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Historical milestones

Historical milestones

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this exhibition includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Key events in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history 1967–2005

This timeline includes events of national importance in the life of Australia's Indigenous people after the 1967 Referendum paved the way for the adminstration of Aboriginal affairs becoming the responsibility of the federal government.

The late 1960s

1967 Referendum: Administration of Aboriginal affairs becomes the responsibility of the federal government.

1967: Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt creates two bodies in the Department of Prime Minister: the Council for Aboriginal Affairs (CAA), an advisory body, and the Office of Aboriginal Affairs (OAA), whose role is to implement policy and administer legislation.

Black and white photograph showing three women and a man walking under a banner which reads 'BLACK CONTROL OF BLACK AFFAIRS'. The woman on the left carries an Aboriginal flag, the next woman along carries a large bunch of white flowers and a man to her right carries a small sign. More people are partially visible in the background.
Protesting for self determination, a photograph from the ATSIC Melbourne office.

The 1970s

1971: Land rights activists set up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy opposite Parliament House in Canberra. 
More on the Aboriginal Tent Embassy

1973: Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam establishes the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee as an advisory body to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The Committee is an elected assembly of 40 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and effectively replaces the Council for Aboriginal Affairs.

1973: The Department of Aboriginal Affairs is created as the agency with responsibility for Aboriginal affairs policy, administration and programs, replacing the Office of Aboriginal Affairs.

1973: The Aboriginal Arts Board is set up to raise awareness of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts.

1974: The Aboriginal Land Fund Act is passed to help in purchasing land.

Black and white photo showing a meeting room with numerous Indigenous people sitting at tables arranged in a rectangular formation.
This photograph captures the first National Aboriginal Consultative Committee meeting held at the National Library of Australia in Canberra on 13 December 1973.

1976: The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act is passed, the first attempt by the Australian Government to legally recognise the Aboriginal system of land ownership.

1976: The National Trachoma and Eye Health Program begins.

1977: Malcolm Fraser's coalition government conducts a review of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee and replaces it with the National Aboriginal Conference. It has a broader system of representation and is an advocate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander political rights.

1978: The Northern Territory passes the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Bill, leading to the establishment of a permanent authority for the protection of sacred sites.

Black and white photo showing the side profile of a man at left. He has whitish-grey curly hair and a beard and extends his right hands towards another man, who has his left hand raised and holds a glass in the right. The man on the right wears a striped suit and paisley tie and is smiling.
Lardil artist Dick Roughsey, left, and Herbert 'Nugget' Coombs at the 1974 farewell party held for Dr Coombs by the Australian Council for the Arts.
National Archives of Australia.

The 1980s

Colour photograph showing Charles Perkins in side profile. He wears a dark blue jacket, white shirt and black tie and stands speaking at a microphone. An Aboriginal flag is partially visible in the background.
Charles Perkins addresses the crowd at the 10th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra, 1982. National Archives of Australia.

1980: The Aboriginal Development Commission replaces the Aboriginal Land Fund, to promote development, self-management and self-sufficiency. Arrernte and Kalkadoon man Charles Perkins, senior bureaucrat and campaigner for Aboriginal rights, is appointed the first chairperson of the 10-member board.

More on Charles Perkins

1980: At Nookanbah, the Western Australian government drills for oil near sacred sites.

1980: Link-Up is founded to help Aboriginal people taken from their families as children reunite with their families.

1982: Brisbane Commonwealth Games protests attract international attention.

1984: Charles Perkins is appointed to the highest government position held by an Aboriginal person: Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

1985: Ayers Rock/Uluru is handed back to traditional owners and is subsequently leased back to the government as the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

1985: Bob Hawke's Labor government dismantles the National Aboriginal Conference following a review.

1988: Survival Day is marked by Aboriginal people while mainstream Australian society celebrate the bicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet on 26 January.

1989: ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, starts operations after more than two years of hotly contested debate. It is intended to combine representative and executive roles, through an organisation of regional councils and a national board elected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It takes over the roles of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the Aboriginal Development Commission.

The 1990s

1991: The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation is established.

1991: The report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody is published.

1992: 'Terra nullius' — the doctrine that Australia was 'no man's land' — is overturned by the High Court, because of the Mabo land rights case.

A black and white cartoon drawing featuring men dressed in legal robes who are landing on a beach in a rowing boat, and approaching two indigenous men, one of whom is holding a document labelled 'MABO'. The cartoon is signed 'Moir'. The work is framed with glass, double mats, and a black wooden frame.
Sydney Morning Herald cartoonist Alan Moir's take on the 'Mabo treaty' in 1992, when the High Court overturned the doctrine that Australia was a 'no man' land'.

1992: Prime Minister Paul Keating delivers the 'Redfern speech' acknowledging past injustices to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

1993: The Native Title Act is passed.

1996: Wik people are successful in a High Court case to establish that native title and pastoral leases could co-exist.

1997: Bringing Them Home is published, revealing the firsthand stories of children taken from their families.

1998: The Australian Government suspends the Racial Discrimination Act as part of a 'ten point plan' to modify/limit the Native Title Act.

1998: The Native Title Amendment Act is passed, extinguishing some native title rights.

1998: The first national 'Sorry Day' is held to remember the 'Stolen Generations'.

1999: The Australian Government issues a 'statement of deep and sincere regret' over the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their communities, but does not apologise.

A colour photo showing 'SORRY' written in white vapour trail against a blue sky. The foregrounds shows an urban skyline with the top of a crane visible at the left and multi-storey buildings rising to the right.
'Sorry' painted in the sky during Corroboree 2000. National Library of Australia.

The 2000s

A colour poster featuring a black and white photograph of a man in a white shirt, dark pants and thongs. The photograph has a yellow handwritten signature 'Charlie Perkins' printed across it. Text framing the photograph reads 'SURVIVAL / 2001' 'A CELEBRATION OF INDIGENOUS CULTURE / & A TRIBUTE TO CHARLIE'. The poster includes a list of perfomring artists on the right and sponsor logos along the bottom.
'Survival 2001' poster featuring Charlie Perkins, celebrating his life and showing him at his defiant best during the Freedom Rides campaign of the 1960s. Photo: Katie Green.

2000: Corroboree 2000 is held as the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation nears the end of its 10-year life.

2000: Nova Peris Kneebone begins the Olympic torch relay at Uluru, Cathy Freeman lights the cauldron at the Sydney Olympics and wins a gold medal in the 400-metres event.

2000: The Australian Government denies that a 'Stolen Generations' exists.

2000: Lifelong activist and administrator Dr Charles Perkins AO dies.

2003: Following a review of ATSIC, John Howard's coalition government announces the establishment of a new executive agency, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services. ATSIS takes over from ATSIC responsibility for administering programs and making decisions on funding for grants and other services.

2005: ATSIC, the peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative body, is abolished and closes at midnight on 24 March. Regional offices continue to operate until 31 June.

Responsibility for programs formerly managed by ATSIC and ATSIS are transferred to mainstream departments and agencies and a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisers are appointed to advise government and indigenous issues.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone orders artworks and objects of value to be removed from ATSIC offices.

A collection for the future

After the closure of ATSIC, no one knew what would happen to the artworks and objects that had been removed from the organisation's office across the country. Many staff members felt it was important that everything should be kept together. The entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection is now part of the collection of the National Museum of Australia, where the objects can be preserved, studied and displayed in the future.

This highly significant collection illustrates an important part of Australia's history. It is entwined with the story of the relationship between government and Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from 1967 to 2005.

Many of the artworks and objects are also things of great beauty. And all of them are like objects in a time capsule — a time capsule representing the regional and stylistic diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture over nearly 40 years.

Explore more about the collection

After ATSIC

To coincide with the Off the Walls exhibition, the National Museum of Australia asked various high profile Indigenous people:

  • How did you feel when ATSIC was closed?
  • Do you feel there is a need for an Indigenous representative body, and if so, should that body provide services for Indigenous communities?

This 'Reflections on ATSIC' video includes responses from Mark Bin Bakar, Geoff Clark, Mick Dodson, Alisa Duff, Jackie Huggins, John-Paul Janke, Greg Lehman, John Moriarty, Lowitja O'Donoghue, Bess Price, Irene Stainton, Gordon Syron, Francis Tapim and Peter Yu. Duration: 13:31.

The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples

After the closure of ATSIC, the Australian Government appointed an advisory body, the National Indigenous Council, to provide advice on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues. However, following the election in 2007 of a Labor government, the Council was abolished.

In 2009 a steering committee, chaired by Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tom Calma, recommended the formation of a new independent body, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples.

This congress commenced operations in 2010. It is responsible for providing advice to government on, and advocating for, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. However, it is not responsible for providing funding or programs to communities, as ATSIC had done, nor is it answerable to government.

The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples website