Frances Peters-Little on the 1967 referendum, Voice and the struggle for Black rights

Campaigners for the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal rights
Campaigners for the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal rights. Photo: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Inset: Frances Peters-Little.

This year’s referendum on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to parliament invites a reflection on the 1967 referendum, in which more than 90% voted to include First Nations peoples in the census.

Kamilaroi/Uralarai woman Frances Peters-Little directed the 2007 film, Vote Yes For Aborigines, which explores the political context in the lead-up to the 1967 referendum and its aftermath. Green Left’s Isaac Nellist spoke to Peters-Little.

Why did you make Vote Yes For Aborigines?

I started the film before the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. [Prime Minister] John Howard was obsessed with the way Australian history had to be represented — the “history wars”.

At the time, scholars such as historians Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan were challenging non-Indigenous historians’ views about Aboriginal history: they wrote about how many Indigenous people had died or were massacred.

Howard was trying to make us all feel comfortable about the country’s history and promoting “mateship”. It was ludicrous: citizenship tests even included questions about who was the best batter on the Australian cricket team!

Aboriginal groups found it difficult to get our heads around the fact that more than 90% had voted in favour in 1967.

While we were making the film, others were thinking about what another referendum on Aboriginal rights might be about and how popular would that be. Would it get a similar result?

It is important to remember that for generations there have been underhanded campaigns dedicated to quashing anything to do with Aboriginal people's rights, and the horrors this country is based on. There are still people in power who don’t want Australia’s real history to be taught.

The film hears from a wide range of people, including First Nations activists and former prime ministers. Why did you feature different perspectives?

It was important to appeal to general audiences. That meant interviewing politicians, even conservatives like Warren Mundine, as well as Aboriginal activists. By the time I made the film, the 1967 referendum was history; a lot of people didn’t know much about it.

Remember, activists aren’t always the same and activism takes all sorts of forms. From the outside, the activists fighting for constitutional change and the referendum appeared very calm and conservative, but they were far from it: they were trying to get the point across without being too confrontational.

At the end, the film explores the outcomes of the vote, with some expressing disappointment on the lack of progress. More than 50 years on what are your thoughts on this?

First, we have to be aware that there have been a lot of misconceptions around what the referendum was about and what it achieved. Some think it was about making Aboriginal people “citizens”, or giving us the right to vote. But the referendum didn’t change that.

The referendum meant Aboriginal people were included in the census, which started gathering information about our lives and socioeconomic status.

It allowed us to start talking about the economic gap between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people. It also transferred management of Aboriginal affairs, including for education and health, from the states and territories to the federal government.

I don’t think anyone was expecting such a positive result. The 1967 result meant Aboriginal people felt like we did count as people. It deeply heartened people; they felt they had won a huge social and legal victory.

Unfortunately, after that everything fell flat. But it is interesting now to think about why it did. What did it achieve and what did it set out to do? How effective was it in hindsight and what did it actually change? A lot of things did change, but it wasn’t what was expected.

What do you think about the government’s referendum on the Voice to Parliament and the different political context?

The idea of constitutional change, treaties and voices to parliament are not new ideas. Treaties have been discussed since the 1970s, when Aboriginal people looked at models such as the Native American treaties.

The Bob Hawke government was looking a treaty, or compact, with Aboriginal people, but that fell apart. Even Howard was talking about whether there should be a preamble added to the Constitution. The context has changed since then. There are also more Aboriginal politicians and bureaucrats.

My big concern is what is the question being put forward? What change do you actually want in the Constitution and what will it mean?

I don’t know what is being put forward. I live in an Aboriginal community and I have no idea. And we still haven’t agreed on how the Voice would function.

The only thing I have been able to pick up is that the Voice would only act in an advisory capacity. If that is the case, why don’t we go back to the ATSIC [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission] model that Howard shut down in 2005? ATSIC functioned as a funding and advisory body that relayed Aboriginal concerns to the federal government.

Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe is concerned the government’s Voice proposal could threaten sovereignty. What do you think?

It seems like the Voice will be pretty toothless. I don’t think that having a Voice or constitutional change will improve Aboriginal peoples’ right to claim sovereignty.

People are saying it is about time Aboriginal people are recognised in the Constitution. But we are already mentioned in it.

The people behind the Voice campaign were, for the most part, also involved in the Recognise campaign. Many First Nations leaders were involved in discussions, including Megan Davis, Pat Anderson, Noel Pearson and others. They went around talking with people, holding meetings with land councils and with activists.

The organisers invited people to the Uluru National Constitutional Convention meeting, but many who attended disagreed with it. However, the Uluru statement was put out and sponsorships started coming from Qantas, BHP, various football clubs and other multinationals to fund the Recognise campaign, which then led to the Voice proposal.

I am still not sure how Aboriginal people will benefit. It will certainly benefit a few, but it could lead to more bureaucratisation and make us more dependent on government funding and control.

Mundine and Jacinta Price, who are pushing the “No” campaign, are doing it for their own political gain. It is easy to get praise as a contrarian, but I don’t trust their motives.

Your film looks at First Nations-led campaigns leading into the 1967 referendum. Do you think the Black Lives Matter/Stop Black Deaths in Custody campaigns and the growing awareness of Australia’s colonial past will have an impact on the Voice referendum?

There were direct links between the referendum committee and prominent campaigns such as the Gurindji strike, that began in 1966, with some of the same people working on both.

Other campaigns, like the Freedom Rides, were less directly connected but received lots of media attention. Occasionally, we would be in the papers or on television talking about deplorable conditions.

It helped create an awareness that hadn’t really been there before because of the great Australian silence on Aboriginal history. The media played a huge part in addressing what was already a huge gap.

However, I am constantly amazed that people didn’t know this, or that, regarding what happened to Aboriginal people: when we were invaded and policies that have continued to diminish our rights and sovereignty.

I was one of the founding members of the Black Deaths in Custody organisation that led to watch committees and eventually the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

I support the campaigns against Black deaths in custody, against mining companies destroying our land and other campaigns. We are forced into a situation where we have to keep fighting. It's good that people get out in the streets and demand change.

The fight will go on and people will try to block us wherever they can, stop us from having our own rights, our own justice systems, our own land. If Aboriginal people had control of the legal system, there wouldn’t be 10-year-old kids in jails.

I worry about our grandkids’ future. People say things are getting better, and on some things they are. But the gap between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people isn’t closing.

The best thing we can do is stand aside and let more young people take charge. I am very inspired by Greta Thunberg and other young people standing up for the climate. I want people like my son to be able to say what they want. And I want to stand aside and support them. It is going to be their world, and they should have more say about how it should be.

[Watch Vote Yes For Aborigines on Vimeo.]