Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
A leading edge in the Uniting Church's justice work is its efforts to bring indigenous and non-indigenous Australians together and to support the indigenous community generally. Reconciliation, land rights and indigenous leadership training are among areas in which the church is engaged.
As early 1978, the newly-formed Uniting Church found itself in the midst of a struggle between the rights of Aborigines at Aurukun and Mornington Island (former Presbyterian missions) and the Queensland Government, which was anxious to allow mining to proceed.
Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen granted a 1,900 square kilometre mining lease to a mining consortium under extremely favourable conditions. With support from the church, the Aurukun people challenged the legislation, eventually winning their case in the Queensland Supreme Court. But they ultimately lost it when the Queensland Government appealed to the Privy Council in England.
The Uniting Church's Commission for World Mission had determined that relationship to the land was all-important to Aborigines. A fighting fund set up by the church, used for community organising at Aurukun and Mornington Island, raised over $100,000.
On the other side of Australia, the Noonkanbah crisis also helped identify the Uniting Church position on land rights and mining. Noonkanbah was a cattle station that had been purchased by the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission for two groups of Aborigines. They had earlier been employed there but had walked off the station in protest at wretched conditions. From the mid-1970s, the Aborigines at Noonkanbah worked to make it a viable enterprise.
Oil was discovered at sacred sites near Noonkanbah, and although the Heritage Act protected the site, this was overridden by the Western Australian Minister for Mines. Uniting Church members were among a group of people arrested for peaceful protest against the government's decision to proceed with mining. Again the Uniting Church learned of the significance of land rights to Aboriginal people -- and the cost involved in supporting them.
Congress and covenanting
In 1982, Aboriginal and Islander leaders of the Uniting Church from across Australia met at Crystal Creek, near Townsville. They resolved to form the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress to take responsibility for ministry with indigenous people in Australia and encourage the development of indigenous leadership.
The Congress was formally established in 1985. At one of its first meetings it expressed grave disappointment at the Hawke Government's abandonment of universal land rights.
A decade after events at Aurukun, 1988 — Australia's bicentenary — provided a perfect opportunity to make white Australia aware of the Aboriginal side of history. The March for Freedom, Justice and Hope in 1988, bringing together Aborigines from all over Australia to celebrate their survival, was the vision of the late Rev. Charles Harris.
It was also in 1988 that the Uniting Church pledged itself to a covenanting process initiated by the Congress. Covenanting, a biblical concept, in this case meant the developing of relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous people at all levels of the Uniting Church. It attempted to address the question of "How are we to live together when 200 years of injustice and violence have divided our people?"
The Uniting Church made a detailed submission to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Islander Children from their Parents. At the meeting of its Assembly in 2000 the church called on the Federal Government to appropriately deal with the issue of the stolen generations through a national apology and a tribunal process which would, hopefully, enable the real pain and trauma of those effected by indigenous child removal policies to be addressed in a non-adversarial way. The Uniting Church was particularly concerned that the Government had been unable to deal with this issue in a way that assisted the healing process for the nation in general and stolen generations people in particular.