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The Larrakia Petitions for a Treaty and Land Rights

30 October 2019

This month, Dr Karen O'Brien looks at the Larrakia petitions for a treaty and land rights

In the Australian context of petitioning, original petitions provide an accessible historical resource about the development of Australian society. Broadly speaking, petitions incorporate the practice of ordinary citizens to influence higher level decision‐making. Although First Australians were not formally recognised as Australian citizens until 1967, they continuously voiced their opinions through the petition.  Petitions presented a way forward and a number of them, such as the Larrakia petitions, lay the foundation for later ground-breaking social and legal transformation.


First Australians quickly learned the value of presenting petitions to royalty or to the House of Commons in Westminster, having petitioned to bring about transformation in their affairs since the early days of colonisation. Some of the earliest First Australian petitions were presented in New South Wales between 1800 and 1831. Early Australian petitioning sometimes entailed the presence of an authority that might act on the petitioner's behalf.   Some of the earliest petitions were presented in letters.  Bennelong's letter, for example, written in 1796 to Governor Phillip of New South Wales, requested ‘two pairs of shoes, two pairs of stockings and some handkerchiefs.' A significant number of similar requests for items to ensure their continued existence took the form of petitions. A number of these were presented during the early interval of 1825–1831 in New South Wales.


First Australian petitioners were negotiators and upward influencers par excellence. In pursuit of justice, they often turned to diplomacy and they set down the foundations for the future.  The very act of petitioning itself validates the persistence of First Australian communities to assert their rights. The Larrakia petitions embody such First Australian diplomatic action to establish their legal right to prior ownership of land. The first sentence of the petition states ‘Gwalwa Daraniki,' which translates to ‘our land' in the Larrakia language. The Larrakia from the Kulaluk of the Northern Territory drafted the first petition in March 1972.  It requested that the federal government establish a ‘commission for the negotiation of a treaty.' A second petition, consisting of 1,000 signatures, petitioned for the establishment of formal land rights and called for recognition of their indissoluble connection to land. The petition was to be presented to Princess Margaret during her October 1972 trip to Darwin in the hope that it could be then be delivered to Queen Elizabeth II. However, when the petitioners attempted to meet Princess Margaret, they were prevented from doing so by police barriers.

Measuring over eleven feet, the immense size of the petition was intended to symbolise the extent of national feelings of support for the Larrakia requests.  The petition was sent to Aboriginal Government House accompanied by a letter signed by Robert Secretary, Fred Fogarty, David Daniels, Peter Mundine and Harry Adam, on 17 October 1972.  The letter was addressed to the Queen and was stamped by the private secretary's office at Buckingham Palace on 3 November 1972.  The letter requested acceptance of the petition signed by ‘one thousand Aboriginal people of Australia.' It noted the frustration they felt in having been prevented from placing the petition in Princess Margaret's hands.  They wrote:

We waited for twenty-four hours to give our petition to the Princess.  We wanted her to know the truth about the Aboriginal people of Australia.  We gave a note to one of the Royal Aides telling Princess Margaret that we wished to present a petition.  There was no reply.

(Petition to HM The Queen from the Larakia/Larrakia people regarding land rights for presentation during HRH The Princess Margaret's visit to Darwin, 1973 <> ('Larrakia Petition').)


The Larrakia petition was an important precursor to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) 1976. Although it is not as well recognised as some of the more celebrated petitions, such as the Yirrkala petition, it prefigured succeeding land rights conclusions and precipitated numerous positive outcomes to gain national recognition in support of land rights. Between the crucial years of 1971 and 1976, it occasioned the formulation of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) 1976. Even though the bid for a treaty was not successful, the petition embodies the unwavering disposition of the petitioners.  The assertive content of the petition was a direct response to the then Prime Minister McMahon's rejection of the request for a treaty. A gathering of Larrakia people produced the petition in the document Gwalwa Daraniki  [this is our land]. The petition requesting land rights appears below:

We, the undersigned, wish to express [sic] our support for the following appeal being made on behalf of the Larrakia Tribe of Darwin by the Aboriginal people of Australia. Gwalwa Daraniki.  This is our land.  The British settlers took our land.  No treaties were signed with the Tribes.  Today we are refugees.  Refugees in the country of our ancestors.  We live in refugee camps without land, without employment, without justice.  The British Crown signed treaties with the Maoris in New Zealand and the Indians in North America.  We appeal to the Queen to help us, the Aboriginal people of Australia.  We need land rights and political representation now.

(Petition to HM The Queen from the Larakia/Larrakia people regarding land rights for presentation during HRH The Princess Margaret's visit to Darwin, 1973 <> ('Larrakia Petition').)


Several land claims were made subsequent to the presentation of the above petition.  One Larrakia claim involved a number of claimant applications for the recognition of native title over land and waters in and around Darwin.  However, it was not considered to be ‘traditional' because a combination of historical circumstances interrupted and changed the laws and customs of the present day Larrakia people from those which existed at the time of sovereignty and the claim was denied.

In 1979, amongst great controversy, the Kenbi land claim was lodged by the Larrakia. More than 37 years later in 2016, the Kenbi claim was successful in establishing land rights over the Cox peninsula.  The decision to support the claim was widely celebrated and finally, the land was formally handed over to the Larrakia by the then Prime Minister of Australia.


Karen O'Brien is Senior Lecturer in Socio-Legal Studies in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. She is an Associate Investigator of the Australia Research Council Centre of Excellence in History of the Emotions.  She publishes widely in First Nations petitioning and rights.


Image: Petition to HM The Queen from the Larakia/Larrakia people regarding land rights for presentation during HRH The Princess Margaret's visit to Darwin, 1973 <> ('Larrakia Petition')