In 1967, 55 years ago, a referendum was held in Australia to allow a change to the Constitution that would remove the last impediment to the recognition of our Aboriginal people as full citizens. Australians are slow to accept constitutional changes: we have held 44 referenda since Federation, but only eight returned a positive result. Yet the 1967 referendum succeeded dramatically – 90.77% voted YES. It was an extraordinary outcome and a matter of lasting pride to me that I was among those 90% of the voting public who voted in favour.
Of course 1967 was the era of student revolution worldwide. Young people were in ferment. Demonstrations demanding change were frequent and often violent. Everywhere policies were changed and governments fell in response to passionate radicalism. Some will remember the old cry: ‘one two three four / we don’t want your ***ing war!’
So was the 1967 constitutional change just a consequence of youthful zeal? Of course not. A 90% YES vote can only be explained by a huge cross-generational shift in thinking. Those of us who were young at the time agreed with the shift, but we hadn’t initiated it. It was the fruit of many years of reflection, of the good intentions of a society that wanted to be just and fair.
Half a century later this has mostly been forgotten. In our modern and pessimistic world few can imagine, few can even bring themselves to believe, that their grandparents actually felt strongly about the Aboriginal cause. Isn’t it common knowledge that my generation were vicious racists? Hey, Whitlam didn’t even become Prime Minister till 1972! How could we have done anything half-decent before his visionary leadership woke us all up?
But the fact is that we did. And you can meet many older people (if you try) who went to school with Aboriginal mates and played sport with them. They’ll often tell you now that things have changed since those times, and that mutual suspicion has gradually squeezed out friendship. The two communities are actually growing further apart, not closer as we hoped they would. That was just a dream some of us had.
Throughout the years of my early schooling I can recall no ill will towards Aborigines. Those who taught us about them did so with respect, warmth and not a little sadness. We all knew that we had taken their land, but we also knew that, in the cities at least, their dispossession had been complete and that there was no way back – especially at a time when immigration into Australia was further enriching the mix and changing our understanding of what it meant to be Australian. From the Fifties onwards ‘New Australians’ were living side by side with us, and with the oldest Australians of all; our agreed common goal was integration.
Since these exciting events two generations ago relations between the ethnic groups have actually worsened. Millions have been spent, millions have been wasted (or worse), interracial discord has grown more bitter, Aborigines continue to feel neglected, and poorer ‘white’ people are becoming increasingly resentful of financial advantages going to fellow citizens who ‘identify’ as indigenous. Aboriginal elders are very concerned by the growing number of people who assert aboriginality on the basis of the most tenuous family links (or none at all), for they know their whole community could suffer reputational damage from false claims.
In 1971, four years after the constitutional change, Neville Bonner became Australia’s first indigenous member of parliament. He was initially appointed to replace Queensland Senator Annabelle Rankin (who had resigned) but was subsequently elected in his own right and served for many years as a courageous voice for Aboriginal rights. He was both a social conservative and a civil rights activist, a brave individualist who would cross the floor if he had to, putting principles before party.
Bonner was the first of many. There are now 10 Aboriginal members of the Australian Parliament, amounting to 4.5% of the total number in both chambers. This roughly corresponds to the proportion of the population who claimed Aboriginal status in the last Census. Is there really a need for an additional race-based Voice in the governance of our nation? Isn’t it now time to acknowledge that we are a multiracial society, that the blood and DNA of all the nations on earth have been blended here?
If we do finally accept that, we surely must conclude that all pensions, benefits, privileges, and grants of any kind should be dispensed solely on the basis of need, without regard to race or background.
Dr David Daintree AM is Director of the Hobart-based Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies