Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples charged into the 1970s with political vigour. Land rights, equality and self-determination were set firmly in their sights.
In 1976, it was announced that Brisbane would host the 1982 Commonwealth Games, publicised as ‘The Friendly Games’. Indigenous rights groups saw this as an opportunity to use the international media attention to shine a spotlight into the shadows of government policy and treatment of First Nations people.
One of the rights groups was the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC). Formed by the Federal Government in 1977, the NAC was to be a forum for the expression of Aboriginal views. With representatives from across Australia, the Conference pursued a Treaty between the Aboriginal Nation and the Australian Government. They called this the ‘Makarrata’, a word from the Yolngu people in Arnhem Land meaning ‘coming together after a struggle, healing the divisions of the past.’
In February 1982, the NAC wrote to Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, asking the government to recognise the organisation as the ‘official representative body of the Aboriginal people of Australia’. The Minister for Aboriginal and Islander Affairs, Ken Tomkin, pointed out that the NAC was the same body that was calling for, among other things, boycotts of the Commonwealth Games and freehold leases of land. He asserted that the Queensland Government already had consultative bodies that better represented Aboriginal people, ‘who are this Government’s paramount concern’.
Later, in May, the government passed the Commonwealth Games Act, which empowered police to declare a state of emergency, arrest demonstrators in or anywhere near the grounds of the Games, and to confiscate their property. Offenders could be fined up to $2,000 or face up to two years in prison.
Despite this, in the lead-up to the international event Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples around Australia set up a National Protest Committee to organise mass demonstrations. Around 2,000 people marched in Brisbane for land rights on 26 September – Queensland’s largest Indigenous-rights march at the time. On 29 September, another 1,000 marched through Brisbane with banners, badges and stickers that read ‘Stop playing games: land rights now’. On 8 October, hundreds of people marched in Melbourne to protest the treatment of the demonstrators in Brisbane.
Throughout the Games, the protests continued, only to be blocked by barricades of police officers armed with the special Games security laws as well as the Traffic Act, which the government had amended in 1977 as a way to ban street marches.
Over the nine days of the Games, hundreds of people were arrested, bringing the issue of land rights to the attention of people across the nation and around the world.
‘… empowered police to declare a state of emergency, arrest demonstrators in or anywhere near the grounds of the Games’