Treaty timeline: Events from 1835 to today

This timeline charts Australia's way towards a treaty with its Aboriginal people from the early beginnings in the 1800s to the present day.

Australian treaty timeline

While other countries have entered treaties with their indigenous peoples, Australia hasn't done that – yet. In recent years, Aboriginal people's calls for a treaty (or Makarrata) have finally been listened to.

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  1. Victoria has a so-called treaty with Wurundjeri people, covering land from Geelong to Melbourne. One of Melbourne's founders, John Batman, presents deeds which claim to have signed over the land in exchange for axes, flour and other European goods. But the agreement (now also called 'Batman's treaty') is almost immediately overturned by New South Wales Governor Sir Richard Bourke, as NSW was the overseeing colonial government of the area.

  2. John Batman attempts to make a ‘treaty’ with Aboriginal people for Port Phillip Bay, near present day Melbourne by ‘buying’ 243,000 hectares with 20 pairs of blankets, 30 tomahawks, various other articles and a yearly tribute. Governor Bourke does not recognise the ‘treaty’ and the purchase is voided. This is the only time colonists attempt to sign a treaty for land with Aboriginal owners.


  1. Saxe Bannister, the first Attorney General of NSW, first promotes the idea of an Australian treaty with Aboriginal people in a Submission to the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Aborigines. The retired Governor Arthur of Tasmania also urges that same Committee to consider treaties with the Aboriginal people of Australia.


  1. John Batman negotiates a treaty with the Kulin people but this was declared invalid by the Governor of Victoria as it was carried out by a private citizen rather than the Crown. Little more was heard of treaties for nearly 100 years.


  1. The Senate unanimously passes a resolution put by Senator Bonner urging the Australian government to acknowledge prior ownership of Australia by Aboriginal peoples and to introduce legislation to compensate them for dispossession of their land.

  2. Australia ratifies the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, guaranteeing self-determination to Aboriginal Peoples.


  1. The National Aboriginal Conference resolves that a treaty should be concluded between Aboriginal people and the Australian government. It decides to use a word from an Aboriginal language for the process: Makarrata, a Yolngu word.

  2. A group of prominent non-Aboriginal Australians form the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, chaired by economist Herbert Cole 'Nugget' Coombs (the first Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia). For five years the Committee tries to educate and persuade non-Aboriginal Australians to the idea of a treaty. It receives no support from the government.

    A national consultation is initiated, culminating in a report of the federal Parliament that recommended the government consider a treaty.

  3. Protesters at Capital Hill, Canberra, demand the the federal government to enter treaty negotiations with Aboriginal people. The Prime Minister advises that he would discuss the matter of a treaty with the National Aboriginal Conference, the elected body representing Aboriginal people. The NAC, aware of the government's opposition to the word 'treaty', chooses to use the Yolgnu word 'Makarrata', which was first published as meaning 'the resumption of normal relations at the end of a conflict', but later known to mean 'pay-back killings between families or tribes'.

  4. Aboriginal activist Kevin Gilbert writes to the Prime Minister identifying the key issues of Aboriginal Nations' sovereignty, the need for a treaty, and a Bill of Rights.

    In his reply, the prime minister concludes that he and his government are prepared to consider a treaty with the elected body the National Aboriginal Conference.

    I shall be pleased to discuss the concept of a treaty with the National Aboriginal Conference.

    — Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser


  1. The Australian government takes issue with using the word 'treaty' in the context of Aboriginal sovereignty in a letter by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Peter Baume: "Although the word 'Treaty' is occasionally used in the domestic context... [it] is ordinarily used to refer to a kind of international agreement. In that sense it is clearly inapplicable to any form of agreement between the Commonwealth and Aborigines since the latter are not a 'nation'."

    The Senate resolved on 24 September 1981 that the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs should examine the feasibility... of servicing a compact or Makarrata between the Commonwealth Government and Aboriginal Australians.

    — Peter Baume, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs
  2. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr. Peter Baume, writes to the then Chairperson of the National Aboriginal Conference, Mr. Bill Bird, in response to a letter advising him of the 27 items that had emerged as a preliminary list of matters that were being considered for inclusion in the Makarrata/treaty.


  1. The National Aboriginal Conference developed its own proposal which created a way for every Aboriginal nation to negotiate its own treaty, compact or agreement and it avoided nations being forced into a single national proposal.

  2. The Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs is presented with a recommendation that an amendment to the Constitution for the Treaty-making process should be the same form as Section 105A of the Australian Constitution, which would then enshrine Aboriginal inherent sovereign rights. The Fraser government gives in-principle support to this proposal.


  1. The Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, in its report Two Hundred Years Laterrejects the idea of a treaty because it believes that the Aboriginal peoples were not a sovereign entity and so they could not enter into a treaty with the Commonwealth.

    The Standing Committee favours a compact which could eventually be inserted into the Constitution by referendum. (The word "compact" is used here with the meaning of "a formal agreement between two or more parties, states, etc.", or "a contract".)

  2. Prime Minister Bob Hawke stops negotiations, withdraws funding from the National Aboriginal Conference and shuts down the treaty processAboriginal attitudes to the idea of a treaty are also varied and far from unanimous in the 1970s and 80s.


  1. The National Aboriginal Conference identifies 27 key aspects that were continually emerging in community consultations across this country.


  1. Kevin Gilbert publishes Aboriginal Sovereignty, Justice the Law and Land where he explains First Nations' sovereignty position and to educate people on what sovereignty is and its inherent rights.

  2. In the lead up to the Bicentennial celebrations then Prime Minister Bob Hawke says that he would like to see the Bicentenary produce some sort of understanding or compact with Aboriginal people whereby the Australian community recognises its obligations to rectify some of the injustices of the previous 200 years.


  1. A statement of Aboriginal aspirations is presented to Mr Hawke at the Barunga Festival ("The Barunga Statement"). The Prime Minister responds by calling for a treaty to be negotiated between the Aboriginal people and the government of Australia.

    There shall be a treaty negotiated between the Aboriginal people and the government on behalf of all the people of Australia.

    — Prime Minister Bob Hawke


View article sources (3)

[1] 'Victorian Government to begin talks with First Nations on Australia's first Indigenous treaty', ABC News 26/2/2016
[2] [2a] 'Makarrata v Treaties', Sovereign Union 18/8/2017
[3] [3a] ''That Word' Treaty - The Value of Historical Insights', National Unity Government, retrieved 22/6/2016

Cite this page

Korff, J 2022, Treaty timeline: Events from 1835 to today, <>, retrieved 20 July 2024

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