Special flight recalls a long journey for activists
Peter Lalor
26th May 2007

THE proud activists of the 1967 Aboriginal referendum were used to old buses and protest marches; yesterday they turned out in a traditionally painted 737 for their 40th anniversary reconciliation flight from Sydney to Canberra.

How things have changed. Whereas before 1967 Aborigines weren't even counted in the census, yesterday they were in the captain's seat, in business class, economy and even working the trolleys.

Ray Davis of Redfern gave a "welcome to country" on behalf of the Gadigal people in the Qantas lounge to the 80-odd people who had come from all over Australia. Captain Andrew Bishop greeted everybody aboard the plane he was piloting.

Nobody paid more attention to the safety drill than mother of 12 and grandmother of 19 Gwen Russell. It was the first flight for the 75-year-old, who was born in a bark hut at Crescent Head.

Ms Russell said she didn't want to come and it was all the fault of her grandson, Sydney surgeon Kelvin Kong, who describes her as "the real star in our lives". He will use his grandmother's life story in an address tomorrow in Canberra.

"Two of my daughters are nursing sisters and three of the grandchildren are doctors," Ms Russell said.

She said she had no idea what was going on in 1967.

"In those days most blackfellas were ignorant of politics and the like," she said. "We were kept that way. My husband always said we had to better ourselves, and that's why we moved down south to get a better life for our kids. I reckon we did all right."

Captain Bishop is a nephew of 1967 leader Joe McGinnis and had Joe's daughter Sandra on his passenger list.

"I'm so proud to be here today," he said. "It's just an amazing feeling to have so many people who have done so much for our people to come together."

Co-patron of Reconciliation Australia and former tennis champion Evonne Goolagong-Cawley was 15 when the referendum passed.

"I was washing dishes in my coach's house and he came and told me," she said. "I was never very political but you can't help but be touched by these people here today."

Activist and former politician Joyce Clague said "it's absolutely wonderful to be on this plane".

Robert Anderson, 78, remembers the police special branch stalking him in Queensland as he campaigned for the referendum.

"It's been a very long journey for us all but we're here and I'm sure the spirit of those who fought with us is here too," he said.

Director of Reconciliation Australia and former Aboriginal affairs minister Fred Chaney said he was excited to be among his heroes. "It is wonderful to celebrate what these people did and wonderful to celebrate the unanimity of the Australian people 40 years ago," he said.

      © The Australian