Worlds of Education

The positive force of student activism for Indigenous Australian rights

published 20 September 2023 updated 25 September 2023
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October 14, 2023. A normal date for most people around the world, but in Australia, it is the date to change history.

On the 14th of October 2023 Australians will descend upon the polling booths to vote on a constitutional referendum to recognise “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia” and to constitutionally enshrine a body- a Voice- which will make “representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” [1].

You may ask why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples aren’t already recognised as the First Peoples of Australia; despite the more than 65,000 years of history and connection with our country.

Unlike New Zealand [2], Australia does not have a treaty. Upon invasion there were no negotiations or collaborations with the Indigenous peoples. The opposite in fact; the British claimed terra-nullius- a legal term meaning “land over which no previous sovereignty has been exercised” or plainly, “nobody's land”. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were dehumanised: enslaved, raped and massacred, children were stolen from their families, and people died from diseases that plagued the lands after colonisation. The exact number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who died in the years following invasion is unknown but some estimates are as high as one million.

It was not until 1948 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were granted Australian citizenship, 1962 that we were granted the right to vote, and until the 1967 referendum that we were counted as a part of the national population.

"Student activists played a large role in amplifying voices of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students while challenging norms and demanding societal change."

Since colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been subjected to cultural erasure, faced inequality of opportunities, and incomprehensible socioeconomic disparities. However, we continue to advocate for equity, reclaim culture, and advocate for positive change and unity within Australian society. To reshape Australia's laws thus far, activist groups have been the main driver of change. Particularly, student activists played a large role in amplifying voices of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students while challenging norms and demanding societal change.

The Indigenous land rights movement of the 1960s- 70s serves as an early example of the positive impact of student activism. Spearheaded by organisations like the Student Action for Aborigines, student activists organised rallies, and engaged in public awareness campaigns. Their efforts significantly contributed to the eventual establishment of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976- a watershed moment in recognising indigenous Australians' right to Country (their lands).

Another inspiring case of student activism is the "Close the Gap" campaign. Launched in 2007, this initiative aimed to eliminate the health and life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Driven by non-governmental organisations and supported by student activists, the campaign shed a light on the dire disparities faced by indigenous communities in areas such as healthcare, educational and economic inequity. Success of the campaigns lies in the coalition of voices– students, healthcare professionals, and community members– united by the shared goal of seeking equity.

Historically across the globe student-led movements have time and again demonstrated that passionate young voices can shape the trajectory of societies. In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement was invigorated by student activists. Similarly in South Africa, the Anti-Apartheid Movement relied heavily on student solidarity to pressure institutions and governments to address inequity.

In this vain, the National Union of Students Australia (NUSA) is coordinating a campaign for a Yes vote from young Australians with a Students for Yes campaign. Awareness drives, social workshops, and collaborating with allies are all a part of our campaign. We know that the Voice referendum will be won person by person, and conversation by conversation. The NUSA also campaigns for Indigenous students when lobbying the government; putting Indigenous student rights in the forefront of the minds of our federal politicians. A phenomenal recent win was in the latest release of the Australian Universities Accord where it was announced that “all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Australia will be guaranteed a Commonwealth supported place…”. Clearly, we provide a platform to amplify the concerns, experiences and voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Student activism, often dismissed as youthful idealism, has consistently showcased its transformative potential. In Australia, student activism has been a driving force in creating positive change for indigenous communities. From land rights to education and healthcare reform, the impact of student-led initiatives cannot be overstated. Our actions reverberate far beyond campus boundaries, inspiring society to listen, learn, and act. As we continue to raise their voices, we are creating a positive change to create a stronger, more inclusive Australia for all.

2. ^

Treaty of Waitangi, 6 February 1840.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.