50 years since landmark referendum – a history nurses should know

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It’s National Reconciliation Week. On Saturday 27 May we recognised the extremely significant 50th anniversary of the referendum on  Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) 1967 – over 90% of all votes cast and a majority in each state approved two constitutional amendments relating to Aboriginal Australians. One amendment resulted in the inclusion of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the census and the other enabled the Federal Parliament to make laws related to them.

There is still a long way to go but it is worth recalling the background to this landmark milestone in Australia’s continuing journey toward Reconciliation.

[Photo above: Jannawi dance clan perform at NSWNMA 2014.]

Wave Hill walk off, 1966-75: In August 1966, Aboriginal pastoral workers walked off the job on the vast Vesteys cattle station at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory. At first they expressed their unhappiness with poor working conditions and disrespectful treatment. Conversations between stockmen who had worked for Vesteys and Dexter Daniels, the North Australian Workers’ Union Aboriginal organiser, led to the initial walk-off.

The next year the group moved to Wattie Creek, a place of significance to the Gurindji people. They asked Frank Hardy to ‘make a sign’ which included the word ‘Gurindji’, their own name for themselves. Their disaffection was deeper than wages and working conditions.

Although these stockmen and their families could not read, they understood the power of the white man’s signs. Now their name for themselves, written on a sign, asserted a claim to Gurindji lands.

I bin thinkin’ this bin Gurindji country. We bin here longa time before them Vestey mob. Vincent Lingiari.

Following the walk off, the Gurindji men had important conversations amongst themselves and with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal supporters. Vincent Lingiari, Mick Rangiari (also known as Hoppy Mick), Lupna Giari (also know as Captain Major), Pincher Manguari (also known as Pincher Nyurrmiyari) and others voiced their discontent at working for Vesteys. They decided they would not return.

Among the supporters to speak with these stockmen were Dexter Daniels, the Aboriginal organiser for the North Australian Workers Union, Brian Manning, a founding member of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and some unions. In addition, the communist author Frank Hardy went to the Northern Territory in June 1966. He spent time with the strikers camped at the welfare settlement and became involved in trying to understand their grievances.

At this stage, most white supporters were unionists, members of the Communist Party of Australia or others engaged in addressing economic injustice. These Aboriginal workers were not eligible for the safeguards provided to other workers through the industrial relations system. However, the focus on economic injustice initially prevented many white supporters from understanding the deeper matters which concerned the Gurindji.

Australia’s 1967 Referendum: In the 1960s Faith Bandler was a leading activist for Aboriginal rights. She describes a long and well-organised struggle for the 1967 referendum and the reasons for it.

Freedom Rides: Freedom Rides revisits the journey made 50 years ago by a group of university students led by Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, who set off on a bus ride around regional NSW to expose racism and prejudice.

Campaigning for a YES vote: The usual practice when a question is put at referendum is for the arguments for and against the change to be set out for voters. In this case, however, the changes were supported by all major parties so no opposing case was presented.

Churches came out in favour of a YES vote. The Australian Council of Churches, the Methodist Commission on Aboriginal Affairs and the Society of Friends had developed policies in Aboriginal affairs which favoured greater Commonwealth power in formulating and implementing policy for Aboriginal advancement. Some journalists made dire predictions for our society if the NO vote was the stronger.

A lively debate was conducted through the letters to the editor pages of daily newspapers and campaigners wrote directly to the Prime Minister, Harold Holt, urging him to publicly support a YES vote.

Aboriginal spokespeople gained effective media coverage throughout the campaign. The government supported the passage of the referendum but it had no plans for change.

The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, (FCAATSI) set up a national ‘Vote YES’ directorate headed by Gordon Bryant and Joe McGuinness. State directors were also appointed to run the campaign in each state. It was FCAATSI, rather than the government, which campaigned strongly for a YES vote.

Their campaign was driven by the view that the vote for change needed to be overwhelming in order to persuade the federal government that it had a responsibility to use the power provided by the amendment. Notice the strategies used to persuade voters in these four different appeals.

Previously on Nurse Uncut:

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