Australia’s Indigenous Peoples Stride Toward Freedom

Robert J. Burrowes

The declaration of the Aboriginal Provisional Government in Australia on 16 July 1990 marks a watershed in the history of the indigenous struggle for sovereignty, land rights and self-determination in Australia.

For more than 200 years, indigenous peoples have struggled relentlessly to resist the physical and cultural genocide perpetrated against them following the British invasion and illegal occupation of the Australian continent in 1788.1 This struggle has been waged on many fronts.

Particularly during the nineteenth century, there was considerable violent resistance (often against overwhelming odds) to the many acts of violence, including organised massacres, conducted by non-Aboriginal settlers. There were also attempts by indigenous peoples to negotiate a political solution to ‘the white problem’.2

During the twentieth century, the struggle has included conventional political activity designed to pressure the government to reform racist legislation or to enact legislation designed to guarantee certain rights for indigenous peoples. More recently, it has included legal challenges designed to highlight the illegality of the occupation (based on the erroneous notion of ‘terra nullius’: ‘nobody’s land’), the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the ongoing denial of their right to self-determination.

Importantly however, and notably absent from the (poorly documented) historical record, throughout the entire period of non-Aboriginal occupation indigenous peoples have also waged an unrelenting nonviolent struggle for sovereignty, land rights, self-determination and for the maintenance of their cultural identity. This nonviolent struggle has taken many forms and has included a wide variety of actions entailing protest, noncooperation and nonviolent intervention.

Classically, it included resistance to attempts to submerge indigenous identity and culture, noncooperation with white-imposed ‘Aboriginal’ organisations and reoccupations of indigenous land. Moreover, it is also clear that the nature of indigenous resistance to non-Aboriginal exploitation and oppression changed over time, reflecting an astute awareness of various methods of struggle and changing political circumstances.

While the research to adequately document this nonviolent resistance is yet to be done, it is clear from the following recent and well-known examples just how widespread it has been.

According to Gary Foley it was the action of the Gurindji people in the early 1960s which first created widespread public awareness of Aboriginal resistance. Vincent Lingiari led his people off Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory in a nine year strike for wages and land rights. ‘The Gurindji land rights struggle was a great inspiration for Aboriginal people all over this country.’3

Aboriginal Tent Embassy

Aboriginal Tent Embassy

For six months from 26 January to 20 July 1972, indigenous peoples defiantly maintained an Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawn opposite Parliament House in Canberra. (Since that time, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has maintained an intermittent presence.) According to Black activist Roberta Sykes: ‘The Aboriginal Embassy is credited with bringing more immediate and much wider changes’ to Australia’s indigenous peoples than the 1967 referendum which recognised them as Australian citizens!4 It was also during this time that the Aboriginal flag was first flown; a symbol of tremendous importance to indigenous peoples and their supporters ever since.

From 1983 until 1985, indigenous peoples nonviolently occupied Oyster Cove in Tasmania. As a result, indigenous control is now widely accepted despite the lack of legal acknowledgement by governments.

On Invasion Day (26 January) 1988, over 30,000 indigenous people marched through Sydney in protest at the bicentennial re-enactment of the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’. This was the largest gathering of Blacks in protest in Australian history.5

Aboriginal protest, Sydney Harbour, 'Invasion Day' 1988

Aboriginal protest, Sydney Harbour, ‘Invasion Day’ 1988

Meanwhile, on the same day half way around the world, the artist and actor Burnam Burnam claimed England for Australia’s indigenous peoples by standing on the beach at Dover and raising the Aboriginal flag – an event which even the non-Aboriginal media vested with considerable meaning.

For several months during 1989-1990, indigenous peoples in Western Australia nonviolently occupied the old Swan Brewery which had been built on the Waugyl Spirit site. The action was designed to prevent further desecration of the site through demolition of the brewery and construction of a car park. The occupation focused national attention on the importance of sacred sites in indigenous culture.

The nonviolent struggle by indigenous people in Australia is both long and illustrious – and an important component of their struggle overall. More importantly, it has tremendous untapped potential.

Aboriginal Provisional Government

Aboriginal Provisional Government

The Aboriginal Provisional Government

This nonviolent struggle has recently taken an imaginative and radical turn with the declaration of the Aboriginal Provisional Government (APG). According to the Chairperson of the APG, Bob Weatherall, ‘The Provisional Government aims to create a new approach to the challenge of seeking justice for Aborigines by providing assertive leadership in establishing an independent Aboriginal state.’6 The aim is to establish an Aboriginal state with all of the powers that are usually conferred on governments vested with indigenous peoples.

It is clear that there is widespread indigenous dissatisfaction with the latest Federal Government initiative for the non-Aboriginal control of indigenous affairs – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). Hence, the establishment of this particular alternative organisation – a provisional government – to be run by indigenous peoples for indigenous peoples was an inevitable and necessary stage in the Aboriginal struggle. According to Bob Weatherall:

‘The last decade has not produced one single significant program by government in this country to alleviate Aboriginal hardship. There is no serious intention of returning lands to Aborigines. This shows … neglect which can only get worse unless this uncaring attitude amongst politicians is met with a different strategy through a different structure. The Provisional Government will be the new vehicle.

‘Our People talk openly throughout the country about Aboriginal sovereignty. Yet the understandable fear of reprisal amongst existing government funded Aboriginal organisations prevents them from expressing Aboriginal aspirations in a practical way. We aim to take the brunt of reaction by showing strength and commitment to our communities. We will not be bludgeoned into submission any longer.’7

According to Michael Mansell, President of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, the ultimate aim of the APG ‘is the revival of an Aboriginal sovereign State within which Aboriginal people would determine their own structure, legal system and lifestyle and thus have the final say over their day-to-day activities’. The power over crucial decisions related to local communities will remain at the local level.8

The APG will thus support existing indigenous organisations but at the same time ‘operate where no others have…. The status of Aboriginal people as a nation… the encouragement of more and more Aboriginal people speaking out, the linking up with international political groups which can assist – all are areas crucial in the operation of the provisional government’. Towards this end the APG is already issuing Aboriginal passports to Aboriginal people.9

The APG will not wait, perhaps forever, until a white government believes the political climate is right for the return of land. Instead the APG will encourage Aborigines to occupy it – as they did at Oyster Cove in 1983 – and to resist any violence intended to once again dispossess them.

It will also protect indigenous peoples sought for alleged crimes – until guarantees of safety are given. This will help to reduce the incidence of indigenous abuse and bashings by police.

Pay the Rent

The Aboriginal Provisional Government will help to focus the various elements of the indigenous struggle for sovereignty, land rights and self-determination as well as the struggle to develop a network of indigenous controlled organisations responsible for such activities as housing, employment, health care, education and legal support. In order to achieve the economic self-reliance necessary to finance this diverse range of activities, the APG has endorsed the ‘Pay the Rent’ scheme developed (from a 1950s idea) by activists associated with the Koori Information Centre (KIC) in Melbourne.

At the launch of the APG, its foundation Treasurer, Robert Thorpe, outlined the scheme. ‘The Pay the Rent concept… enables white landowners with a conscience to pay a nominal annual fee to the Aboriginal Provisional Government for the use of that land’. He further asserted that the APG ‘will not accept government funding’.10

The Pay the Rent scheme entails two components for non-Aborigines. Firstly, the acknowledgement of continuing and undiminished Aboriginal sovereignty over the Australian continent; and secondly, a commitment to paying the rent for their use of Aboriginal land. While rent would be calculated according to a number of factors, including the ability to pay and the amount of damage being done, the recommended amount for ordinary individuals is (at least) 1% of annual income. For instance, if one’s annual income is $20,000, then rent for use of Aboriginal land would be $200 per annum (or more, according to the preference of the tenant).11 One consequence of this policy is that lands that are not being rented would cease to be considered ‘Crown Land’ and would revert back to Aboriginal ownership and control.

While acknowledging Aboriginal sovereignty and paying the rent has a series of practical advantages which will facilitate the economic independence and cultural renewal of indigenous peoples, from the viewpoint of non-indigenous peoples, it provides the basis for beginning a new, meaningful and honest relationship with Aboriginal people. It is an opportunity to get closer to indigenous peoples and indigenous cultures.

The establishment of the Aboriginal Provisional Government is indicative of an assertive new era in the global struggle by indigenous peoples for sovereignty and self-determination in their own land.


1. For a detailed explanation of this point, see for instance, Reynolds, Henry. The Law of the Land. Melbourne: Penguin, 1988.

2. Reynolds, Henry. The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia. Melbourne: Penguin, 1990.

3. Foley, Gary. ‘Teaching Whites a Lesson’ in Verity Burgmann and Jenny Lee (eds). Staining the Wattle: A People’s History of Australia since 1788. Melbourne: McPhee Gribble/Penguin, 1988. pp. 203-204.

4. Sykes, R.B. Black Majority. Melbourne: Hudson, 1989. p. 93.

5. Mansell, Michael. ‘How the Bicentenary Helped the Aboriginal Nation Grow’ in Social Alternatives 8, 1, April 1989. p. 9.

6. Quoted in Weatherall, Bob. et. al. ‘Aboriginal Provisional Government News Release’, 11 July 1990. p. 1.

7. Quoted in Weatherall. p. 2.

8. Mansell, Michael. ‘Provisional Future: Provisional Solution’, The Weekend Australian 30 June 1990. p. 21.

9. Mansell ‘Provisional Future’ p. 21.

10. Quoted in Weatherall. p. 2.

11. For more information about the Pay-the-Rent scheme, contact Robbie Thorpe at

Article originally published in Nonviolence Today, 17, October-November 1990. pp. 7-9. It has been slightly revised for republication here.

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