From the Best of Intentions to the Sorry Present

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

18 thoughts on “From the Best of Intentions to the Sorry Present

  • john.singer says:

    In 1967 we voted to remove the last impediment to equality in our Constitution. The aboriginal people were only excluded in the 1901 Constitution because some of the States would not cede that power to the Commonwealth, the 1967 Referendum remedied that.

    Racial division and Citizenship inequalities do not belong in 21st Century Australia and they don’t belong in our Constitution.

    • Max Rawnsley says:

      Agree John but our betters hold a contrary view that we must resist.

      It’s another power grab that erodes freedom and does zip for indigenous who should benefit from the billions bestowed on their betters annually. Without a better start from early childhood they are doomed to captivity by the grants and tax redistribution.

  • Brian Boru says:

    We are a land of migrants, from the very first in their canoes or who even walked here. Those who came in chains, those who fled famine, those who fled or survived genocide and war and it’s consequences. To those who came by jet plane yesterday.
    We acknowledge that in our past, as in most nations, bad things have happened. But we strive to be one people, equality of opportunity for all, no privilege by birth or class, truly one people.
    Welcome to you all.

  • pmprociv says:

    Clearly and succinctly stated, David, and I fully agree, especially with your concluding paragraph. There are plenty of non-needy ATSI people in Australia, as well as plenty of needy non-ATSIs. Social welfare should be directed at those most in need, regardless of ancestry, and its prime goal should be to promote personal agency in one’s own (and one’s dependents’) well-being. The Indigenous Voice to Parliament will permanently splinter our nation along ethnic lines, in addition to bringing in various other foreseeable (and maybe non-foreseeable) problems. It will achieve nothing for the 20% of the Aboriginal population that lives in remote regions, ostensibly its main beneficiaries. I simply can’t fathom how so many apparently educated and intelligent people are advocating this idiocy.

  • RobyH says:

    Great article. There is no need for the Voice in the constitution. The government can legislate a voice now ….as they have done many times over the last 50 years.

    If it can already exist – why put it in the Constitution. I would suggest it is because the activist wants a permanent “blak” government over all of us. Anything legislated can be withdrawn (as it should be)

    If the Voice looked or advised on solely ATSI legislation it may be more relevant – but it is designed to govern all laws. Very very dangerous – imagine what High Court judges will do if this comes in.

    • NarelleG says:


      “I would suggest it is because the activist wants a permanent “blak” government over all of us .”

      According to NT in July 2022 – there was 49% under NT with 13% ‘pending.’

      Keith Windschuttle says in his book The Breakup of Australia that they aim to have 100% under their control with a 7th black state.

      With all the pockets of land being given over to them in the last few months – what % is under their control now?

  • bruce_ploetz says:

    It is well to remember the second line in the famous 60’s chant:

    1, 2, 3, 4
    We don’t want your f’ing war!
    5, 6, 7, 8
    Organize and smash the state!

    Those of us in the States who were draft age can be forgiven for not wanting the war, and it didn’t take much more rhetoric to talk us into wanting to “smash the state”. After all, college students have little stake in the game. Sounded like an exciting adventure, not a civilizational disaster.

    “Can it be that it was all so simple then, or has time re-written every line? If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me would we? Could we?” (Thank you Barbra Streisand)

    Those who want to tear down the system always appeal to our highest aspirations while secretly planning to indulge their lowest hidden passions. Why tear down the good with the bad, if you are not planning to embrace tyranny?

    By the late 19th century, the followers of Karl Marx realized his inane vision of history, the proletariat rising up against the oppressor and so on, was just not going to happen. More intense internal divisions were needed to replace the one between the rich and the poor, as the poor were raised up by the widespread use of fossil fuels and the extreme cold of the Little Ice Age eased.

    The latter-day would-be tyrants divide us in every way possible. Ideally for them, fomentation of hatred is created based on immutable human characteristics. Race, sex and so on. Poverty doesn’t work that well, as you can work your way out of poverty. To keep us divided, angry and insane the propagandists keep up the steady beat of divisive lies.

    This is how we go from a utopian vision of peace and equality to the intensely antagonistic tribal dystopia we have today. It was not a failure of the hopes and dreams of those who voted for the Constitutional Alteration of 1967. It was the terror of those who feared that their tools of oppression would be weakened by peace.

  • Max Rawnsley says:

    Is there not a legislative capacity for some fotm of recognition of defined indigenous under Section 7 of the Australian Constitution?

    • RobyH says:

      Barnaby Joyce many years ago proposed something along these lines.

      The larger problem with the Senate is that Tasmania has as many senators as NSW. This is democratic failure …. There should be a referendum on this legacy nonsense – not whether we want a blak government to preside over us but rather we want equality in our vote

      • Brian Boru says:

        I don’t agree. The Senate was designed as the States’ house and that was the deal that the people of Australia endorsed at federation.
        We also have a system of proportional representation for the Senate and that also is good for our democracy.
        Please don’t try and unscramble the egg.

  • Blair says:

    “The two communities are actually growing further apart, not closer as we hoped they would. That was just a dream some of us had.”
    This division is actively promoted via the publlc TV station, SBS and its NITV Channel.

  • Katzenjammer says:

    Many groups, religions, nationalist, sports, hobbies, etc organise their own representatives to present their cases to the government. Only one can’t manage to do that without funding and organisattional structure determined in hand with the government. That’s surely a sign they have no suitable internal arrangements among themselves.

  • Daffy says:

    I want to know, if the Euro-British contribution to life on this continent is so disastrous, why so much inter-marriage between members of the different ethnic groups? Seems to me that the real losers would be those of pure Aboriginal parentage where seem to be the real losers now; particularly women and children. What is any concocted Airbus Albo ‘Voice’ going to do to ease their plight?

  • geoff_brown1 says:

    I went to school in the early 1960’s with Aboriginal students – I was gravely assured not so long ago that Aborigines were barred from going to school at that time…

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    David Daintree,
    We differ rather strongly about events around the 1967 Referendum, but that is healthy. I was 26 at the time and aware of the political process. I recall very little of movements in the streets or elsewhere about aborigines and the Referendum, but plenty of words on the radio and on our emerging TV. Afterwards, by research with the National Library, I found that the Feds had isseud next to nothing for a No vote but heaps for the Yes vote – and that was my impression at the time. The Feds just talked vaguely about correcting a wrong in the Constitution.
    People then and now remember the aboriginal question, but who remembers the other question, the nexus? Very few, which shows something about the power of propaganda.
    Special Interest groups, dominantly those wanting a Yes vote, distorted the real meaning of the question by widespread assertions that aborigines were at last going to get a basic freedom, namely, the right to vote. This struck me at the time as quite deceitful because I studied what the question was about. It was my first experience with interest groups telling blatant lies but the scales then feel from my eyes evermore.
    People voted because the Feds told them it was proper and correct, not because they understood the questions. People deeply respected PM Menzies and his long term as PM up to a couple of years before Harold Holt and if Menzies said an act was proper, most people did it, almost like patriotism. That is why the % Yes was so high, little to do with intrinsic merit.
    Patriotism is nearly dead now, thanks to many low class pollies that followed Menzies. Geoff S

    • Brian Boru says:

      Geoff, of course my memory is blurred by time but I can’t remember any talk at that time about giving aborigines the right to vote as a reason to vote “yes”. I also can’t remember anyone voicing anything to support a “no” vote. I can’t remember anyone foreshadowing any kind of legislation that could follow. It was just about removing an anachronism.

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