“History is calling”. Will Constitutional change bring justice for First Nations peoples?

On the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, two non-Indigenous academic historians published a book reviewing that campaign and its achievements. The paradox of 1967, they said, was that the change which it made to the Constitutions was very minor; yet now it is “commonly described as ‘historic’ and ‘momentous’, a ‘turning point’, a ‘landmark’ event”, and its anniversary is “a cause for enormous celebration.”

They then quote Aboriginal activist Ken Brindle, who told Faith Bandler twenty years after the vote:

"You ask me now why I didn’t get too enthusiastic over the referendum? To tell you the truth I really didn’t understand it… You were more far-sighted...[I]f I knew then what I know now, you wouldn’t have been able to stop me...No Aboriginals knew what benefits they’d derive from changing the federal Constitution, but if they could have foreseen the present situation they would have worked for it too..."

Now when I sit down and see what it brought about, I say: “Thank Christ for Bandler and [Shirley] Andrews and their mob”.1

Why is this relevant today? Because it shows that the changes that followed the 1967 Referendum came not so much from the actual alteration to the Constitution’s wording but from the pressure the movement for a Yes vote put on the Commonwealth to take responsibility for action to improve the desperate situation in First Nations communities across the country.

The 1967 Referendum, in formal terms, changed almost nothing. But the people who campaigned for it had an agenda for change which they had been developing over previous decades, and they convinced the majority of voters that, if the Commonwealth gained the power under the Constitution, these changes would come. It didn’t happen straight away, but when the ALP took power in 1972, they were able to build on that mandate to make some significant reforms, the benefits which Ken Brindle was identifying. These included the first Federal land rights bill, a significant injection of funds into community-controlled organisations, and the passing of the Racial Discrimination Act.

So, yes, including a First Nations Voice in the Constitution is important of itself, but the lesson from 1967 is that the real impact of this change will only be felt if the movement to establish it is strong enough to begin to reverse the shift to the political right that has occurred since Howard came to power in the 1990s. If a big enough majority demand that First Nations have a Voice in decisions affecting them, then they will have that Voice, and politicians and bureaucrats who refuse to listen will do so at their peril.

For the Voice to have a lasting impact, including progressing the other demands of the Uluru Statement for treaty-making and truth telling, the movement we build now to win the Referendum will need to continue to apply pressure on governments, just as Federal Council for Aboriginal Affairs did after the success of the 1967 Referendum. This pressure will be needed to ensure that the parliament legislates a strong Voice model, based on wide consultations, and building on the significant work that has occurred already. The process of designing the Voice legislation must be properly resourced, as must its operations once it is established.

It is hard to understand, therefore, why some progressive organisations, parties and individuals, would ignore the lessons of 1967, and choose not to join a campaign to build the biggest possible majority for a Yes vote. Why would they not want to take the opportunity to work in their unions, workplaces, localities and social movements to convince their friends and colleagues to join this movement, to rebuild a momentum even greater than when hundreds of thousands of people across Australia took part in bridge walks and other actions in support of Corroboree 2000? Does anyone really believe that somehow the demand for more radical change, such as a treaty recognising sovereignty, can be progressed without such a movement? And do they think that the ten year campaign it took to win the 1967 referendum was a waste of time, and that nothing ever changes, until everything does?

This is not to say that those who advocate for sovereignty and a treaty are acting in bad faith. Many people have argued this position for decades now, ever since Kevin Gilbert articulated it in the 1970s. These demands were adopted by significant national organisations, including the first National Aboriginal Conference and the National Federation of Land Councils. At Barunga in 1988, the Hawke Labor government actually promised to begin negotiation both on a treaty and on national land rights. But despite the strength of the movement which had been built over previous decades, it was rolled back by conservative forces, led by mining companies who saw this as an encroachment on their rights. A major right wing racist backlash movement was launched, the effects of which are still being felt today, in the ongoing presence of One Nation and the dominance of neoliberal and neo-conservative ideologues within the coalition parties.

The First Nations traditional owners, community-controlled organisations delegates and local community activists who took part in the Referendum Councils regional dialogues and the Uluru Constitutional Convention have lived this history. In 2017, they reached a consensus on a set of demands to begin to move things forward again, demands which they judged to be an achievable program in the current circumstances. They asked non- indigenous Australians, to mobilise to help them achieve their demands. Of course, there was some dissent, including from some of those who had chosen a different path, towards state-based treaties; and from those who were determined not to give up on Kevin Gilbert’s vision of a sovereign First Nations Australia negotiating a treaty with the Commonwealth under international supervision. But there were many who also supported these demands, in whole or in part among those voting for the Statement, seeing them as part of a much longer-term strategy, requiring a lot more change in Australia before they could be achieved. As Pat Anderson has said, the Voice is the only real proposal currently on the table. This is what we can and must progress. This is what this generation can achieve, today, just as the reforms of 1967 were the limit of what that generation could achieve. History is calling.

Bob Boughton

SEARCH member and Co-convenor of the Voice Treaty Truth Working Group.

1 Attwood, B. & Markus, A. The 1967 referendum: race, power and the Australian Constitution. AIATSIS 2007, p.65

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