What Happened on May 21 in Australian History?

by oaeen
1916 – Conscription Referendum Debate

May 21 is a significant date in Australian history, marked by a series of notable events that have played crucial roles in the development and evolution of the nation. This article explores these events, providing a detailed examination of their contexts and lasting impacts on Australia.

1839 – The Arrival of the D’Entrecasteaux Expedition

On May 21, 1839, the French expedition led by Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux arrived in the waters off the coast of what is now Western Australia. The expedition was originally sent to search for the missing French explorer, La Pérouse, but it also conducted extensive scientific research and mapping of the Australian coastline. The arrival of the D’Entrecasteaux expedition marked an important moment in the European exploration of Australia, contributing valuable geographical and scientific knowledge about the continent.

1872 – The Overland Telegraph Line Completion

May 21, 1872, marks a significant milestone in Australian history with the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line. The line, which connected Darwin to Port Augusta and subsequently to the rest of the world, revolutionized communication in Australia. It allowed for almost instantaneous communication between Australia and Europe, fostering economic growth, facilitating government administration, and enhancing social connections. The completion of the telegraph line symbolized Australia’s technological advancement and its integration into the global communication network.

1901 – Establishment of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration

On May 21, 1901, the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration was established, playing a crucial role in the development of Australia’s industrial relations system. The court was designed to resolve industrial disputes and set wages and working conditions, reflecting the newly formed Commonwealth’s commitment to social justice and fair labor practices. The establishment of the court was a significant step towards a more organized and equitable labor market, laying the foundation for Australia’s modern industrial relations framework.

1916 – Conscription Referendum Debate

May 21, 1916, was a pivotal day in the debate over conscription during World War I. The Australian government, led by Prime Minister Billy Hughes, was divided over the issue of mandatory military service. Hughes, a staunch supporter of conscription, faced strong opposition from within his party and from the labor movement. The debate culminated in two referendums (in 1916 and 1917), both of which rejected conscription. The controversy deeply affected Australian politics and society, highlighting the tensions between duty, democracy, and individual rights during wartime.

1956 – Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Television Launch

On May 21, 1956, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) launched its first television broadcast in Sydney. This event marked the beginning of public television broadcasting in Australia. The introduction of ABC TV provided a significant boost to the media landscape, offering a wide range of educational, informational, and entertainment programs. The launch of ABC TV played a pivotal role in shaping Australian culture and society, providing a platform for Australian voices and stories to reach a national audience.

1965 – Founding of the Australian Conservation Foundation

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) was founded on May 21, 1965. As one of the nation’s leading environmental organizations, the ACF has been at the forefront of conservation efforts, advocating for the protection of Australia’s natural environment and promoting sustainable practices. The establishment of the ACF marked a significant moment in the history of environmental activism in Australia, reflecting growing public awareness and concern for environmental issues. The ACF’s work has had a lasting impact on environmental policies and conservation practices in the country.

1982 – Launch of SBS Television

Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) television was launched on May 21, 1982. SBS was established to provide multicultural and multilingual broadcasting services to reflect the diverse society of Australia. The launch of SBS TV was a landmark in promoting cultural diversity and inclusion, offering programming in multiple languages and covering a wide range of cultural perspectives. SBS has played a crucial role in fostering understanding and appreciation of different cultures within Australia, highlighting the nation’s commitment to multiculturalism.

1992 – Mabo Decision Anniversary

May 21, 1992, is remembered as a significant date in the lead-up to the landmark Mabo decision by the High Court of Australia. The decision, handed down on June 3, 1992, recognized the land rights of the Meriam people, traditional owners of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait. It overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius (land belonging to no one) that had previously justified European claims to Australian land. The Mabo decision was a watershed moment in Australian legal and social history, leading to the Native Title Act 1993 and significant advancements in Indigenous land rights.

1999 – East Timor Independence Referendum Support

On May 21, 1999, Australia played a significant role in supporting the United Nations-sponsored referendum for East Timor’s independence from Indonesia. Australian troops were later deployed to East Timor as part of the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) to ensure a peaceful transition. Australia’s involvement in East Timor highlighted its commitment to supporting international peace and stability and showcased the country’s influence in regional politics.

2017 – Uluru Statement from the Heart

On May 21, 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was issued by delegates to the First Nations National Constitutional Convention. The statement called for the establishment of a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution and a Makarrata Commission to supervise agreements and truth-telling about Australia’s history. The Uluru Statement represents a profound call for constitutional recognition and a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Its release marked a pivotal moment in the ongoing struggle for Indigenous rights and reconciliation in Australia.

1791 – Birth of Henry Parkes

Born on May 21, 1791, Sir Henry Parkes is often referred to as the “Father of Federation” for his pivotal role in the movement towards the federation of the Australian colonies. Parkes served as the Premier of New South Wales five times and was a strong advocate for public education and immigration reform. His leadership and vision were instrumental in the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Parkes’ contributions to Australian politics and society have left an enduring legacy.

1966 – Birth of Lisa Curry

Lisa Curry, born on May 21, 1966, is one of Australia’s most successful swimmers. She represented Australia in three Olympic Games (1980, 1984, and 1992) and won numerous medals in international competitions, including the Commonwealth Games. Curry’s achievements in swimming have made her a prominent figure in Australian sports, inspiring future generations of athletes. Her contributions to sports extend beyond her competitive career, as she has been involved in promoting health and fitness across the nation.


May 21 has been a day of profound historical significance in Australian history, encompassing a wide range of events that have shaped the nation’s political, social, and cultural landscapes. From the early exploration expeditions and the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line to significant legal decisions and cultural milestones, the events of this day reflect the diverse and dynamic nature of Australia’s development. The legacy of these occurrences continues to influence contemporary Australian society, offering valuable insights into the complexities and achievements of the nation. As we remember these moments, we gain a deeper appreciation for the rich tapestry of experiences that have contributed to Australia’s growth and identity.

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