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A coalition supports the land rights movement

Land rights for Aborigines caught the public imagination, especially within the counter-culture, among students and among city-based Aboriginal activists beginning to flex their political muscles.

More unusually, religious leaders critical of church hierarchies which had turned a blind eye to the injustices experienced by Aboriginal Australians, public intellectuals and politicians spoke out for land for Aboriginal people.

Land rights march in Melbourne, 1968

A National Missionary Council pamphlet published in 1963 states unequivocally:

It must never be forgotten that, for the most part, Australia was taken from the Aborigines by force without payment or compensation or recognition of their inherent title to the land.

In the same year Kim Beazley (snr) moved in the Commonwealth Parliament that: An Aboriginal title to the land of the Aboriginal reserves should be created in the Northern Territory.

And Joe McGinness, president of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) told the 1968 conference: ''You can't have a people without land'.

This unusual coalition was forming at a time when a tired Liberal-Country Party government was failing to read this growing national challenge to the values and power which it represented.


Black and white photo of a seated audience. - click to view larger image
FCAATSI conference, Canberra, 1968

On Good Friday, before the official opening of the annual conference, the Aboriginal and Islander caucus of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) discussed a resolution that the Council launch a national petition:

urging the granting of land rights and rights to compensation with respect to all existing Aboriginal Reserve land throughout Australia, and the provision of a secure compensatory right to land for all Aboriginal individuals and groups seeking to live on, use, and develop land in traditionally occupied areas.

The 1968 FCAATSI conference was televised and, a week later, Channel Seven showed a documentary which recorded an emotional and outspoken debate between the Aboriginal participants.

Accusations of injustice and exploitation were levelled at the Queensland government, the Victorian government, the Vestey Pastoral Company and Japanese pearling interests in the Torres Strait.

President Joe McGinness told the conference: 'You can't have a people without land.' McGinness applauded Don Dunstan's Aboriginal Lands Trust Act 1966 (South Australia), the first such legislation in Australia.

It provided for the transfer of ownership of Aboriginal reserves from the Crown to the Aboriginal people through a Trust Board comprised wholly of Aboriginal members.

At the same time, McGinness criticised the Northern Territory Lands Bill which allowed transfer of a lease to non-Aborigines after seven years, thereby permitting Aboriginal reserve lands to be lost forever to their traditional owners.

This conference was attended by William Wentworth, the minister in charge of Aboriginal affairs, and Dr HC 'Nugget' Coombs, Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, a body which had been established by the government of Harold Holt in response to the 1967 Referendum. Coombs demonstrated a careful sympathy for the idea of an Aboriginal land title.


Aboriginal Lands Trust Act, number 87 of 1966, South Australia, 1966, National Archives of Australia.

J McGinness, Presidential Report, Easter 1968, FCAATSI, Council for Aboriginal Rights (Vic.) Papers, MS 12913/10/8, State Library of Victoria.

'No Longer Silent Sufferers: Natives Speak Out', Sydney Sun, 24 April 1968.

'Northern Territory Lands Bill' supplement to Rights and Advancement, May–June 1967.

Barrie Pittock to Faith Bandler, 30 March 1968, Barrie Pittock personal papers.

Stan Smith to Barrie Pittock, 4 April 1968, Barrie Pittock personal papers.

Certain clergymen and others associated with religious bodies played a key role in publicising the arguments for land rights in 1963. The National Missionary Council identified land as the first of four major issues requiring urgent consideration.

The Methodist Commission on Aboriginal Affairs recommended that the Commonwealth government appoint an Aboriginal Lands Commission, and the Society of Friends (Quakers) held a seminar on Aborigines which examined land policy.

The Victorian Council of Churches brought Aboriginal people from Gippsland, Warrnambool, the metropolitan area and elsewhere in Victoria to a consultation with non-Indigenous activists. Aboriginal title to land was a key agenda issue.

Representatives from the main Christian churches (with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church), as well as the Victorian government, Aboriginal agencies and universities, attended.

At the national level, Frank Engel presented the case for land rights to an Australian Council of Churches meeting in 1965. The meeting passed a resolution to 'encourage public discussion of Aboriginal entitlement to land compensation'.

Barrie Pittock, a Quaker and the convenor of the Legal Reform Committee of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), wrote widely in support of land rights.

Along with the Methodist Commission on Aboriginal Affairs, he was also actively involved in developing, on behalf of the Yirrkala Aboriginal people, a legal challenge to the proposed Nabalco mining venture in Arnhem Land.

Many of these writers couched their arguments in moral terms, as did Frank Engel when he praised the South Australian Parliament for showing the way to 'set right a moral obligation'. Aboriginal people were asserting their identity, and it was not yet too late, Engel argued, 'as it may be in the United States, to establish sound relationships between the races'.

The involvement of churches and religious bodies considerably widened the support base for Aboriginal land rights.


Frank Engel, Turning Land into Hope, Federal Council of Churches, Melbourne, 1968, p. 16.

Abschol, a student body formed to provide financial support for Aboriginal scholars, had by the late 1960s grown into a political lobby group. It was a vocal supporter of land rights. It provided support in many forms: fundraising, architectural and construction work for the community at Wattie Creek, boycotts and a 24-hour vigil for land rights.

This vigil, planned to coincide with the launching of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) land rights petition, was attended by hundreds of students and other supporters in all mainland capitals.

The press also supported the campaign. The Age, for example, reported:

This is a unique demonstration. No-one ever before has stood for 24 hours to emphasise a point of principle on behalf of Aborigines to ask that they receive land rights. And ten years ago no-one believed there ever would be such a protest — because Aborigines virtually were the forgotten people.

The vigil supported the principle of land rights being applied across the country. The battle between the Gurindji underdogs and the powerful Vestey leaseholders at Wave Hill brought this principle dramatically to life.


John Jost, 'Aboriginal Lands Vigil Nation-wide', Age, 20 June 1968.

Anthropologists such as Bill Geddes and Bill Stanner wrote in academic journals and in daily newspapers in favour of land rights.

Charles Rowley, principal of the Australian School of Pacific Administration, which trained welfare officers for work in Northern Australia and in New Guinea, developed the case for a system of land tenure for Aboriginal Australians in an article published in Oceania in 1962.

These writings were given a much wider readership when they were reprinted in On Aboriginal Affairs. A bi-monthly periodical edited by Ian Spalding, On Aboriginal Affairs brought information about Aboriginal issues together and disseminated it broadly amongst those interested in the position of Aboriginal Australians.

Spalding's own editorials effectively synthesised key issues and their public debate. His editorial, 'Aboriginal land rights', pointed out the Australian failure, compared to other colonising countries, to consider this 'right'.

The arguments opposing land rights were put by the federal Cabinet, the Department of the Interior (dominated by Country Party concerns), and the Northern Territory Pastoralists Association. Peter Nixon, Minister for the Interior, set out Cabinet's opposition to land rights.

William C Wentworth, MHR, supported the Gurindji claim for land but he could not persuade Cabinet, which had offered the Gurindji access rights to the land they were occupying instead of title to it. This intensified support for the Gurindji and land rights generally.

The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), Abschol and the Victorian Council for Churches protested to Nixon. The Australian Council of Churches Division of Mission sent a telegram to the Prime Minister, John Gorton, supporting Gurindji claims for return of tribal land and requesting a government review of policy.

Aware of the government's habit of seeing communists as the main force questioning the status quo, Frank Engel added:

Support for Gurindji is not, repeat not, limited to Communists.

Communists, Christians, unionists, students, academics and others were all critical of the government's handling of the land question.


Alan Ramsey, 'Wave Hill rebels win their case on land rights', The Australian, 2 July 1968.

Text of a telegram in a letter from Engel to Pittock, 28 August 1968, Barrie Pittock personal papers.

From mid-1968 to mid-1969, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) campaigned intensively for land rights, with land rights marches continuing over the next four years.

Public meetings were held where people could listen to Gurindji leaders such as Mick Rangiari set out their case for a right to land.

A petition for the recognition of Aboriginal land ownership was drawn up by FCAATSI. Plans were developed to train speakers, lobby parliamentarians, distribute the petition to all states, publicise the campaign, and keep up a regular stream of letters to the editors of metropolitan dailies in order to attack the opposing arguments put by the pastoralists' lobby.

FCAATSI also published a booklet setting out the case for land rights which it distributed widely. More than 100,000 people signed a petition which argued that 'common justice and international standards require recognition of traditional ownership rights of indigenous people'.

In August 1968 the campaign became international when FCAATSI launched its 'Land into Hope International Appeal'. This placed the issue before international bodies such as the World Council of Churches, the United Nations, and other bodies.

Political campaigning, and the legal challenge against Nabalco mining in Arnhem Land, ensured that this issue would not be resolved until the federal government took genuine action to create an Aboriginal title to land.


FCAATSI, report of the Aboriginal and Islander Session, April 1968, Barrie Pittock personal papers.

FCAATSI news statement, n.d. but August 1968, Barrie Pittock personal papers.

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