Torres Strait governance structures and the Centenary of Australian Federation: A missed opportunity?

Author/editor: Sanders, WG
Year published: 1999
Issue no.: 184


In his 1993 Boyer lecture, Getano Lui (Jnr) called for a change in the status of Torres Strait governance structures within the Australian federation, nominating the Centenary of Federation on January 1, 2001 as a possible time for change. In 1996, the Commonwealth Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs initiated a Parliamentary Committee inquiry into greater autonomy for the people of Torres Strait, which reported favourably in 1997. This report was not, however, greeted all that favourably by Torres Strait Islanders and it now seems unlikely that any significantly new governance structures for Torres Strait will be in place by the Centenary of Federation. This paper attempts to explain why.

The paper begins with a review of existing Torres Strait governance structures and the processes of political change taking place within them during the 1990s. It then considers the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committeeís report and reactions to those recommendations. It argues that the Parliamentary Committee made some ill-conceived and inappropriate recommendations because it did not understand processes of political change occurring in Torres Strait during the 1990s and did not come to grips with the strength and depth of Islander feelings of distinctiveness from Aboriginal Australians. It examines government responses to the Parliamentary Committee inquiry and further Islander reactions in the light of these. In its final section, the paper argues that while there have been missed opportunities along the way, the Centenary of Federation was, in fact, always an ambitious timetable for the reform of Torres Strait governance structures. There are significant unresolved issues still to be addressed among Islanders and there have, in recent years, been other more pressing issues to attend to, such as native title. The Centenary of Federation has proven to be not so much a missed opportunity for Torres Strait governance structures as just bad timing.

ISBN: 0 7315 2619 8

ISSN:1036 1774

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