Which way? Fifty years since the 1967 Referendum

Below is the keynote speech I gave at the Human Rights Law Centre annual Human Rights Dinner in Melbourne on 19 May 2017.

The HRLC protects and promotes human rights in Australia and in Australian activities overseas. It is a gutsy, principled organisation for which I and many other Australians are grateful.

To follow the HRLC’s progress and to stay informed of local and international human rights developments, you can subscribe to receive the Centre’s monthly e-bulletin, Rights Agenda. You can also follow them on Twitter via @rightsagenda


Good evening everyone. It’s an honour to be here.

I begin by acknowledging Wurundjeri brothers and sisters from the Kulin nation, their ancestors and their enduring custodianship of this beautiful place. Thank you for your leadership and for your generosity in allowing me to walk on your country. Thank you, Aunty Georgina Nicholson, for welcoming us here.

The views I express here tonight are my own, shaped by my lived experience. I am Aboriginal, a First Nations person, a Yuwallarai woman. I’ve worked in most states and territories in Australia and my job – whether through journalism, organisational leadership or political advocacy – has been to gather, research and tell stories of my people.

I thank Baiame (and the magnificent Human Rights Law Centre, of course) for the opportunity tonight to stand before such an esteemed and influential audience and continue to do that.

First, I will tell you something of me.

My story, our stories

Us mob, circa 1975

I’m the third of four children born to an Aboriginal woman from northern NSW. Raised by Mum and my dad, a Pom who migrated to Australia in the sixties, we grew up healthy, happy, confident and educated. Further back, my maternal grandfather and his countrymen toiled on land that was morally theirs but legally – white way – not. Mum and her sisters were domestic servants, paid pittance, if at all. Several of my older female relatives have endured extreme long-term domestic violence that has marked them for life. One male relative died on the dance floor of the public hall in our home town after being stabbed by his partner, and a young cousin was beaten to death by a publican in the town where some of my family had fled, in grief. Another relative about my age has spent more than half of his life behind bars for violent and pointless crimes; his daughter – with three young children of her own – is also now sadly familiar with the inside of a jail cell. My mum, the oldest of 18 children, died of chronic illness at just 54 years of age but had been already preceded in death by nearly half of her younger siblings.

I tell you these things not to evoke pity, or to establish some kind of dysfunction ‘cred’, or so you’ll cry me a river but because they’re truths. Not just truths for my family but familiar to many Aboriginal families.

But there are other truths; stories of accomplishment and achievement. In my blended family, my sister is an award winning writer, one of my brothers a surveyor, and the other lived Spain for eight years teaching English. More than a few of my aunties, uncles and cousins are stalwarts of the country towns where they live, quietly going about their business, providing for their families, leading community-based organisations, being role models. We have teachers and other education workers amongst our number, a police officer, and sportspeople who have represented at the national level.

I have had the privilege of addressing United Nations gatherings and have sat across from Prime Ministers asking them to respect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s rights; to support us to make change in the areas that contribute to what is generally a dire predicament – more of that later. At present, I have the privilege of running an organisation – the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence in Redfern – that builds, celebrates and amplifies excellence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people; glorious kids who are a constant reminder of why none of us should give up.

Again, excellence and achievement resides not just in my family but in many Aboriginal families. These are our lives.

1967 – A national story

Now, I’d like to tell you another story. It is a nostalgic story, alternately happy and sad. Some of it comes straight from archives and history books and, the rest from my imagination…

…It is 1967 (coincidentally the year of my birth) and a group of women wearing shift dresses in floral and geometric prints, perhaps a corduroy pantsuit, are gathered around a kitchen table in Frenchs Forest in Sydney’s north.

In the background, the wireless emits tunes by The Easybeats, The Masters Apprentices, Kamahl, Ike and Tina Turner, The Beatles, maybe Charley Pride and Jimmy Little, intersected with news of protests against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the US Supreme Court’s deliberations on whether interracial marriage is constitutional, and the stripping of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight world championship title for refusing to be inducted into the US Army.

It’s important to note that at that time, Aboriginal people had never been counted in the national census – regarded as mere flora and fauna in the landscape. Depending on where they lived, the State controlled almost every aspect of their lives: who they could marry or mix with; where they could live (on reserves and forbidden to go into town); whether they could drink alcohol; who they could work for and whether they’d be paid; and whether they could speak their language, practice their traditional culture, or keep and care for their children.

Amidst the detritus of afternoon tea that day at Frenchs Forest – a teapot topped with a crocheted cosy, empty cups and saucers, and plates bearing the crumbs of a teacake – as well as piles of printed flyers bearing the face of a cherubic Aboriginal child, some serious business is being discussed, led by three very different women.

The youngest of them is the host, Faith Bandler – a 49-year-old woman of Melanesian/Scots/Indian heritage; a mother of two – her biological daughter, 13, and a fostered Aboriginal son, 10. Faith’s husband Hans, an Austrian born Jewish man, is somewhere in the background.

The other two women leading the discussion are Faith’s mentors: 66-year-old Pearl Gibbs, a Ngemba/Muruwari woman whose family originated in Bourke NSW (up the road from my own traditional country). Pearl is a former domestic servant and fruit picker, a separated mother of three. And Lady Jessie Street, 78, the well-to-do matriarch of a family highly influential in judicial circles, whose father reportedly traced his ancestry back to Alfred the Great.

This trio are feminists with impeccable pedigrees in the pursuit of human rights – in Faith’s case, through organisations like the Women’s Electoral Lobby and the Australian Republican Movement, and as a delegate to the Australian Peace Congress.

For Pearl, her activist ‘chops’ came through involvement in the Aborigines Progressive Association that organised the historic Day of Mourning on Australia Day in 1938, the Australian Aborigines’ League, the Union of Australian Women, and the Aborigines Welfare Board, and as a founder of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship.

Lady Jessie had earned her stripes within the National Council of Women of NSW, the United Associations of Women, the Australian Federation of Women Voters, and the World Peace Council, helping in no small part to ensure the rights of women were included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, it is the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (or FCAATSI) that brings Faith, Pearl, Lady Jessie and their comrades together this day….and the Council’s 10-year-plus campaign to bring about a referendum to amend the Australian Constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and give the Commonwealth power to make laws for them.

They and their comrades are building upon the ‘Freedom Rides’ held two years earlier when a young Charles Perkins and other University of Sydney students toured a bus through NSW country towns to draw national and international attention to the poor living conditions of Aboriginal people and the racism that was rife.

Around this time, Faith was interviewed by the ‘bible’ that is the Australian Woman’s Weekly and I would like to read you some of what she said:

“All that is needed is opportunity, and above all a sense of dignity. And a Yes vote on May 27 can open new doors for all the Australians who happen to be black. A Yes vote will mean that the Aboriginal people can come under Commonwealth law and derive all those benefits which only the Federal Government can give them. At the moment, for census purposes, they’re not even counted as existing. A yes vote will change that…I should like to see money allocated by the Federal Government – if the Referendum empowers it to do so – for education and that includes adult education. Especially I want help for Aboriginal mothers. And a bigger allocation for housing, for housing is at the heart of the matter.”

Around the kitchen table, our heroes Faith, Pearl and Lady Jessie are nervous. After nearly a decade of campaigning – churning out posters, handing out countless flyers on street corners, giving soapbox speeches, pinning ‘Vote Yes’ badges on the lapels of anyone who will let them – the day of reckoning is near. They have no way of knowing whether their tireless advocacy will pay off.

The result and aftermath

Fast forward three weeks later to 27 May 1967, and you probably know the results – or at least the numbers. An overwhelming 90% of Australians – a majority of people in a majority of states – voted ‘Yes’, making the Referendum the most ‘successful’ in the nation’s history. Not surprisingly, there was jubilation. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the result was symbol of hope – a sign that non-Indigenous Australians recognised the need for equality and justice and would stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

The rest is history. Once the Federal Government could make specific laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it established the Council for Aboriginal Affairs comprising state and territory ministers to work on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues and appointed the first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, W.C Wentworth in 1968.

The Minister instituted ‘positive discrimination’ measures to directly address disadvantage in areas like health. Important pieces of legislation around governance and land rights were enacted, creating the bedrock for later big ticket measures such as the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, and the passage of the Native Title Act 1993.

50 years on

At the HRLC dinner with Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) President Gillian Triggs, and former AHRC President Catherine Branson.

Now, some of you may be aware that next Saturday, 27 May 2017, marks 50 years since that historic poll. This is something of big deal…five decades to the day since something that involved the whole country. But some may not perceive why feelings about the anniversary are distinctly mixed, and it is not quite the ‘celebration’ that it might have been.

Indulge me as I summarise why. Fifty years after the Referendum:

  • As adults, we die an average of 10–17 years earlier than non-Indigenous Australians, and experience much higher rates of chronic illness.
  • Our babies die at more than twice the rate of other Australian babies.
  • Our kids suicide at a rate three to four times that of non-Indigenous kids, and the rate of suicide amongst our young men is the highest in the world.
  • Our unemployment rate is at least four times that of the general population.
  • Despite native title and various land rights regimes, many of our communities remain impoverished.
  • Community-controlled health, children’s, legal, domestic violence and other vital services are drip-fed funding and sometimes cut off entirely.
  • The elected representative body for our people, the National Congress, has no assurance of future funding.
  • Just two to three per cent of the broad Australian population, we make up 27 per cent of the prison population. Our men are twice as likely to be in prison than in university.
  • Our women are hospitalised due to family violence-related assaults at a rate 34.2 times that for non-Indigenous females.
  • Child removals are sky high – nine and a half times the rate for non-Indigenous children, and much higher now than during the Stolen Generations era.
  • Australia pledges commitment towards human rights and Indigenous rights but is routinely criticised internationally for not showing it.

What are we to make of this laundry list of shame? Perhaps that Australians have stopped seeing crisis when they look at us? That, after report after report, inquiry after inquiry, governments are wilfully blind? That crisis is just the old and new black? That such is the obsession with survival of the fittest that Australians just don’t care?

There is one further statistic that I want to shine a particular light on.

Over-Represented and Overlooked

Earlier this week, the Human Rights Law Centre and the Change the Record Coalition, released a damning report called ‘Over-Represented and Overlooked’ on the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

The report tells us that, notwithstanding the fact that the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women will never be locked up, the number of those who are has skyrocketed nearly 250 per cent since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 25 years ago.

In 1991, there were only 121 of our women in prison, representing 17 per cent of the female prison population. Now, there are 1062; around 34 per cent.

Now 21 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous women (and at more than double the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men), our women are the nation’s fastest growing prison population.

Eighty per cent of our women in prison are mothers. The vast majority of them are survivors of physical and sexual violence, and many also struggle with poverty, mental illness, disability, and the effects of trauma poverty. And housing insecurity – the very thing that Faith Bandler identified as ‘at the heart of the matter’.

As the new report says, this is an urgent human rights issue that not only harms our women but profoundly and irrevocably damages the our kids – who’re already over-represented in child protection and youth justice systems.

I don’t need to go into great detail about what is in this report. As you likely know, it calls for system-wide change to redress racialised and gendered justice system outcomes. Its recommendations include reforming laws and practices that disproportionately and unfairly criminalise too many of our women and men. Rest in peace, Ms Dhu. It calls for more support for those working at the coalface, and for governments at all levels to meet them along the road.

‘Tough on crime’ approaches favoured by some governments are more expensive than prevention, diversion and rehabilitation, and simply don’t work. I add my voice to those of the HRLC and Change the Record to say that enough is enough. Governments, policy makers…please, stop ignoring this issue and put our experiences and voices ‘front and centre’. As Vickie Roach says in ‘Over-Represented and Overlooked’, our women are entitled to dignity.

As the report notes, there’s been some positive action by police, the courts and some governments. For example, the recent Victorian Budget commitment of half a billion dollars to tackle family violence through crisis housing, support services, specialist interventions, and programs to promote respect for women. Premier Daniel Andrews was right when he said: The cost of not acting is just enormous and we need to all play a part in that.”

After that Budget announcement, I was very moved by a Facebook post from my friend Antoinette Braybrook (known to many of you as a Co-Chair of Change the Record and for her incredible work combatting family violence), in which she wrote: “This morning, I’m going to into work to plan, not fight. First time in 15 years”.

But sadly, in this space, even where there is good news, bad news is usually just around the corner – such as the findings in ‘Over-Represented and Overlooked’.

Crossroads – which way?

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard it said that Australia is at a crossroads in Indigenous affairs. But I believe we’re definitely at one now.

As I speak, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from regions throughout the country are preparing to travel to Uluru to take part in an historic national convention being held by the Referendum Council to determine what is most important – fundamental – to them, if the nation is to proceed with further Constitutional change about us.

There was talk, a couple of years back, that a new referendum on the subject would be held on next week’s anniversary of the 1967 Referendum. But that wasn’t to be.

Instead, some five or so years after an Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition reported to government, our people at last have collective opportunity to say what they think about it all. As they say, better late than never.

Over time, discussions in our communities about options for Constitutional change have expanded to include a Treaty/treaties or some other form of lasting settlement, and I welcome this. I can’t predict with certainty the outcome at Uluru but hope that support for a non-discrimination clause to prevent governments from passing laws that racially discriminate – not just against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but any other group in the country – remains strong. Seventy-five years after Australia joined 47 other countries around the world to endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is difficult to fathom any legitimate argument against.

Know this: It will not do to merely insert pretty words in a preamble to the Constitution. We must have meaningful, substantive reform – respect, protection and a real say in our destiny – or the heartache we have endured will have been for nothing. Australia will have let all of its people down; those passed, us, and those to come.

Always sitting uncomfortably in our hearts is the question, ‘Can we trust our hearts to those who’ve presided over the situation we find ourselves in today? By the actions of the Federal Parliament in the wake of Uluru, we will know better where we stand.

Coinciding with the final day of that convention, next Friday 26 May, Australia will observe National Sorry Day. This day acknowledges the experiences of tens of thousands of Aboriginal children who, from the late 1800s until the 1970s, were forcibly removed from their families by government agencies and church missions in an attempt to assimilate them into the culture of white Australia.

This act of extreme violence, from which we’ve scarcely begun to recover, was chronicled in Bringing Them Home. This Sorry Day marks 20 years since that historic report was tabled in the Federal Parliament, and we know from important bodies like the Healing Foundation that there is so much more healing still to be done.

To me, the coincidental concurrence of the Uluru Convention and such significant anniversaries – 50 years since the ‘67 Referendum, 25 years since the High Court’s Mabo judgement, and 20 years since the tabling of Bringing Them Home – seems auspicious. As a nation, opportunities to tread a righteous path don’t come often. It’s imperative that we don’t waste them.

What are the ‘next steps’?

I can’t help but think, if Faith, Pearl and Lady Jessie were now sitting around a kitchen table in the sky, what would they make of the fact that 50 years after they celebrated what they thought was success, the Aboriginal mothers and families for whom they were so concerned are in such a predicament? That the Referendum did not end discrimination? That the legacy they’d envisaged has yet to materialise?

Sorry Day also kicks off National Reconciliation Week (NRW) 2017, which this year has a theme of ‘Let’s Take the Next Steps’. Which brings me to my concluding point.

It has been said throughout history that we shall be judged not by how we treat the powerful but the vulnerable – the last, the littlest, the least. But that is not the sum our mob. We are the First Australians. Maybe a tiny minority in our own lands but majestic in country and culture, and mighty – knowing that there are many good women and men standing with us, as there were in 1967 and there are in this room tonight.

While I have focussed tonight on Aboriginal issues, to all of you working across the sphere of rights – for refugees, children, those with disabilities or who struggle with mental health issues, the LGBTIQ community and more, you have my respect as fellow travellers who believe that if you say something, you should mean it; that if you make a promise, you should keep it; and that if you really want to make a difference, you mustn’t give up when the going gets tough. Let’s take the next steps together.

I commend the Human Rights Law Centre for its wonderful work, on its own and as part of the family of advocacy illustrated by the Change the Record Coalition.

Tonight and always…please, dig deep.

Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: