Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders

2008
CC BY-SA 2.0
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Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders

The Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement was formed in Adelaide in February 1958. [1] Adelaide was chosen as the meeting place following the release of a film showing the living conditions of Aboriginal people living in the Warburton Ranges. The film had inspired outrage in the wider Australian community and created what Jessie Street called 'the psychological moment' for national action. [2]

Representatives from various state organisations, including the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship from New South Wales, attended the conference in Adelaide and elected an executive. The aims of the organisation were to repeal discriminatory legislation at state and federal levels, amend the federal constitution to enable the Commonwealth Government to legislate for Aborigines, improve the lives of Aboriginal people through housing, equal pay, education and adequate rations in remote areas, and advocate land rights. [3]

Equal wages and working conditions

In 1964, upon request, Torres Strait Islanders were included in the title of the organisation. The national body comprised Aboriginal welfare organisations as well as a number of affiliates in large trade unions. Its structure was based upon that of the Australian Labor Party. [4] It was therefore natural that equal wages and working conditions for Aboriginal people were a focus of the organisation's early efforts, mainly in the Northern Territory. Activists in Sydney worked to raise awareness of the working conditions and disadvantages suffered by Aboriginal workers. Of the council's work on equal wages, national secretary Faith Bandler reflected:

No organisation can claim to be totally responsible for any step in the liberation process, because social change is reliant upon broad based support … Our work on equal wages, we felt, had this effect, galvanising wide support from the wider community while encouraging more daring feats and demands from the Aborigines in their search for justice. [5]

The 1967 referendum

The council is perhaps best known for its work on the 1967 referendum which proposed constitutional change to allow the Commonwealth government to legislate for Aboriginal people. The campaign was launched with a petition by the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship and taken up by the council in 1962, when it decided to run a national campaign. Signatures were collected by setting up tables in the streets, at churches, community venues and sporting events across the country and by the end of the year the petition had 100,000 signatories. [6]

The petition was presented almost daily to Parliament during 1965, and lobbying increased significantly. Finally members of the executive of the council were able to meet with Prime Minister Robert Menzies. After some tense discussion, the Prime Minister offered the group a drink. When he asked Oodgeroo Noonuccal what she preferred, she informed him he could be jailed in Queensland for offering her alcohol. The incident was considered a turning point in the attention given to the issue by the government. [7]

In February 1967, Harold Holt's government introduced the referendum bill. The council turned its focus to campaigning for a 'yes' vote. On 27 May 1967, 90.77 per cent of Australians voted for constitutional amendments relating to Aboriginal people.

The 1967 referendum was a turning point in Aboriginal politics. Many Aboriginal people were heartened by the overwhelming response of white Australia to their cause. However, there was a growing element in the Aboriginal movement, influenced by radicalism and the Black Panther movement in the United States, which saw the need for Aboriginal people to lead their own fight. [8]

At the federal conference in 1970 a motion was put to restrict membership of the executive and voting rights at general meetings to Indigenous members. [9] The result was a split in the council leadership from which it never recovered. It was generally felt that the council had achieved its purpose following its success with the 1967 referendum, setting the stage for a new wave of Aboriginal rights activists.

Notes

[1] Faith Bandler, Turning the Tide: A Personal History of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1989, p 11

[2] National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 'Collaborating for Indigenous Rights: Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islands (FCAATSI)', National Museum of Australia, Canberra, viewed 13 June 2008, http://indigenousrights.net.au/organisation.asp?oID=8

[3] Faith Bandler, Turning the Tide: A Personal History of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1989, p 13

[4] Peter Read, 'Cheeky, Insolent and Anti-white: The split in the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders – Easter 1970', Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol 36 no 1, 1990, p 74

[5] Faith Bandler, Turning the Tide: A Personal History of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1989, pp 32–3

[6] National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 'Collaborating for Indigenous Rights: National petition campaign, 1962–63', National Museum of Australia, Canberra, viewed 13 June 2008 http://indigenousrights.net.au/subsection.asp?ssID=25

[7] Faith Bandler, Turning the Tide: A Personal History of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1989, pp 97–8

[8] Peter Read, 'Cheeky, Insolent and Anti-white: The split in the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders – Easter 1970', Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol 36 no 1, 1990, p 76

[9] Peter Read, 'Cheeky, Insolent and Anti-white: The split in the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders – Easter 1970', Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol 36 no 1, 1990, p 77

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