Aboriginal affairs

Whilst Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser pushed through a Liberal Party policy in line with the Whitlam government’s land rights agenda, despite opposition from those in the party connected to mining and pastoral interests. The Whitlam government had introduced land rights legislation for the Northern Territory, in large part a response to the famous Guringji walk-off, but was dismissed before the legislation was passed. One key difference between Whitlam and Fraser was the move away from the rhetoric of “self-determination” to that of “self-management” and “self-sufficiency”.

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act became law in December 1976. It provided recognition of Aboriginal land ownership and established the Aboriginal Land Commissioners, Aboriginal Land Trusts and the Aboriginal Benefit Trust Account, leading to the establishment of numerous Land Councils. The Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act 1976 provided for the establishment of Indigenous councils and for incorporation of Aboriginal associations.

The Fraser government lobbied state governments to follow the national example with land rights legislation. They were successful in New South Wales and South Australia, but met serious opposition in Queensland and Western Australia. As Fraser was a keen supporter of states’ rights, he did not over-rule those opposed. The conflict with Queensland led to the passage of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Queensland Reserves and Communities Self-Management) Act 1978 to provide for the self-management of two reserves, but this led to a stalemate when the Queensland government simply revoked the reserves.

Other important issues during Fraser’s Prime Ministership included the establishment of the Community Development Employment Project and the Ranger Uranium Mine. After a review on the working definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs developed an administrative definition of Aboriginality based on descent, self-identification and community recognition. In 1982, 16-year-old John Pat was killed in police custody in Western Australia, leading to widespread protests that eventually resulted in the 1987 (under the Hake government) Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

According to Margaret Simons, Fraser later regretted that his government had not done more on Aboriginal affairs. For Fraser, Aboriginal affairs were part of a broader human rights agenda, evidenced by his active opposition to Apartheid in South Africa.

Fraser’s support for Aboriginal rights including land rights was an important factor in his growing rift with the Liberal Party from the late 1990s. In 1997, Fraser unsuccessfully lobbied Liberal Party leaders against preferencing Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. He was also publicly critical of Liberal Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to recognise the Stolen Generations and he actively supported the Reconciliation movement. An outline of his views on the history of government policies in relation to Aboriginal people can be found in his Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture at the Northern Territory Unviersity in 2000.

Malcolm Fraser and others speaking with Aboriginal Australian representatives

Image: Malcolm Fraser and others speaking with Aboriginal representatives during an official visit to the Northern Territory, 1978. 2005.0104.00156


Biography of Malcolm Fraser, written by Margaret Simons, in Elizabeth Masters and Katie Wood, Malcolm Fraser: Guide to archives of Australia's prime ministers, National Archives of Australia, 2010.

Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons, Malcolm Fraser: The political memoirs, The Miegunyah Press, 2010.

Coral Dow and John Gardiner-Garden, Overview of Indigenous Affairs: Part 1: 1901 to 1991, Australian Parliamentary Library, 2011.


Correspondence from organisations ‘N’, including the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, 28 May 1975 – 8 December 1975. 2006.0018,box 6 item 37

Electorate correspondence relating to health programs and grants in Victoria and Tasmania, includes brochure 'Government expenditure on Aboriginal programs 1982-83', file titled “Aborigines”, 1981 – 1982. 2007.0012, box 4 item 50

Electorate correspondence, file titled “Churches: correspondence relating to claim by Aborigines for freehold title over Framlingham Forest, Western Victoria”, 1980. 2007.0012, box 6 item 84

Electorate correspondence relating to House of Representatives debate on preferential treatment for Aboriginal housing contracts, etc, file titled “Stawell timber industries”, 21 September 1978 – 13 December 1978. 2007.0012, box 18 item 312

Electorate correspondence relating to the Warrnambool Aboriginal Learning Centre and other matters, file titled “Warrnambool Institute of Advanced Education”, 9 June 1978 – 2 September 1977. 2007.0012, box 20 item 336

Correspondence file Titled “Northern Land Council”, 1978-1995. 2005.0083, box 54 item 357

Correspondence file Aboriginal Affairs/Northern Land Council, including correspondence to the Liberal Party opposing changes to the Land Rights Act, and papers relating to Ambassadors for Reconciliation. 2005.0083, box 78 item 467-469

Parliamentary documents

Copies of questions upon notice in the House of Representatives, including Aboriginal Affairs, Nos 497-3343, 1974-4 November 1975. 2006.0021, box 1 item 1

Minutes to the Minister regarding various matters, including Aboriginal education, 12 September 1970 – 20 September 1972. 2007.0023, box 20 item 398

Opposition Leader’s Senior Advisor’s research material, “Aboriginal affairs”, 20 June 1975 – 30 July 1975. 2007.0013, box 1 item 2

File titled “Australian Labor Party extravagance: related to Arnhem Land Aboriginal facilities”, December 1975. 2007.0013, box 2 item 14

Subject file titled - Discrimination of employment, equal pay/minority employment - women, “aborigines”, 1973. 2006.0014, box 4 item 39

Liberal Party

Federal Campaign Committee (including Aboriginal affairs policies), 23 October 1975. 2006.0022, box 1 item 14

Shadow Cabinet minutes (including discussion of Aboriginal Land (Northern Territory) Bill 1975), 3 November 1975. 2006.0022, box 4 item 51

Shadow cabinet working papers (including Aboriginal affairs), March 1970 – 27 October 1975. 2006.0022, box 4 item 54

Correspondence with Liberal Party branches and secretaries regarding preferences with One Nation, 1998. 2005.0083, box 73 item 447


In 1978, the Fraser government oversaw the implementation of self-government in the Northern Territory when a fully elected legislative assembly was established. To mark the occasion, Malcolm and Tamie Fraser toured the Norther Territory, meeting with Aboriginal leaders and communities. The University of Melbourne Archives holds both colour and black and white, official and unofficial photographs of the tour. The can be found on UMA’s online image database, run a search for 2005.0104

Radio talks and press releases

Northern Territory, press statement, 26 April 1959, 2007.0023.0417

Changes in Social Services payments, press statement, 9 October 1959, 2007.0023.0435

“Aborigines”, electorate radio talk, 14 – 17 July 1957, 2007.0023.0352

Voting rights for “Aborigines”, press statement, 25 June 1961, 2007.0023.0044

Yirrkala people, press statement, 6 October 1963, 2007.0023.0126

Two constitutional amendments: numbers in parliament and aboriginal rights, press statement, 5 December 1965, 2007.0023.0229

Proposed referendum, press statement, 1967, 2007.0023.0502

Aboriginal welfare, press statement, 29 September 1967, 2007.0023.0523

Departmental changes announced in the Governor General’s speech, press statement, 15 March 1968, 2007.0023.0291

Referendum on Aboriginal rights, press statement, 26 April 1968, 2007.0023.0294

Ministerial changes, electorate radio talk, 2 – 6 May 1971, 2005.0072.0004

Aboriginal affairs, Thursday Island turtle farm, press release, 14 October 1973, 2005.0072.0078

Post-parliamentary speeches

The Past We Need to Understand, Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, Northern Territory University, Darwin, 24 August 2000

Rerum Novarum Lecture, Catholic Commission for Justice, Development and Peace, 17 July 2001

National Sorry Day 2003, Great Hall of Parliament, Canberra, 26 May 2003

National Sorry Day: Journey of Healing, Sydney Opera House, 26 May 2004

Launch of Wisdom Man by Banjo Clarke, 5 March 2005

Recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, Courting Controversy Public Lecture, Melbourne Law School, Wednesday 12 October 2011