The Referendum – 40 Years On


1967 brought the ‘Summer of Love’ to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in California, and a flourishing of peace, music and the belief in the possibility of a better world.

Devotees of the counterculture were urged to wear flowers in their hair, and to reject the material greed of their parents. ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out,’ was the mantra offered to a new generation culminating in the 1969 concert at Max Yasgur’s farm, 40 miles from the town of Woodstock in New York State.

But time propelled the peaceniks towards haircuts, college degrees and the search for their own little chunk of the ‘American Dream.’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

In the simultaneous antipodean winter, there was also a lot of love to share. In Australia, we had just voted, in a referendum on 27 May 1967, to count the Aboriginal people in ‘reckoning the population’ of the country, and to empower the Commonwealth Government to make laws in respect to the people of the ‘Aboriginal race.’

From a total of 5,801,584 persons to whom ballot papers were issued, 5,183,113 voted in support of the proposals. In Australia’s electoral history, only eight of 44 referendum questions seeking Constitutional change have succeeded and no other has attained a level of support approaching 91 per cent.

The 1967 referendum was richly symbolic. The horrors of World War II had receded and Australia was relaxed and comfortable, still years away from economists’ grim tidings that we were living beyond our means. There was a public mood to make some sort of statement about the Native People, who had, it was widely agreed, been treated rather poorly. With a bit of TLC, perhaps they could be assimilated into White society and have a share in the spoils. This was low-cost, feel-good politics, which enjoyed bi-partisan political support and a groundswell of goodwill.

Gough Whitlam would not awaken the sleeping giant of Land Rights for another five years, and two further decades would elapse before the High Court awarded the great Eddie Mabo’s Meriam people native title over the remote Torres Strait Island of Mer.

The 1967 referendum is still regarded as one of the high-water marks in relations between Black and White Australians. Though anthems were not sung, nor wattle seedlings distributed, there was a clear intention to welcome Aboriginal people in from the cold. Sunday’s 40-year anniversary of the referendum will rightly provoke a flood of reflections about Australia’s sporadic and patchy attempts to bring a measure of justice to the country’s First Peoples.

May 2007 sees Indigenous Australians tossed around like corks on a boiling ocean of ideology. The troubled landscape is littered with well-intentioned policy failures, as increasing numbers of politicians tacitly subscribe to the proposition that ‘there are no votes in blackfellas’ and return their heads to the sand. In this environment, the promise of the messianic Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, to deliver us from the long, dark night has considerable superficial appeal. And his magic elixir is home ownership.

Last week, on 17 May, Brough flew from Alice Springs to the Tiwi Island community of Nguiu, 70 kilometres north of Darwin to spruik his 99-year lease agreements and the gospel of private home ownership. He brandished a fistful of dollars, available to the community for desperately needed infrastructure improvements but only after the deal was done. No matter that few of the locals earn anywhere near enough money to repay a housing mortgage. No matter that Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, has expressed grave reservations about whether the traditional owners fully understand the complexities of the proposed arrangements. This is about ideology, not good sense.

Earlier in May, the Minister had been in Alice Springs to apply further pressure to the Town Camps Housing Associations to accept his ultimatum that they relinquish their hard-won leases to the Northern Territory Government. The campers are fearful of losing their leases, given that their grandparents lived on fringe camps, without basic legal or human rights. But the Minister is offering an almost irresistible sweetener: $60 million worth of Federal funding to upgrade the camps, whose residents endure probably the lowest living standards of any town-dwellers in the country.

However, the larger question of the contrived nexus between land tenure arrangements and fundamental human rights lies unexamined.

Brough is a practitioner of the art of big-splash politics. Last year, when stories of violence in remote Indigenous communities were consuming a lot of front-page ink, the Minister stepped to the fore and convened a summit to thrash out the issues. The ensuing festival of finger-pointing to which Indigenous leaders were conspicuously not invited achieved nothing.

But the Minister continues to cultivate the image of being a hard man who runs from nothing, looks people in the eye, and says the things that need to be said. Sadly there is no evidence that his macho posturing has improved the lives of Indigenous Australians one whit.

Many larger remote Indigenous communities had their origins as government depots or church missions, set up to offer Aboriginal people sanctuary from the ravages of colonisation. Traditional Aboriginal people well knew that the harsher corners of this country could not support ‘large’ permanent settlements of 1500 people. They left their traditional country for the security of these places only because all their other choices had been taken away. In the cruellest of ironies, the former Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Amanda Vanstone condemned remote Indigenous communities as ‘cultural museums’ and demanded that they demonstrate their ‘economic viability.’

It is abundantly clear that all is not well in the Bush, and that policy-makers must explore the full range of options. Noel Pearson is an increasingly controversial figure in Indigenous politics, but few doubt his genuineness. Two weeks ago, he returned to his home community of Hope Vale to help Minister Brough sell a deal to his countrymen which will see a percentage of their welfare benefits quarantined to pay for food and rent.

Pearson has written powerfully and provocatively of the grievous damage that substance abuse does to Indigenous communities. The jury may be out on the philosophical question of whether substance abuse is a symptom of dispossession, or itself a root cause. However, there is no doubt that a small number of habitual and potentially violent drunks can wreak havoc on a much larger community, and thereby strangle the life-chances of all concerned. The effectiveness of Brough’s new measures will be closely watched, as the search continues for policies that will deliver a better life for Aboriginal people both in the Bush and in the Burbs.

If the 1967 referendum offered Indigenous Australia a fleeting ‘Summer of Love’ it also proved to be the precursor of a long winter of entirely justifiable discontent.

Indigenous Australians are living out their lives on an ideological battleground strewn with the land mines of quick-fix government policies. It’s as if they are merely inhabitants of a social laboratory rather than real people. If the hard-liners of the Right slip easily into punitive mode, then the lions of the Left have also failed to bring about sustainable improvements in the places where Aboriginal people live.

Forty years on from the referendum, Aboriginal people are still much more likely than White Australians to be unemployed, imprisoned, or inadequately housed. They suffer from reduced educational opportunities, lower levels of health and well-being, and earlier deaths.

Therein lies the challenge.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.