Aboriginal reconciliation

Key points

  • Reconciliation is about improving the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
  • Reconciliation aims to address the inequity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that was introduced with the colonisation of Australia in 1788.
  • Reconciliation is promoted by developing an understanding of how history has shaped the life experiences of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia. It's based on a commitment to social justice, mutual understanding, respect and trust.
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  • Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that links contained in this assignment starter may include names or images of people now deceased.

Corroboree 2000: sharing our future photo.

Corroboree 2000: sharing our future, 27-28 May by Loui Seselja. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia picture collections.

What is reconciliation?

Reconciliation means knowing this country's history and acknowledging the bad as well as the good. It means understanding and embracing difference, of language, of culture, of law. Linda Burney Former Chair of NSW State Reconciliation Committee, 1999

Reconciliation aims to build better relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people as a way of stopping the cycle of disadvantage. It's also about raising awareness and knowledge of Aboriginal histories and cultures and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, and changing incorrect attitudes built on myth, misinformation or prejudice.

According to the NSW Aboriginal Reconciliation Council some of the major themes of reconciliation for Indigenous Australians include:

  • being recognised as the first people of Australia
  • the right to self-determination
  • compensation for past injustices
  • the elimination of racism and discrimination
  • closing the gaps in health, social and economic outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Celebrating reconciliation

National Reconciliation Week is held every year between 27 May and 3 June. These dates are significant because 27 May marks the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum where more than 90 per cent of Australians voted to give the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and include them in the national census.

On 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia legally paved the way for native title through the Mabo decision, which recognised that Indigenous people had a special relationship with the land that existed before colonisation.

Movements leading up to reconciliation

The Referendum

It took Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their supporters 10 years before both sides of Parliament agreed on a referendum  which was held to ask the Australian people whether the constitution should be changed to allow the Commonwealth Parliament the power to make laws for Indigenous people and include them in the census like the rest of the country's citizens.

The Freedom Ride

In February 1965, a group of University of Sydney students organised a bus tour of western and coastal New South Wales towns. Their purpose was threefold. The students planned to draw public attention to the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing. They hoped to point out and help to lessen the socially discriminatory barriers which existed between Aboriginal and white residents. And they also wished to encourage and support Aboriginal people themselves to resist discrimination. The students had formed a group called Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) in 1964 to plan this trip and ensure media coverage.

Charles Perkins, an Arrente man born in Alice Springs, who was a third year arts student at the university, was elected president of SAFA. The group included Ann Curthoys who would later write a history of these events, Jim Spigelman who would later become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and Darce Cassidy, an arts student who was also a part-time reporter for the ABC.

In 1964, a University of Sydney protest against racial segregation in the United States had brought comments from members of the public urging students to look to their own backyard if they wanted to draw attention to racial discrimination. This led to the planning of a fact-finding trip to western New South Wales towns so students could see for themselves the conditions of life for Aboriginal people.

Equal Wages Campaign

In 1966, Aboriginal activist Vincent Lingiari led the Gurindji people to walk off the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory. The original strike began over wages and living conditions, but shifted to the Gurindji people demanding the return of their traditional lands. The strike lasted seven years. In 1975, Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam poured earth into Mr Lingiari's hand as a symbol of the giving of a lease of 3,300 square kilometres to the Muramulla Gurindji Company.

Tent Embassy

On 26 January 1972, four Aboriginal men – Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams – dug a beach umbrella into the grass in the front of Parliament House in Canberra along with a sign saying it was the Aboriginal Embassy. The following day others joined the group and erected tents. The protest was in response to a policy issued by the McMahon Government that refused to recognise Aboriginal land rights. The Tent Embassy, as it became known, attracted national attention and thousands of people joined in protests at the site. Police dismantled the embassy in July 1972, however since that time more have been built to symbolise Indigenous people's struggle for land rights.

Formalisation of reconciliation

Reconciliation was launched formerly in Australia as a result of the Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The report had shown how the disadvantages Indigenous Australians experienced had been a product of the history of dispossession. Through the support of the Australian Parliament, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was established in 1991 after the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991 was passed.

Other aspects of reconciliation

Stolen Generations

The Stolen Generations refer to the Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families and homes through official government policy up until 1969, when the Aboriginal Welfare Board (formerly the Aboriginal Protection Board) was abolished. It's not known how many children underwent the trauma of this policy but almost every Aboriginal family has somehow been affected by it. In 1997, the Bringing them home report was tabled in Australian Parliament the day before the opening of the National Reconciliation Convention. One of the report's major recommendations was that all Australian Parliaments say sorry to the Stolen Generations for the devastation the policy had caused.

National Sorry Day

In 1998, National Sorry Day was created by the National Sorry Day Committee to remind Australians of the continuing effects of removing children from their families. The committee also aims to oversee the recommendations from the Bringing them home report.

Corroboree Bridge Walk

On May 2000, more than 250,000 people took part in the Corroboree 2000 Bridge Walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge. Organised by Reconciliation Australia  the aim of the event was to promote greater understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The event also highlighted the absence of an apology to the Stolen Generations by the Commonwealth Government.

Apology to the Stolen Generations

On 13 February 2008, Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologised to Australia's Aboriginal people, particularly the Stolen Generations and their families and communities, for the policies which had "inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians".


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