Monash University

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Aborigines, law and the settler state: the Gove land rights case and political change, 1968 – 1972

posted on 2017-02-09, 02:23 authored by Viney, Fiona Marjorie
In this thesis I consider the influence of the Gove land rights case on Australian culture and political discourse between 1968 and 1972. For much of the twentieth century Australian governments did not recognise indigenous polities or rights. But in the early 1970s this changed. In this thesis I argue that the Gove land rights case played a critical role in this development and seek to explain why and how this occurred. Most importantly, I suggest that the ideas articulated by lawyers and anthropologists throughout this case not only constructed a certain notion of Aboriginal difference but that this eventually changed the way that the federal Liberal-Country Party government, led by Prime Minister William McMahon, thought about its Aboriginal policy, and that this prompted it to formulate an Aboriginal land rights policy. In doing so I draw into question the account of historians who have argued that this government's support for an assimilation policy led it to reject the notion of land rights for Aboriginal groups. I suggest that these historians have failed to grasp the impact of the Gove land rights case and have overlooked the novelty of the conservative federal government's response to this. I also assess the influence that a redemptive legal narrative about 'native title' had upon the Australian press, the public and political leaders after the highly publicised defeat of the Yolngu people's case in the Northern Territory Supreme Court. I argue that this made it difficult for the McMahon government to articulate the reservations it had about a land rights scheme and to propose an alternative approach to Aboriginal policy. Finally, I suggest that the redemptive native title narrative and the related ideas about the nature of Aborigines that were initially articulated by the lawyers for the Yolngu plaintiffs in the Gove case still constrain settler Australian conversations about Aborigines and Aboriginal policy.


Principal supervisor

Bain Attwood

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies


Master of Arts

Degree Type



Faculty of Arts

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