proposal caused among multiple political factions and other influential stakeholders. Thus, the cycle of non-recognition continued.
Generally speaking, political decisions about Indigenous Australians have done little to overcome inequities or create effective strategies for self-determination. Self-determination policies from 1973 onward have failed to empower the Indigenous population or bring equal social and economic opportunities. It could be that the policies were not truly sincere, lacked adequate funding, were undermined by existing political structures and attitudes, or were abolished without fair reason. Whatever the cause, it is the continuing sense that some kind of change remains necessary that has fuelled the present attempt to establish recognition for Australia’s Indigenous population.