The Australian — Paul Kelly Blog

The image of a tragedy

Saturday, May 26, 2007
THE stunning 1967 referendum is a paradoxical and misunderstood event in Australian history: a symbol of goodwill, a vote of breathtaking naivety and the launch point for the unresolved politics of division.

So profound is the confusion about the event that media commemorations of this weekend’s 40th anniversary misconceive the question, let alone its meaning. It is assumed the referendum gave citizenship rights to Aboriginals when it did nothing of the sort. It used to be assumed the referendum gave Aboriginals the vote, another misconception.

Australians cannot begin to resolve their great national issues while clinging to a child’s version of their history. After 40 years the ambiguity of this event needs to be confronted.

The inescapable conclusion from the cabinet papers and the politics is that the referendum put by the conservative coalition led by Harold Holt was not designed to redefine the constitutional place of the indigenous people but, rather, was a device to remove “misleading” impressions about racial discrimination in Australia.

It was about image, decency and making the status quo respectable. It was extending the Australian currency of the fair go to Aboriginals.

Such inclusion was a genuine expression of hope, yet the referendum beneath its idealistic gloss was a conservative event.

This is the key to the huge vote: 90.8 per cent voted yes, a result without precedent before or since. It was a sentiment that virtually transcended politics.

The people believed they were affirming Australian tolerance and goodwill. Holt was explicit: the referendum was a vote for the policy status quo. We were telling ourselves and the world that Australia did not discriminate against Aborigines. As future Aboriginal affairs minister Peter Howson told me years ago: “I don’t think we had looked at it as such a historic point. It was just putting to rights a situation that was - had been - anomalous.”

The vote was consistent with the policy of assimilation and had nothing to do with distinctive political rights for indigenous people, let alone land rights. The referendum did two things to the Constitution: it deleted section 127, which excluded Aborigines from the census, and it deleted the part of section51 (xxvi) that said the commonwealth could make laws for any race except the Aborigines.

The significance of the section 51 deletion is that it opened the door to assumption of policy responsibility for Aborigines by the federal government. But the Holt government, anxious to deflate expectations, said the states would retain the main responsibility. Holt was clueless about any new direction to improve the lot of the people.

Even such limited progress had been deemed too radical two years earlier, in 1965, when attorney-general Billy Snedden took the referendum proposal to cabinet but ran into the obstacle of prime minister Robert Menzies, who rejected the section 51 deletion.

Menzies, hilariously hailed this week by human rights lawyer Julian Burnside as a true Liberal who wouldn’t be accepted into John Howard’s party, rejected Snedden’s submission, saying it constituted an attack on assimilation.

Not without insight, Menzies said the undesirable upshot would be that Aborigines “would be treated as a race apart”. This was anathema to Menzies’ beliefs (and to Paul Hasluck’s anti-apartheid philosophy, which shaped the Liberal consciousness).

The upshot is that the referendum, like the death sentence for White Australia, won cabinet support only after Menzies’ departure, when Holt took high office.

Yet the strongest line Holt offered in his speech launching the yes case was that the provisions in question were “completely out of harmony with our national attitudes and modern thinking”. He warned that anything other than a yes vote would injure Australia’s reputation among fair-minded people everywhere. Image was important.

The vote generated its own pressures and Holt established a small Council of Aboriginal Affairs with H.C. Coombs as chairman, thus inaugurating a most unhappy period until Gough Whitlam’s 1972 victory.

On the Monday after the referendum, The Australian editorialised: “By itself, the vote is a statement of intent rather than a solution to any problems. Its very size, however, will be a valuable weapon for the proponents of reform in Aboriginal welfare.”

The champions of the indigenous cause, from the start, aspired to inject a political significance into the vote that transcended its constitutional modesty. This is the origin of the referendum as a noble moment and a turning point. It was natural for the Aboriginal leaders to think in this way and impose this interpretation.

The campaign, in fact, was partially hijacked by the ambitious outlook of the Labor Party and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Labor frontbencher and dedicated campaigner Gordon Bryant said “it would be a start on a national problem”, and Whitlam aspired to built an edifice on this foundation.

In her reflections on the referendum this week, Reconciliation Australia co-chairwoman Jackie Huggins said the event “became my dear mother’s life and it shaped mine”. She recalled the “shrieks of joy” at the result, with mum telling her “we would be free people at last”, as well as being counted, along with the sheep and cattle. For most people the elemental instinct was to improve the status and lives of Aboriginals. Herein lay the true meaning of the 1967 referendum: to achieve a united, homogenous society in which Aborigines won their status as Australians in their own right and were seen as equal citizens.

This idea, embraced convincingly in 1967, was overwhelmed a few years later by a political revolution in the indigenous agenda and leadership.

In reality, the referendum mind-set was a naive misconception that overlooked the entrenched causes of Aboriginal disadvantage and declined to penetrate the scale of the historical oppression. It mirrored an innocence that could not comprehend the whirlwind that was coming.

In the immediate post-referendum era the assimilation policy was dismantled, to be replaced by demands for indigenous rights, separate political recognition, land rights, special laws for the indigenous peoples, the flow of welfare funds and a campaign for cultural and political assertion that reached into various claims for Aboriginal sovereignty and self-determination.

The consensus represented by the 1967 vote was destroyed. It can never be repaired, as the simplicities of that age have passed forever. The referendum, far from offering a basis on which to settle Aboriginal policy, inaugurated the real contest. The fault line was between those who saw the referendum as an end and those who saw it as the beginning.

Australia had to evolve beyond the 1967 agenda. The tragedy is that this step remains so flawed and the conditions of the Aboriginal people 40 years later remain so deprived.

There are, however, two truths embedded in the 1967 message that are more pertinent than before: most Aborigines will find their livelihood within the mainstream economy and, like other citizens, Aborigines must accept responsibility for their own future.