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Aboriginal Western Australia

Aboriginal passportThere was little for Aboriginal people to celebrate when Australia federated in 1901. Deliberately excluded from participating in the new Commonwealth of Australia, they faced government and community racism. In Western Australia the passing of restrictive and discriminatory legislation stripped them of their rights - the right to work where they wished and enjoy the same conditions and entitlements as white people, the right to spend the money they earned as they saw fit, the right to raise their families in an Aboriginal culture, the right to health care, the right to enter public places such as hotels, the right to live where they wanted and the right to own land.

In order to enjoy the same rights white Western Australians took for granted, Aboriginal people had to apply for a passport granting them citizenship in their own country. Even those who fought for Australia during the Second World War were not recognised for their service. The experience of Norm Harris was common to many.

It was not until 1967 that a referendum finally granted all indigenous people Australian citizenship and transferred responsibility for Aboriginal affairs from the States to the Commonwealth. Although granted the vote in Western Australia in 1962, it was not until 1983 that voting was compulsory for Aborignal people. Nonetheless, since 1967 conditions for Aboriginal people in the West have improved but remain significantly below those enjoyed by white Australians. There are still large differences in the state of health, education, housing and employment between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.

Since 1967 Commonwealth legislation has recognised the rights of Aboriginal people - the most important being the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 which made it illegal to discriminate on racial grounds. State legislation in the form of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 was also introduced to provide for the protection of places and cultural objects of significance to Aboriginal people, although this was amended in 1980 to give the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs the power to grant a 'consent to disturb' order for Aboriginal sites.

Without a doubt the issue of most importance to Aboriginal Western Australia at the turn of the century is native title. It is seen as inextricably linked to the racism and discrimination experienced by Aboriginal people. Following the Mabo and Wik High Court rulings, which found that common law recognised the pre-existing rights of indigenous people, Commonwealth/State relations have been tested by differing perspectives on this issue.

As the question of native title is resolved through litigation and negotiation involving State, Commonwealth and private parties, Western Australia's Aboriginal communities represent the survival of a culture in the face of discrimination and indifference. Dominated and overwhelmed by Anglo-Saxon culture during nearly two hundred years of colonisation, Aboriginal people have adapted and survived.

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