The year 2023 could bring change in the position of Indigenous Australians with respect to the government. In December, the Prime Minister promised a referendum on constitutional change to increase the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in political decision making at the federal level. A section of the community has also called for recognition of cultural diversity and reconciliation with the past in events held to mark Australia Day (26th of January). Official and community celebrations now include more and more forms of Indigenous culture. In addition to the traditional flag of Australia, two other national symbols can be spotted on the streets. Barbies (or barbecues) on the beach, water sports, cricket and tennis watching all blend on the streets of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with the mysterious sounds of the didgeridoo, traditional dance workshops and other performances of the ancient cultures of this red continent.

Australian men and women will be able to vote in a referendum to call for the creation of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory body known as a Voice to Parliament and thereby to contribute to the social and economic inclusion of these communities. Generations of Australia’s First Nations people to a significant degree continue to live in social exclusion as a result of a history of colonisation and coexistence with the non-Aboriginal majority.

The history of modern Australia has been written up as beginning on 26 January, 1788…but did it? The history of the oldest inhabited continent on the planet, which we now call Australia, has been playing out for over 65,000 years. The development of Aboriginal society and culture was influenced by the arrival of white settlers in the late 18th century. The first British colony was established on the 26th of January, 1788, six days after a fleet of ships anchored in Botany Bay, roughly in the area of today’s Sydney airport. The First Fleet came with 754 prisoners and 619 officers, sailors and their families (including children). At that time, there were anywhere from 300,000 to one million Aborigines living on the Australian continent. The settlers did not negotiate with them, and under the principle of terra nullius (literally land belonging to no one, a concept which allowed uninhabited areas or land without a legislative system to be claimed) – the British took possession of part of what is now Australia and called it The Colony of New South Wales. 

The colony maintained its penal character for almost another hundred years, despite the fact that many other settlers and not just convicts also arrived. Partial lawlessness, alcohol, epidemics, segregation and racial discrimination for the next 150 years led to social exclusion and a dismal quality of life for the Aboriginal population compared to their non-Aboriginal counterparts.

But some areas of what is now the Commonwealth of Australia did not deny civil rights to indigenous people in the 19th century. In the colony of South Australia, for instance, Aboriginal women were eligible to vote long before non-Aboriginal women in Sydney and Melbourne. But following 1901 when federation occurred, the legal status of non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people was not equal.

The struggle for Aboriginal autonomy and equality began before World War II. In 1938, the Aborigines Progressive Association designated January 26 as day of mourning – 150 years after the arrival of the First Fleet of convicts. This moment is seen as the beginning of the road to equal rights for Aboriginal people. The civil struggle continued in the 1960s with student “freedom rides” that drew attention to unequal conditions and discrimination against Aboriginal people.

The federal government granted the Indigenous population legal status in stages – as recently as the 1950s, Aboriginal Australians did not have the right to vote in federal elections, to marry freely, to care for their own children, to move about freely, to own property or to buy alcohol. If Aborigines applied for these rights and were granted them, it meant that they had to give up their Aboriginal identity. Aboriginal people have been able to vote since 1962 (people who served in the army were an exception), they gained citizenship in a referendum in 1967, and they have been able to travel on their own passport without special permission since 1973.

The Stolen Generation is mentioned in relation to the assimilation of up to 100,000 children of Aboriginal descent who were placed in institutional care or with white families between 1910 and 1970. Since the late 1960s, successive Australian governments have struggled with social inequalities and the consequences of segregation of the Indigenous population. In recent decades, governments have presented the country as a multicultural one, fighting for diversity and respect, but to some extent, policies towards Aboriginal people have fallen short in a number of areas, and people generally believe what they want to believe. Since 1994, the 26th of January has been designated in the calendar as Australia Day.

Currently 600,000 out of a population of 26 million claim Aboriginal ancestry. Even though generations of Indigenous Australians have to some extent been able to self-govern at the community level, at the state and federal level, decisions about Aboriginal people are often made without them, and their status and quality of life has not changed as rapidly. To a large extent, communities still face social exclusion.

In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologised for past laws and policies that had inflicted “profound grief, suffering and loss” on the Indigenous population and on the 13th of February 2013, the federal Parliament passed an Act stating that Aboriginal people are the original inhabitants of the continent.

Any change to Australia’s Constitution must be confirmed in a referendum – and that is expected to happen in 2023. The call to change the Constitution in favour of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was made by over 250 delegates of Australia’s Indigenous communities at a historic summit back in 2017, where the Uluru Statement from the Heart was created.

What to do with the 26th of January

The re-education and segregation of Indigenous Australians has left an impact right across society and with it, negative emotions that continue to cause divisions in at certain moments. In recent years, the shape of traditional Australia Day celebrations has been changing. In 2021, critics renamed the holiday “Invasion Day” and demonstrations involving thousands of people took place in major cities. Statements such as “Real Australians don’t celebrate genocide” also appeared.

At the end of 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced that a referendum could be held in 2023 to amend the constitution to ensure Aboriginal representation in the federal government of Australia. There are currently six Aboriginal members in the federal Parliament (in the House of Representatives and Senate). The amendment to the Constitution would be to decide on the establishment of an advisory body to Government called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The Voice would operate as an advisory body to the federal parliament, the exact form of which would be decided by parliament following the outcome of the referendum.

The From the Heart campaign currently lobbies for approval of a constitutional change in favour of the creation of an Aboriginal advisory body, explaining what a referendum could bring. The initiative calls for respect and unity in Australian society, talking about how education is the key to reconciliation with the past as well as a new format for relations between people from different communities. Australia Day could be an opportunity to not only celebrate but to also actively fight for equal opportunity and it is a matter up for discussion whether to change the date for it from January 26 to another day of the year.

If you would like some film recommendations on the theme of the colonisation of Australia or the coexistence, clashes and attempts at reconciliation between the cultures, here are 10 suggestions from the AKFF team:

Walkabout (1971, N. Roeg)

The Last Wave (1977, P. Weir)

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978, F. Schepisi)

Rabbit Proof Fence (2002, P. Noyce)

Australia (2008, B. Luhrman)

Samson and Delilah (2009, W. Thornton)

Charlie’s Country (2013, R. de Heer)

The Secret River (2015, D. Reid)

Sweet Country (2017, W. Thornton)

We Are Still Here (2022, Ch. Burgoyne, D. Curtis, R. Maihi, T. Rigney, T. Worrall, B. Cole)

  • Ten Canoes (2006, R. de Heer, P. Djigirr) – první film v aboriginských dialektech


Author: Markéta Vozková

Translation: Isabella Besedová