First Australians and the Assembly

Before self-government

First Australians have inhabited the Canberra region since the last ice age more than 20,000 years ago. In that time, multiple nations have overlapped within the region. The Territory was a hub of activity for before colonisation with an estimated 3,000 heritage sites across found the region today, including those used for corroborees, women’s and men’s business, and camps.

A series of firsts

Little is known of Indigenous engagement with the pre-self-government institutions such as the Advisory Council (1927-74) or House of Assembly (1975-86). However, the first ACT Legislative Assembly did not take long to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.

Indigenous affairs were first discussed on 24 March 1989, the third-ever sitting of the Assembly, during a motion which recommended passing a heritage protection law be a priority for the new parliament. Several members spoke about the specific need to protect the ancient and sacred sites significant to Canberra’s Indigenous peoples.

The first major Indigenous affairs law passed by the Assembly was the Native Title Act 1994, which was passed following the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision. The Mabo decision rejected the doctrine of terra nullius (that the land belonged to no-one upon British colonisation) and opened the way for native title claims over land. The Act facilitated the ACT’s participation in a national scheme for determining native title claims.

The preamble to the Act preamble states that:

Before European settlement, land in Australia had been occupied, used and enjoyed since time immemorial by Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders in accordance with their traditions.

Land is of spiritual, social, historical, cultural and economic importance to Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders.  In the Australian Capital Territory, there are sites that provide evidence of their use by various groups of Aboriginal peoples at different times for a variety of purposes.

Since European settlement, many Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders have been dispossessed and dispersed.

However, some Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders have maintained their ancestors’ traditional, customary or historical affiliation with particular areas.

In 1997, the Assembly became the first Australian parliament to display both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags in a legislative chamber. It came after a motion by Member for Molonglo Kerrie Tucker calling for the two flags to be added to the Australian and ACT flags was passed on 4 December that year.

The ACT did not have a designated minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs until the Seventh Legislative Assembly, when then-Chief Minister Jon Stanhope took on the role. As of 2020, five other members have held the position since.

Dr Chris Bourke MLA
The Assembly's first Indigenous member

Chris Bourke was the first Indigenous member to the Legislative Assembly, serving from 2011 until 2016. His election in June 2011 occurred coincidentally during that year’s Reconciliation Week. A proud Gamillaroi man, Dr Bourke was a minister from 2011-12 and again in 2016. Some of his portfolios included Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Education, and Children and Young People.

He was Australia’s first Indigenous dentist and had practiced in both Canberra and remote Australia before being elected to the Assembly.

Our reconciliation journey

There have been three major milestones to date in the Assembly’s reconciliation journey with our region’s Indigenous peoples.

Addresses from the Bar

On 26 August June 1997, Aboriginal representatives spoke to the Assembly from the Bar of the House. Speaking from the Bar is a rare honour, as it is the only way a non-elected citizen can directly address a parliament during a sitting. Representatives were invited to speak after the Assembly formally apologised to local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for the role of  pre-self-government institutions in enforcing and supporting forced separation policies. Agnes Shea, John Williams-Mozley, Yvonne Mills, Maureen Bates-McKay, Caine George, and Br Graham Mundine all addressed the Assembly. You can read the Hansard transcript of the addresses here.

The possum-skin cloak

On 11 May 2019, a group of Ngunnawal women presented the Assembly with a possum-skin cloak. It is the first cloak made by the Ngunnawal people in over 150 years, after the practice subsided due to colonisation. The possum pelts, which make up the cloak, bear intricate and highly personal designs from each of the women and detail their connections to Country. It now holds pride of place in the Assembly foyer where it is on permanent display as a symbol of our ongoing commitment to reconciliation with the indigenous peoples of the ACT.

Play the video below to find out more about the possum skin cloak.

Source: ACT Government/CIT/Office of the Legislative Assembly [Length: 2 minutes 45 seconds]

Ngunnawal language Acknowledgement of Country

Since 2002, the Assembly have regularly acknowledged the traditional custodians of the ACT. In November 2019, the Assembly voted unanimously to begin delivering the Acknowledgement of Country an at the start of every sitting day in Ngunnawal language. It was delivered for the first time on 20 July 2020 and marked a significant milestone in the Assembly’s reconciliation journey with the local Ngunnawal people. The use of an indigenous language Acknowledgement was also a first among Australia’s parliaments. Click here to read more about the Acknowledgement and watch its first delivery.

The Ngunnawal language Acknowledgement became part of a larger project among the Ngunnawal people to rebuild their language. The project began with AIATSIS in 2014 with no fluent living Ngunnawal speakers and only 250 remaining words. Since then, it has reconstructed 2,500 words, including much of the language used in the Assembly’s Acknowledgement of Country.