Change gonna come, remembering the 1967 referendum

For Yanti Ropeyarn it was a moment of pure joy, when the significance of what was being attempted on behalf of Aboriginal Australia half a century ago was distilled into a single sentence in a hand-written note in the palm of her hand.

The note was penned by Jessie Street, perhaps the most influential but least well-known Australian feminist and human rights campaigner of the 20th century, for Faith Bandler, the smiling, determined face behind the most successful referendum in Australian history.

Under the heading, Draft Petition, the note observed that Australia's constitution excluded Aborigines from the "rights and privileges enjoyed by all other Australians, whatever their country of origin".

To address this, Street, who died in 1970, proposed the two changes to the constitution that were endorsed by more than 90 per cent of Australians more than a decade later, 50 years ago next Saturday.

Bandler later described the petition as "the beginning of great change" for Aboriginal people and Street as one of the unsung heroes of the campaign, a woman who would "give ideas away and the credit along with them".

"She rang me up late one night in 1956 and said in her lovely, cultivated voice: 'You can't get anywhere without a change in the constitution and you can't get that without a referendum. You'll need a petition with 100,000 signatures. We'd better start on it at once'," recalled Bandler, who died in 2015, aged 96.

Ropeyarn, 30, who grew up in the small Aboriginal community of Injinoo, 40 kilometres from the tip of Australia on Cape York, was unaware of all of this before she arrived as a commerce graduate at the National Library of Australia last year.

"I knew of the event but, like many others, I was led to believe it was ... the day my people were given the equality in the form of the vote and citizenship. How wrong was I?"

Her task was to prepare a complete research guide to the material held by the library that relates to the 1967 referendum and it became an intensely personal journey. Life-changing, she calls it.

"Being able to dig deep into the whole story has really opened my eyes," Ropeyarn tells Fairfax Media.

"I marvel at how strategically intelligent these amazing people were in bringing about such a huge collaboration that united Australia in a way that we have not seen before or since."

This was the cake stall revolution, where a relatively small number of mainly poor black people worked with white Australians like Street and federal Labor MP Gordon Bryant to prick the conscience of the country through the grassroots activism.

The result could hardly have been more emphatic, but celebrations next weekend will be mixed and muted for two reasons. The first is that there is still so much to do before Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, in Street's words, enjoy the same rights and privileges as other Australians.

The second is that the anniversary coincides with the most important Indigenous gathering on constitutional change since the 1967 referendum and there is deep anxiety on whether a consensus will be reached and the outcome will be embraced by the nation's politicians.

What the 1967 referendum did was remove two provisions in the constitution: one that prevented Aboriginal people from being counted in the Australian population; the other that excluded Aboriginal people from the Commonwealth's power to make special laws for the people of any race.

The hope was that this would result in the passage of federal laws to address profound disadvantage and see the end of state laws that entrenched disadvantage and discrimination and, in some cases, enforced segregation.

No state laws were more racist or paternalistic than those in Queensland, where living "under the act" meant Aborigines were forcibly removed from their lands, sent to the penal colony of Palm Island if they became "troublesome", and had every aspect of their lives strictly controlled.

"When the referendum was passed, there was a big 'Yay, we got the Yes vote, but what now? What does it mean?'," says Yale Macgillivray, 24, one of the Aboriginal producers of the Right Wrongs, a digital collaboration between the ABC, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the National State Library Association.

"What it did was get the ball rolling."

It certainly got the ball rolling for a very young Marcia Langton, who grew up in Brisbane and was taken by her mother to a campaign meeting and introduced to one of the most tenacious and generous advocates for Indigenous rights, Celia Smith.

Aunty Celia Smith and Granny Monsell

Auntie Celia Smith and Granny Monsell campaigning in Brisbane in 1967. Photo: AIATSIS

"It was my political awakening, meeting Auntie Celia and being told I had to do something because I could read and write," says Langton, one of the country's pre-eminent Indigenous academics.

"It was a rebellion against the worst kind of oppression you can imagine and it was happening at the same time as the American civil rights movement.

"Our people were campaigning against the Queensland Acts, unequal wages, the atomic blasts on the Pitjantjatjara lands, the cruelty of police, starvation on the reserves. Faith Bandler was fabulous."

Iris Paulson was similarly inspired as a young girl by the fearless advocacy, energy and plain speaking of Auntie Celia. "She was an excellent lady who was very brave and got out there and said what she thought at a time when a lot of people were too scared to speak for fear of being pushed back onto the reserves."

Paulson was born on the Cherbourg mission, 250 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, the sixth of 11 children. Her mother had been moved there from Ayr, in far north Queensland, her father from St George, 513 kilometres west of Brisbane.

When she was 16, she was sent to Brisbane to work as a domestic servant for a GP for a lowly five pounds a week, though she only received two. They called it pocket money and Paulson is still fighting for the wages denied to her over a decade in different homes.

Now 78, Paulson still carries in her handbag the exemption card she received on January 11, 1961 that meant she could travel freely and marry without having to seek permission from the authorities.

pic of Iris Paulson's exemption card

Iris Paulson's exemption card.

"On the small writing it says the director may at any time revoke the card and the Act would apply as if no exemption had ever been granted," she explains. "That meant they could still do whatever they liked to Aboriginal people."

Three months before the referendum, Iris married Graham Paulson, the country's first Aborigine to be ordained as a Baptist minister. He was still "under the act" and could be sent to the penal reserve of Palm Island on the whim of a policeman, without being charged or convicted of an offence. "That only changed in the early 70s," he says.

Provided picture of Graham and Iris Paulson at their wedding. For Referendum feature for Insight.

Provided picture of Graham and Iris Paulson at their wedding. Photo: Supplied

More than a decade later, Paulson became active in the National Aboriginal Conference and recalls sitting next to Fred Chaney, Aboriginal Affairs Minister in Malcolm Fraser's government, when the idea of a treaty was discussed.

"Fred asked could we not call it a treaty and give it another name and that's when the delegate from Katherine suggested we call it the Makarrata," he says. Makarrata is a word in the language of the Yolngu people of north-eastern Arnhem Land that means a coming together after a struggle, facing the facts of wrongs and living again in peace.

Paulson would later lament to his son, Mark Yettica-Paulson, that the opportunity for a treaty, or compact, had been allowed to "slip through our fingers" and, with it, the means for Australia to finally "grow up and reach maturity".

Mark Yettica-Paulson

"I find myself sitting between two generations: my father's work 40 years ago and the hopes of my children in their mid-teens," says Mark Yettica-Paulson, joint campaign director of Recognise. Photo: Glenn Hunt

Now Yettica-Paulson, 46, is joint campaign director for Recognise, the body set up by Reconciliation Australia to campaign for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the constitution.

"I find myself sitting between two generations: my father's work 40 years ago and the hopes of my children in their mid-teens," Yettica-Paulson says.

"Imagine in 30 years' time, when I'm talking to my kids. I don't want to be saying: 'Yes, I was back there in 2017 and we tried to get a referendum to recognise our people and remove racial discrimination from the constitution and we didn't get there'.

Tavina Yettica-Paulson, Mark Yettica-Paulson and Reverend Graham Paulson

Mark Yettica-Paulson (centre), joint campaign director of Recognise, with his daugter Tavina Yettica-Paulson and his father Reverend Graham Paulson. Photo: Glenn Hunt

"I want to have the conversation that says we had a breakthrough moment."

For many involved in the recognition debate now, the experience of 1967 is a cautionary tale, highlighting the danger of accepting a minimalist or symbolic change when there is no guarantee that governments will act on it.

The race power that was the foundation of empowering legislation on several fronts also supported laws that had an adverse impact on Indigenous people, such as John Howard's Wik amendments and the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Act.

The disappointment at the lack of action after the referendum was compounded when the pattern was repeated after the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody (1991); the report of the inquiry into the forced removal of children (1997); and the report of the Council for Aboriginal reconciliation (2000), to name a few.

Another problem is identified by Megan Davis, the constitutional lawyer who, with Pat Anderson, has driven the Indigenous consultation process that culminates in the convention. "The problem with reconciliation in Australia is that reconciliation movements are usually coupled with truth telling," she says. "Australia skipped the truth part and went straight to reconciliation - and it stalled.

"I just feel really frustrated because they fought so hard and for so long, and you really have to ask: what advancements have been made for Indigenous people today," says Brenda L Croft, a Gurindji woman and the curator of A Change Is Gonna Come, an exhibition on the referendum at the National Museum of Australia that will open on Wednesday.

"I was having a look at the 40th anniversary of the referendum and the same questions were being asked and the same level of frustration expressed: how much longer do we have to wait?"

Yes, there has been progress on many fronts, especially in the number of Indigenous graduates who are making their mark across all professions, but racism is still the daily experience of many Aboriginals and the gap is widening when it comes to incarceration rates and mental health.

"How do we address these issues? Where is the national voice?" asks Croft. "I don't want to tell people what to think, but I do want them to ask some hard questions when they see the dedication that these people put in [to the 1967 campaign]."

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"You gotta look at it this way," says 88-year-old Ray Peckham (right), who pressed the case for change on a soap box in the Domain in Sydney in the days before the referendum. "We knew who we were fighting in the campaign from the start. We had a power base in the trade unions, the churches and the student unions and universities and we had no financial support from government. Today, it's a different fight altogether.

"These are people who did it a lot harder in many respects than we are now," says Tanya Hosch, the AFL's general manager for social policy and inclusion. "Their determination and their ability to act collectively for a common goal is a remarkable example and I hope we see some of that coming out of Uluru."

Next week's convention, and the negotiations that follow, will be an indicator of whether, this time, the nation can have a successful referendum that leads to real change.

Will we get there? "It's hard to say," says Macgillivray, who grew up in Rockhampton, studied in Sydney, and joined the ABC last June.

"I hope one day we will, but if you're talking about being on an equal basis with everyone else, and being treated fairly and all the stereotypes will be gone and everyone will be happy in sunshine, I hope so, but it's not something I'm positive will happen in the next 50 years.


The story Change gonna come, remembering the 1967 referendum first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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