How the 1967 referendum was won

May 19, 2007

May 27 marks the 40th anniversary of the overwhelming victory of the 1967 referendum, in which almost 91% of the Australian people voted to give the federal government the constitutional power to override the brutal, degrading racist laws of the states under which Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were tormented. The federal government now had the power to make specific laws in respect to the Indigenous people. The Australian people had sent a clear signal that it was time for Canberra to make laws, introduce programs and provide the necessary resources to end the racial oppression of Indigenous Australians.

In Canberra on the day of the anniversary, in an act of insulting hypocrisy, PM John Howard, who heads the most anti-Indigenous rights government that has ruled since the passage of the 1967 referendum and which has sought to roll back whatever gains the Indigenous people have achieved since, will preside over the main national commemorative event. He will be joined by Labor leader Kevin Rudd, who has embraced the so-called "tough love" anti-welfare views of conservative Indigenous identity Noel Pearson.

It is promised that the "honoured guests" of the ceremony will be the surviving members of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), the national organisation that spearheaded the campaign for the referendum. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the real history of the referendum movement will emerge through the fog of official platitudes and cynical celebration: that the referendum, and its overwhelming endorsement by the Australian people, was the product of decades of determined political struggle by a "black-red alliance" — an Indigenous-led alliance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations with the left and labour movements.

Day of Mourning and Protest

This alliance had its origins in the upsurge in Aboriginal activism in the 1930s, particularly in south-eastern Australia. Independent Aboriginal-led organisations emerged to campaign for land rights, civil rights and specifically for the abolition of the dictatorial racist state Aboriginal "protection" Acts.

Founders of the Victorian-based Australian Aborigines League (AAL) and the NSW Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) were active trade unionists and some were members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), a party that had campaigned for Indigenous people's rights since its formation in 1920. Through the Depression, close links developed between CPA and Indigenous activists through trade union struggles and the activities of the Unemployed Workers Movement.

The 1930s upsurge culminated on January 26, 1938, with the APA-AAL-organised national all-Indigenous protest during the sesquicentenary anniversary of the British invasion. About 100 Aboriginal people defiantly gathered in Sydney's Australian Hall (150 Elizabeth Street) to call for full citizen's rights. They called the day a "Day of Mourning and Protest", because, in the words of the organisers: "the 26th of January, 1938, is not a day of rejoicing for Australia's Aborigines … This festival of 150 years of so-called 'progress' in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed upon the original native inhabitants by the white invaders of this country."

APA President Jack Patten announced, "The conference is called to bring home to the white people of Australia the frightful conditions in which the native aborigines of this continent live. We ask for full citizen rights, including old age pensions, maternity bonus, relief work when unemployed, and the right to a full education for our children." CPA member and NSW Labor Council vice-president Tom Wright organised trade union support for the protest and helped draft the manifesto the meeting issued, which the CPA printed and distributed around Australia.

Emergence of a national movement

During the 1940s and 1950s, a series of struggles put Aboriginal rights on the national political agenda, and exposed to the wider Australian population just how severe the federal and state authorities' racist restrictions were on Indigenous people's civil and political rights.

The most significant struggle of the 1940s was the epic 1946-49 Pilbara Aboriginal stock workers' strike. In July 1944, WA CPA member Don McLeod reported to the CPA central committee that Indigenous leaders — including Clancy McKenna, Captain, Dougal, Dooley Bin Bin and Kitchener — were travelling from station to station preparing workers for action. On April 27, 1946, Aboriginal stock workers began walking off 20 stations. Police immediately arrested McKenna, Dooley and McLeod. Four-hundred strikers marched on the jail armed with crowbars and hammers, forcing McLeod's release.

The Committee for the Defence of Native Rights (CDNR) in Perth, led by CPA members, held several successful meetings, including a 400-strong public meeting. The CDNR galvanised support from trade unions, women's organisations, churches and local authorities, as well as winning national and international support.

In March 1949, as the strike approached its fourth year, police arrested 30 strikers. In response, Aboriginal workers walked off most of the region's remaining stations, bringing the pastoral industry in the Pilbara to a halt. The Seamen's Union in June banned the handling of wool from the stations. The CPA's international connections resulted in the workers' cause gaining publicity throughout the world, culminating in October 1949 with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Vishinksky denouncing Australia before the United Nations for flouting the Aboriginal workers' human rights. As a result of the sustained pressure — it was Australia's longest continuous strike — the WA Native Affairs Department withdrew its support for the pastoralists.

In the Northern Territory in the late '40s, the CPA-led North Australian Workers Union (NAWU) campaigned for equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers and backed strikes by Aboriginal workers living in Darwin's apartheid-like "townships" — the Berrimah and Bagot compounds.

Aboriginal NAWU organiser and communist Joe McGinness attended the 1951 Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Congress seeking support. NT and WA CPA activists collaborated with their comrades in the capital cities and in other states, as well as with existing and new Aboriginal rights organisations. More than 30 unions expressed solidarity with the NAWU, and financial support was provided by state and federal unions, trades and labour councils and the ACTU.

As a 1962 ASIO document moaned: "the CPA press gave much publicity to every incident involving the aboriginal people … This publicity included allegations of colour prejudice; appeals to trade unions to help aborigines both financially and politically; protests at evictions of aborigines from houses; 'historical' articles; attacks on governments for implementing the policy of 'full rights' too slowly; allegations that "wealthy squatters, pastoral companies and mining monopolists are furious at the advances made towards equal pay, education and other reforms; … approval of strikes by aboriginals; and the building, among Communist-controlled trade unions like the Waterside Workers' Federation, the Miners' Federation and the Seamen's Union, of a campaign for full citizenship rights for all aborigines."

Referendum campaign

By the late 1950s, there were broad-based Aboriginal rights support organisations in most states. A number of key Indigenous leaders were members of the CPA and/or militant trade unionists. These included Faith Bandler, wharfie Chicka Dixon and building worker Ray Peckham, who were active in the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship (AAF) formed in Sydney in 1956, and Kath Walker (better known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal) and Gladys O'Shane from Queensland. Joe McGinness, now a wharfie in Cairns, was a leader of the north Queensland Indigenous rights movement (in 1961, McGinness became the president of FCAATSI).

Non-Indigenous communists were also leading members in many state organisations, notably Barry Christophers and Shirley Andrews in Victoria and Len Fox in Sydney, together with left-wing Labor Party members, such as MPs Les Haylen and Gordon Bryant, as well as more conservative liberals and Christians. CPA-led or -influenced trades unions, including the Waterside Workers Federation, the Builders Labourers Federation and Building Workers Industrial Union, provided invaluable support.

The actual launch of what was to become the referendum campaign was a packed meeting in Sydney Town Hall on April 29, 1957, where the AAF launched a mass petition drive calling on the federal government to hold a referendum to delete discriminatory clauses from the constitution and to take over the states' control of Aboriginal affairs. One of the key architects of the petition, along with Bandler, AAF president Bert Groves and famed radical Jessie Street, was Christian Jollie-Smith, a barrister and a founding member of the CPA.

The formation of FCAATSI at a conference of representatives of eight state-based Aboriginal rights and welfare organisations in Adelaide in January 1958 boosted the struggle nationally. FCAATSI adopted the AAF's petition. Already thousands of signatures had been collected. In October 1962, another big meeting, this time organised by FCAATSI, "relaunched" the petition. Ninety-four separate petitions — 103,000 signatures — had already been presented in federal parliament. Shirley Andrews was the national coordinator of the petition drive. Campaign committees were set up in each federal electorate.

By 1965, the campaign had the support of the ACTU and the Australian Council of Churches. The presentation of petitions by local MPs was now daily (even PM Robert Menzies had to table one from his constituents). The pressure was such that Menzies agreed to meet a delegation of Indigenous FCAATSI leaders. Following the meeting, the PM offered the delegates drinks. Kath Walker bluntly told him, "You know, Prime Minister, where I come from, you would be put in jail for this [offering booze to an Aborigine]".

Nevertheless, Menzies and then Harold Holt continued to resist holding a referendum, in particular on amending the key section 51 to allow the federal government to make special laws for Indigenous people, and to override state laws.

Between 1965 and 1967, even as the mass petition drive gathered pace, the Indigenous rights movement continued to mobilise. Two now historic struggles undoubtedly helped tip mass support in favour of Indigenous rights to such a degree that the government could no longer ignore the referendum demand.

The first were the "Freedom Rides" through rural NSW beginning in February 1965, organised by Sydney University's Student Action For Aborigines (SAFA). About a quarter of the white members of SAFA who joined SAFA president Charles Perkins on the historic trip were young CPA members. The action exposed the continued segregation and the appalling living conditions under which Indigenous people lived, in shanty towns and on reserves and missions, in country towns in the "deep north" of NSW. The trip was filmed by a TV camera crew and the graphic scenes of apartheid-like segregation and racist violence stunned the country.

The second was the NT Aboriginal workers' historic "walk-offs" in June 1966, led by the Gurindji people. The workers accepted the assistance of the NT Council for Aboriginal Rights (NTCAR), in which Communists George Gibbs and Brian Manning were leading members. Gibbs was secretary of the NAWU's militant wharfies' section, whose executive had a CPA majority. Manning was also a wharfie. Renowned author and CPA member Frank Hardy chronicled the event in his book The Unlucky Australians.

The CPA and left-wing unions sponsored a speaking tour of the southern capitals in October 1966 by Dexter Daniels, an NTCAR leader and NAWU organiser, and Mundanganna (Lupgna Giari), a Gurindji strike leader. FCAATSI organised a national campaign in support of the strikers.

In March 1967, the Gurindji moved en masse to the centre of their land, Dagu Ragu, or Wattie Creek. With the help of Hardy, the workers drafted a petition to the governor-general for the return of most of the Wave Hill pastoral lease, which was in the hands of the giant British corporation Vestey's. When the federal government offered a lousy eight square miles for a settlement, the Gurindji continued their land occupation. They were still there in 1972, when the Gough Whitlam Labor government was elected with a promise to legislate in favour of land rights, and a small land grant was finally given to the Gurindji.

On March 1, 1967, PM Holt finally relented and introduced a bill to change the constitution by referendum to repeal section 127 (which excluded Aborigines from being counted in the census) and to amend section 51. On May 27, the referendum passed with a massive overall 90.77% majority, and a majority in all states. FCAATSI's Gordon Bryant concluded the day after: "The vote is an overwhelming endorsement of the view that it is time for material action. The government cannot hide behind constitutional inhibitions, nor can it hide behind a faith in public apathy. This vote represents a great national demand for action."

That historic indication of the Australian people's support for equality did not come from nowhere. It was the culmination of decades of hard-fought mass struggles by Indigenous people, their organisations and their allies — with communists, black and white, playing a leading role at every stage — which swung public opinion and laid the groundwork for the emergence of a new phase of independent Indigenous political activity in the 1970s, and to this day.

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