FAIRA was established in 1975 following a Queensland State-wide meeting of the Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council. The council recommended that an organisation be created to change the legislation known as the ‘Black Acts’.
This legislation was first enacted in 1897 as the Aboriginal Preservation and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act. This legislation was the law to remove all Aboriginal people from their territories and place them on reservations in Queensland. The law became known as the ‘Black Acts’ of Queensland and stayed in force, with amendments and updates until the 1980s. Under the Black Acts reserves continued to operate and ‘Protectors’ managed the lives and financial interests of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
The Black Acts and Queensland Racism
FAIRA created a joint project with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service to undertake a survey of the people throughout Queensland, particularly those kept on reserves, to ask them what they wanted from legislation to meet their needs in contemporary Australia. The survey was the largest ever conducted throughout this nation and the results provided strong statistical information for change. In particular, the survey revealed that our people wanted the Commonwealth Government to be responsible for services to their population and those living in reserve communities.
FAIRA compiled a comprehensive report consisting of a historical account of the Black Acts, the results of the survey, and recommended legislation including the concept of a treaty between the government and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. After submitting this comprehensive proposal to the Queensland Government FAIRA then decided to release the submission in a publication called ‘Beyond The Act’. The publication was launched in 1977 and gained wide attention throughout the State, creating momentum for a change in the nature of policy and laws in Queensland.
Five years later new laws were enacted, influenced by the FAIRA campaign. The Community Services Act ended the reserve / protectorate system, created community self-government with elected councils, and handed reserve lands over to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ownership through community trusts. This represented a huge change in policy, with principles which continues today under self-management arrangements and a limited system of Land Rights in Queensland.
Through this period in the 1970s and early 1980s, Queensland was still operating as a very racist State, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were frequently targeted by police in townships and openly abused in the justice system, employment opportunities, housing and shelter, and in public places and businesses. FAIRA had early contact with the Whitlam government to overcome the racism in Queensland. FAIRA participated in the efforts to generate overriding legislation called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Queensland Discriminatory Laws) Act 1975. This legislation nullified discrimination contained in State legislation, and addressed issues such as legal rights, freedom of movement, and employment.
FAIRA also supported research undertaken by the University of Queensland to determine the level of racial discrimination in Townsville, regarding Aboriginal access to housing and employment. This study highlighted the stark difference in the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons by service providers and employers.
Much of the work undertaken during this early period focussed upon the racism in society, particularly in matters of homelessness, housing and employment. FAIRA campaigned to raise awareness of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, particularly in the reserve communities and rural towns. Our organisation has a close relationship with Ministers, agencies and organisations concerned with racial discrimination.
Land Rights in Queensland
FAIRA formed alliance with the North Queensland Land Council, created under the leadership of Mick Miller, to lead the Land Rights campaign in Queensland. Although FAIRA focussed upon the region of southern Queensland we took direct action for the Autonomy of Aurukun and Mornington Island, and for the Torres Strait Island communities. We helped distribute the community Land Rights newspaper – Messagestick – produced by Shorty O’Neill and brought public attention to State government oppression of the Palm Island community, which sought greater autonomy.
Our activism in Queensland saw FAIRA leadership during the 1982 Commonwealth Games protests in Brisbane. Bob Weatherall and Les Malezer undertook a six week journey around Africa to urge Commonwealth countries to boycott the Brisbane Games, because of the continuation of the Black Acts at the time, and the refusal to recognise Land Rights in Queensland. FAIRA was able to meet with governments in Zambia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Nigeria. FAIRA also met with official of the Organisation for Africa Unity, based in Ethiopia. FAIRA received strong support from those government contacts although a boycott was not possible to achieve.
National Land Rights
Over the years FAIRA has continued to campaign for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights in Queensland, giving special attention to cultural heritage protection and Land Rights issues. FAIRA became an active organisation in the National Federation of Land Councils, at the time meeting under the leadership of Patrick Dodson, then CEO of the Central Land Council.
In the early 1980s we worked with the Hawke Government to help build the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage legislation, then preparing the way for national Land Rights legislation, based on principles embodies in the Aboriginal (Northern Territory) Land Rights Act 1976. As history now knows that national Land Rights legislation was abandoned by the Hawke government, in an attempt to save the Labor government in Western Australia.
Our organisation maintained contact with Eddie Mabo during his legal battle for Land Rights in the Torres Strait. During this period we established the newspaper called Land Rights Queensland. This newspaper was circulated widely throughout Queensland and raised awareness understanding of the campaign for Land Rights as well as the various policies and legislation that operated in Queensland and other States and Territories.
Along with our advocacy for Land Rights in Queensland and Australia FAIRA challenged the inadequate laws in Queensland, known at the time as the Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act of 1967. This law was completely inadequate, not protecting areas of cultural or heritage significance to our people, but simply identifying archaeological items which verified the existence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander occupation of Australia. Our continuous efforts over many years saw the emergence of national law to protect our cultural heritage, followed by law introduced by the Queensland government to protect landscapes of cultural significance.
Our work also gave much attention to the ‘brass plates’ given to our ancestors during colonial invasion, which purported to identify kings or queens within out communities. These efforts to select elders or leaders of our communities resulted in these brass plates become burial objects, when the holders died, or collectors items in Australia and internationally. FAIRA proclaimed such items to be of historical significance and property belonging to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. However, given the physical existence of the brass plates they were treated as collector items by property owners, international researchers and historians, and commercial operators. FAIRA was not able to recover these items as they were treated as belongings of the possessor who had collected them for curiosity value, and were given a market value which was unable to be met by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interested parties.
FAIRA sought to have brass plates protected as burial items, widening the area of interest to any other items placed with the bodies of ancestors. Ultimately this concern grew as FAIRA collected more information about burials and the historical practice of stealing Aboriginal / Torres Strait Islander bodies for examination and research. FAIRA developed a national program to identify Aboriginal ancestral remains in Australian collections and institutions, and to demand return of those remains to their burial sites and descendant communities. We built data base of known collectors and collections and lobbied institutions – museum, universities and medical organisations – to return the ancestral remains. FAIRA also visited communities around Australia to gain widespread approval to undertake our research into the collections and holdings in Australia and overseas. We have developed extensive protocols, in conjunction with communities, to control the information and handling of ancestral remains for repatriation.
Having achieved a modicum of success and receiving some government support to identify collections FAIRA was then assisted by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATISC) to identify collections in the UK, Europe and North America for repatriation to descendants in Australia. We undertook that work for many years. Sadly, the Australian government, after abolishing ATSIC, withdrew the funds to FAIRA for repatriation of Ancestral remains. FAIRA continues to express concern and take actions over foreign holding of Ancestral remains, burial objects and significant cultural materials and has worked diligently with the United Nations and international organisations to develop international standards and laws recognising and assisting Indigenous Peoples rights to cultural heritage and ancestral remains.
As FAIRA grew more involved in national and international support for Land Rights and Aboriginal / Torres Strait Islander heritage protection we learnt about the international interests of other Indigenous Peoples and the developing unity between Indigenous Peoples to form international alliances.
In the 1970s, when FAIRA began its campaign to overturn the Black Acts of Queensland we prepared and sent a detailed submission to the International Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). This submission set out the discriminatory aspects of Queensland’s laws relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The submission provided a collection of official government reports, mostly from the national government, which considered the laws to be racially discriminatory. This was an effective strategy which led to scrutiny and criticism of the Queensland laws, providing a boost to our campaign efforts in Queensland, and also signalled our intention and capacity to fight against racism and for Aboriginal Land Rights in the international arena.
In 1981 FAIRA attended the 3rd General Assembly of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) hosted in Canberra by the National Aboriginal Conference. This event was a significant development at the international level in the coordination between Indigenous Peoples of the world and a step towards participation at the United Nations by Indigenous Peoples.
FAIRA tuned its attention to the United Nations and international advocacy fifteen years later, when the Howard government was elected to office and threatened the Native Title laws in Australia. FAIRA joined a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres `Strait organisations to lobby international support from governments in the UK, Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands. The coalition group then went to Geneva to attend a session of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples. The connection with Indigenous Peoples around the world was inspiring, and FAIRA developed a strong interest in the international efforts to draft a declaration of human rights for Indigenous populations around the world. Since that time we have maintained constant contact and participation with the United Nations.
Every year since 1996 FAIRA has actively participated in the United Nations, initially to overcome racism in Australia, but ultimately to establish in the United Nations a strong platform for Indigenous Peoples of the world to gain recognition and participate in the various mechanisms and structures of the UN. During these early years we attended the forums established to draft a declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Subsequently we became an integral part of the drafting exercise, working in coalition with Indigenous Peoples’ delegation from the Pacific region as well as all other regions of the world.
In 2002 FAIRA gained accreditation to the United Nations as an NGO in General Consultative Status to ECOSOC. We also gained accreditation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM), after forming the Commonwealth Association of Indigenous Peoples (CAIP). FAIRA also is accredited to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).
By Year 2006 the work at the UN on the drafting of this human rights standard was near completion and the Indigenous Peoples united to form a strong strategy to have the draft adopted as a Declaration of the United Nations. The FAIRA chairperson, Les Malezer, was nominated and elected to be the coordinator for the regions of the world, representing the seven regions of Indigenous Peoples – Arctic, North America, Latin America, Pacific, Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe. In this capacity the FAIRA Chairperson addressed the UN General Assembly, when the resolution to adopt the Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples was formally adopted by the UN General Assembly, on 13 September 2007.
International Human Rights Mechanisms
FAIRA participated extensively in dialogues with human rights mechanisms as much as possible. Our first contact was with a ‘treaty body’ under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. We then attended the meetings of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, UN working Group on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.
FAIRA expanded its interests to dialogue with the human rights treaty bodies, including the Human Rights Committee (under Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
In line with other delegation of Indigenous Peoples FAIRA advocated for the establishment of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, under ECOSOC, and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples under the Human Rights Commission. FAIRA participated in the creation of the special mechanism of the Human Rights Council, known as the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. FAIRA has worked closely with these mechanism over the past two decades and, during 2016 and 2019 the FAIRA chairperson was an official member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
There are a number of ‘Special Rapporteurs’ established under the UN Human Rights Council, including the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. FAIRA has maintained close contact with many of these special mechanism, including inviting the SR on Indigenous Peoples to visit Australia on two occasions. FAIRA will continue its contact with these international human rights expert mechanisms, but now concentrates upon having Australian laws and policies adopted domestically in Australia, giving the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples the legal recognition of their rights. FAIRA also will continue to combat racism in Australia through international mechanism whenever the domestic remedies are not found or not available.
Commonwealth of Nations
FAIRA has recognised and understood that colonisation of Australia has characteristics that are visible and recognisable in other parts of the world, namely in the nations that were formerly under the British Empire. It is a feature that many of the Commonwealth nations do not have policies and laws which promote and protect the human rights of the Indigenous Peoples. Perhaps the first and most important of these characteristics is the system of government and the constitutional foundations of the Commonwealth nations. These inherited systems often lack recognition of Indigenous Peoples and their territories, and continue to exploit the labour, lands and resources of the Indigenous Peoples. FAIRA, in its role with the Commonwealth Association of Indigenous Peoples (CAIP) has participated in CHOGM meetings in Coolum, Abuja and Malta. CAIP has also participated in meetings of Indigenous Peoples in London, India, Fiji, South Africa, and Guyana. In the Commonwealth networks we have linked with lawyers, judges and parliamentarians from various countries, leading us to believe that juridical developments in Commonwealth countries can, and should, operate as precedents in other linked nations.
National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples
In 2010 FAIRA joined the new structure, known as the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. ATSIC had been abolished by the Howard government five years before and the incoming Labor government supported the establishment of a national representative body created to function independently of government controls. Although concerned about the structure and resourcing of the National Congress, FAIRA reasoned that a national body was required and agreed that its independence from government could allow self-determination to develop.
FAIRA chairperson, Les Malezer, was elected by national vote to fill one position of Co-Chair of National Congress. (Jody Braun was elected also as Co-Chair). Although improvements to the structure of National Congress was possible, the national assembly agreed at the first meeting to not consider changes in structure until the organisation was stabilised. The FAIRA chairman served two terms as the elected leader of National Congress.
The Abbott Liberal – National government came into power soon after the National Congress was formed, and quickly withdrew the money in the federal Budget allocated to National Congress the previous year. The organisation went into receivership a year later and has been suspended from operation.
Soon after the national summit at Uluru produced the Statement From The Heart document, calling for a Referendum to create and Aboriginal ‘Voice to Parliament’ amongst other recommendations. This recommendation was officially rejected by the government primarily because the government did not believe that such a Referendum would be supported by the majority of Australians. The other recommendations – that a Makarrata Commission be established to supervise truth-telling and agreement (treaty) making – has been ignored by the national government to date.
FAIRA has not given support to the government’s announcement that it will legislate a Voice to the Parliament. There are many reasons but the core issue of concern is that a voice to the parliament has already been created in the past – notably ATSIC – and the parliament abolished it without sufficient justification. FAIRA continues to advocate that a national voice designed and controlled by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is required if our human rights are to be promoted and respected. FAIRA is prepared to support the revival and reinstatement of the National Congress, under supervised circumstances.
Stop Racist Law-Making and Black Incarceration
FAIRA is giving priority to the Rule of Law, by taking action to stop all Parliaments in Australia from freely passing or upholding racist laws. To achieve this FAIRA is calling for regulating SPECIAL MEASURES intended to benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination their is a requirement for governments outlaw racism in their nations. This creates and obligation for laws, policies and administrative arrangements to treat all persons equally, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or religion. This is an international obligation to eliminate such racism.
A caveat exists for acts to be exempted where they are ‘special measures’ or ‘concrete measures’ intended to overcome disadvantages and inequality. Inequality can be overcome by special measures, such as to improve employment opportunities, raise education standards or reduce poverty etc, providing such measure discontinue on the inequality is overcome. The International Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has provided criteria to determine whether acts of racial targeting are special measures or racism. These criteria, which establish international standards for law-making and adjudication, are ignored in Australia by the parliaments and the judiciary.
The criteria call for clear goals and measures to be established to understand the benefit to be achieved through racial targeting. They are required to be temporary measures and cannot be permanent laws. They must be monitored and, if required, revised to ensure that benefits are being achieved. They must also have the consent from the people intended to benefit from the special measures. The High Court of Australia has rejected these criteria, claiming that the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 does not need to meet these standards. The parliaments, it says, can decide for themselves that race-based laws are beneficial, have the consent from intended beneficiaries, and can last forever.
The parliament and judiciary in Australia reject such criteria in order to function in an unaccountable environment and penalise the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population and to inhibit the rights and freedoms of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. In this manner land owners, miners and non-indigenous Australians can continue to be the beneficiaries of Australian lands, territories and resources, without compensation.
Protect Aboriginal Rights Through Law
FAIRA is campaigning to have the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples implemented in law in Australia. The constitutional standards in Australia do not allow international human rights to become law in Australia unless the parliaments pass domestic law to recognise those rights. Australia was colonised in 1788. The High Court’s Mabo case established that the colonisation of Australia was racially discriminatory, denying that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples their rights. The High Court accepted that the racial discrimination was not illegal because there was not anti-discrimination law at the time. It was not until 1975 that Australian law had an obligation to protect the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.
Regardless, laws and regulations have been implements at all levels of government in Australia to inhibit the rights and freedoms of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. Many such laws continue to be administered in such a manner that Aboriginal children are taken from their families and communities. Aboriginal youth are detained as if they are criminals and adult Aboriginals are 20 times more imprisoned that non-Indigenous Australians. The main crime of Aboriginal people is that they are poor, choose to live amongst their own population and resent the way they are depicted and treated by government authorities.
The Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples is a human rights standard, predicated on the principal that all peoples, and all individuals are equal and have rights of freedom and equality. The Declaration has unique approach by identifying that Indigenous Peoples are equal to all other Peoples of the world, This reflects the Charter of the United Nations and the order upon which global governance is founded. The Declaration does not create any new human rights, but rather it identifies particular rights, those rights which have been steadfastly ignored over the recent centuries when imperialism sought to exploit the lands, the labour and the resources in the new world. The rights in the Declaration are the rights enjoyed by all peoples living in a free world, and are taken for granted. But they are the rights which have been steadfastly denied to the Indigenous Populations by invading and dominant societies.
The Declaration considers that States (nations) have obligations to promote and protect the rights of the Indigenous Peoples. The also have a right to respect the treaties that have been reached with Indigenous Peoples
At the United Nations the State members have committed to overcoming racial discrimination and to acknowledge and respect the right of self-determination by Indigenous Peoples. States unanimously agreed that they should work in partnership with Indigenous Peoples, respecting their right to free, prior and informed consent for any matters which affects their lives and interests.
In Australia we are yet to see any element of the rights of Indigenous Peoples.