Explainer: What is self-determination?

What is the meaning of the right to self-determination, especially for Aboriginal people?

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What is self-determination?

Definition: Self-determination

Dictionaries define self-determination as your personal decision to act or decide without consulting another or others and without external pressure, and the freedom to live as you choose.

Self-determination is often regarded as a right of peoples rather than of individuals (i.e. it is a collective right).

From a perspective of international law, self-determination gives you the right to freely choose your sovereignty and international political status with no interference, based on equal rights and fair equality of opportunity.

Synonyms for self-determination include accord, autonomy, choice and free will.

An example of self-determination is making the decision to participate in an event without asking anyone's opinion or permission.

Self-determination and indigenous peoples

Self-determination is a right granted to indigenous peoples across the world in Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP):

"Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development."

Self-determination involves a substantive transfer of decision-making power from government to indigenous peoples. It requires programs and resources that can assist them in rebuilding their own decision-making capabilities.

Self-determination can include everything from being actively involved in creating policies to providing services to cultural peers (rather than outside of indigenous culture) or making indigenous movies themselves (rather than by non-indigenous directors about them).

Self-determination and self-government are essential bases for making sustained improvements in the social and economic conditions of indigenous peoples.

If governance is executed the right way, for example in a culturally responsive way, data shows that indigenous peoples are "in the driving seat" of their own development.

Self-determination and Australian Aboriginal people

A poster reading 'Black control of black affairs'.
A protester holds up a poster for self-determination during a rally in Sydney. Photo: @alfiegif

In Australia, Aboriginal self-determination allows communities to make their own decisions about their social, cultural and economic needs. It does not mean that Aboriginal people or communities are separate from the wider Australian community.

Aboriginal self-determination encompasses both land rights and self-governance, as land is understood to be the economic (and in many cases spiritual) basis for Aboriginal communities to be self-governing.

With the invasion of Aboriginal lands, its people lost the right to self-determination as the European invaders dictated all aspects of Aboriginal life. This loss is the core reason for the current disadvantage of many Aboriginal people in Australia today.

Governments, however, are reluctant to allow Aboriginal communities to make their own decisions, preferring instead to decide for them. This often results in blanket decisions that are ineffective and sometimes destructive, as evidenced in the Northern Territory intervention.

Self-determination is a powerful vehicle to allow Aboriginal people to overcome the legacy of invasion and dispossession. It is one of the strongest contributors towards Aboriginal health.

Some slogans and chants Aboriginal people have used to fight for their rights and sovereignty are:

  • "We have survived"
  • "Always was and always will be Aboriginal land"
  • "Sovereignty never ceded"
  • "Pay the rent"

Do you know of another one?

Self-determination is something you take, not something a government gives you.

— Gary Foley, Aboriginal activist

Aboriginal self-governance

Definition: Governance

The National Centre for First Nations Governance defines governance as follows:

"Governance is the traditions (norms, values, culture, language) and institutions (formal structures, organisation, practices) that a community uses to make decisions and accomplish its goals. At the heart of the concept of governance is the creation of effective, accountable and legitimate systems and processes where citizens articulate their interests, exercise their rights and responsibilities and reconcile their differences."

Aboriginal governance (also called self-governance or community governance) is about how Aboriginal people organise themselves and make their own decisions about their lives. This decision-making process might be different to how non-Aboriginal people decide as Aboriginal culture often has other protocols (for example deep listening).

Any person or group who participates in the decision making process should follow three key elements:

  • Duty to consult. The duty to consult is grounded not only in the UNDRIP (see below) but also in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and International Labour Organisation Convention 169. These documents advise that consultations should always aim to achieve agreement or consent between parties.
  • Good faith. Good faith has two main aspects: cooperation and fairness. Both parties must cooperate to successfully reach an outcome, and also consider the interests of the other party (for example by giving them enough time). Mutual trust and transparency helps achieve this.
  • Free, prior and informed consent. This element describes the right of Aboriginal people to give – or not give – consent before certain actions affecting them can occur. Consent needs to be free (the other party does not use coercion or manipulation to gain consent), prior (given well in advance of starting the activity that affects Aboriginal people) and informed (Aboriginal people received full and legally accurate disclosure of information relating to the proposal).

Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples outlines these three key elements as well (my emphasis):

"States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them."

Self-governance allows Aboriginal people to talk about their interests and goals, exercise their rights and responsibilities, and resolve their differences in a culturally appropriate way. It also means that Aboriginal people can do this free of discrimination from individuals, governments or external stakeholders.

Besides self or community governance there is also organisational governance and governance of governments.

What unites Indigenous leaders around the world is a burning desire for their people to be respected, resourced properly and then left to make their own share of mistakes and their own progress.

— Jeff McMullen, journalist

Self-determination: issues and problems

Family-run dynasties

Family-run dynasties within some Aboriginal communities can weaken Aboriginal self-determination. They pretend to be community-controlled but are not operating within the strict community-controlled organisation guidelines.

Some Aboriginal communities have established a two-class system in health, housing and education where the preferred class gets quick access to programs and services while the other class has to join a waiting list.

Service providers renounce responsibility

Some service providers misuse the push for self-determination as their way out of responsibility.

They took self-determination as ‘permission’ to either abandon or ignore their responsibilities, arguing that under self-determination it was ‘inappropriate’ for them to be involved. Aboriginal health became an ‘Aboriginal problem’ that mainstream services appeared to be absolved from.

Clashing with the law

As more and more Aboriginal people work out what self-determination means for them in detail, some of their choices clash with the law of state and territory governments.

Murrumu Walubara Yidindji (formerly known as Jeremy Geia) has renounced his Australian citizenship and returned his passport, Medicare card and driver’s licence. He quit his job, gave away most possessions and walked away from his bank savings and a superannuation account built up over two decades. His car bears number plates "licensed to the sovereign Yidindji government" (reading "Yidindji - YID-001 - Pursuant to Yidindji Tribal Law"), challenging police who have never seen such a situation.

Murrumu was subsequently charged with driving an unregistered and uninsured vehicle with false plates, driving without a licence while possessing "an article resembling a licence".

Gary Tomlinson, also known by his tribal name Wit Boooka, faced a week in jail after refusing to recognise state law that forced him to provide fingerprints and DNA evidence for a charge of trespass.

Only after he was allowed to sign using his tribal name, and that his agreement to the bail conditions did not imply any concession that Queensland law had any legitimate power over him, was Boooka spared a week in jail.

When started Aboriginal self-determination in Australia?

The first expression of Aboriginal self-determination is usually said to be in 1972 when the Whitlam government abolished the White Australia Policy and introduced a policy of self-determination.

But 50 years before that Aboriginal activists already lobbied for self-determination when they formed the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) in April 1925.

The AAPA drew inspiration from the ideology and tactics of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association , founded 1914 in Africa and 1917 in the US.

Presided by Fred Maynard, the AAPA made front page news with headlines like "Aborigines In Conference—Self Determination Is Their Aim—To Help A People".

The AAPA attracted widespread support from Aboriginal communities and established 11 branches with a membership of more than 500 at a time when the Aboriginal Protection Board reported the total Aboriginal population of NSW as less than 7,000.

In its manifesto the AAPA demanded

  • 40 acres of land to be granted to each and every Aboriginal family in Australia,
  • to end the policy of child removal from their families by the Aboriginal Protection Board,
  • to replace the Aboriginal Protection Board by an all-Aboriginal body to oversee Aboriginal affairs,
  • citizenship for Aboriginal people within their own country,
  • a Royal Commission into Aboriginal affairs,
  • the federal government to take control of Aboriginal affairs, and
  • the right to protect a strong Aboriginal cultural identity.


View article sources (13)

[1] 'Can Australia follow Obama's lead?', Reconciliation News 5/2010 p.19
[2] 'The Indigenous governance and development challenge: an international conversation', Reconciliation News 23, May 2012 p.10
[3] [3a] 'Pyning for Indigenous rights in the Australian Curriculum', The Conversation 15/8/2014
[4] 'Tent Embassy and Identity', talk, Message Sticks 2012
[5] 'Governance Best Practices Report', National Centre for First Nations Governance, 2009 p. vii,, retrieved 7/11/2019
[6] 'The Declaration Dialogue Series: Paper No.3: We have a right to participate in decisions that affect us – effective participation, free, prior and informed consent, and good faith', Australian Human Rights Commission, July 2013 pp7–13
[7] 'The Search for Common Ground', Jeff McMullen, address in Parramatta Town Hall, 8/9/2010
[8] [8a] 'Equal and fair access for all', readers letter, Koori Mail 524 p.23
[9] 'It’s Time to End Indigenous Health’s Apartheid', 8/10/2014
[10] 'He renounced Australia and lives solely by tribal law. Now Murrumu is hitting the road', The Guardian 9/1/2015
[11] 'Murrumu charged after driving with licence issued by his Indigenous nation', The Guardian 27/5/2015
[12] 'Police praised on bail compromise in native title row', Gympie Times 18/8/2015
[13] [13a] [13b] 'In the footsteps of Fred Maynard', Koori Mail 393 p.34

Cite this page

Korff, J 2020, Explainer: What is self-determination?, <>, retrieved 19 June 2024

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