PM promises referendum on recognising indigenous people in nation's constitution.
Fifty years ago, the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land presented two petitions framed by ochre bark paintings to the federal Parliament, asking that government plans to lease their land to mining companies be shelved.
The petitions - which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described yesterday as a "Magna Carta for the indigenous peoples of this land" - failed to prevent bauxite mining going ahead. But they set off a debate that led to Aboriginal people being given the vote and, after a long, hard struggle, land rights.
Rudd, who attended 50th anniversary celebrations in the Arnhem Land community of Yirrkala yesterday, used the occasion to promise that his Government, if re-elected, would hold a referendum within two years to have Aboriginal people recognised in the constitution.
"No more delays, no more excuses, no more buck-passing. It's time the nation got on with this business," said Rudd, urging the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, to "get his act together ... [and] join in that journey".
However, Abbott accused him of playing politics, saying the Coalition was already committed to constitutional recognition.
The first petition, signed by 12 clan leaders from the Yolngu region, protested about plans announced by Robert Menzies' Government in February 1963 to excise 300sq km of Arnhem Land so that Nabalco could mine for bauxite. After the validity of the signatures was challenged by the Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, the clan leaders sent a second petition bearing thumbprints.
Wali Wunnunmurra, 17 at the time, and one of the few signatories still alive, told ABC radio this week: "Minerals to Aboriginal people at that time was a foreign idea. The old people saw them as pinching our land while they were digging for minerals, taking away land from us - something very, very serious in Aboriginal culture."
Mining did go ahead near Yirrkala, and a massive bauxite refinery was built at Gove, 20km to the north.
But the petitions set off a debate that led to the Land Rights Act in 1976 and, in 1992, to the High Court's Mabo decision recognising Aboriginal occupation of Australia before European settlement. It also paved the way for the 1967 referendum in which indigenous people were recognised as citizens and given voting rights.
And, in time, Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land and elsewhere have come to see some mining projects as sources of income and employment.
At yesterday's ceremony, Rudd said: "These bark petitions present a bridge between two ancient and noble traditions. Eight hundred years ago, we had Magna Carta; 800 years later, the Yirrkala bark petitions ... both an assertion of rights against the Crown and both therefore profound symbols of justice for all peoples everywhere."