In the Media – Archives 25 May 2007
PM – Aust commemorates Aboriginal referendum
PM – Friday, 25 May , 2007 18:34:00
Reporter: Nance Haxton
MARK COLVIN: If you weren’t around for the 1967 referendum on Aborigines, or you can’t remember why it mattered, think about this.
Before that vote, Aboriginal people weren’t counted as people, they came under the Flora and Fauna Act.
It was 40 years ago this Sunday, and there’ll be commemorations around Australia to mark the importance of a move which for the first time led to all Aboriginal people being counted in the census.
Nance Haxton reports
(Aboriginal activist song)
SINGERS: Yes, yes, yes for freedom. We need your vote, we ask your vote for yes, yes, yes for freedom.
NANCE HAXTON: The referendum in 1967 was the culmination of years of activism by civil rights campaigners in Australia.
It took 10 years of petitions and lobbying politicians before then Prime Minister Harold Holt finally set the date of May the 27th for Australians to decide whether Aboriginal people should be counted in the census.
Adelaide woman, Shirley Peisley, was a fresh-faced teenager when the campaign began.
SHIRLEY PEISLEY: So many of us wanted to be involved in the referendum because we thought we would be able to change some of those terrible things that people were talking about.
NANCE HAXTON: Then known by her maiden name of Shirley Watson, she became involved after having her eyes opened one sunny day on Adelaide’s Semaphore Beach.
She was with a gathering of friends when police pulled up and questioned her. Until that point she did not realise that under South Australia’s Aborigines Act, she was not allowed to mix or consort with white people.
At that time each state had different laws governing Aboriginal people, and although her family was exempted from the Aborigines Act without their knowledge or consent, it was the underlying injustice that put the fire in her belly to start the process of national change.
SHIRLEY PEISLEY: Some of the stories just stayed in my mind. Particularly the stories that came from two great men Captain Major and Thompson who were Gurringi they were from Wattee (phonetic) Creek, and they were stockmen. They talked about how they worked from dawn till 10 o’clock at night for no wages.
NANCE HAXTON: The referendum questions were simple, should Aboriginal people be counted in the national census, and should the Federal Government, not just the states, be able to make laws concerning Aborigines?
Shirley Peisley is in one of the most famous photos of the era, pinning a “vote yes for Aborigines” badge on then Labor Senator Reg Bishop on referendum day.
SHIRLEY PEISLEY: Like a lot of people, he wanted to speak very strongly about the importance of the referendum and the right vote. I think he was delighted.
NANCE HAXTON: University of Adelaide politics lecturer Greg McCarthy says the referendum was one of the most pivotal events last century for Aboriginal rights.
GREG MCCARTHY: Interesting referendum that both political parties actually agreed that they would support the case so there was unity in the political level.
NANCE HAXTON: Is there a sense that some of that initial optimism and euphoria after the referendum, has that now waned?
GREG MCCARTHY: I think yeah. I think that 40 years on the optimism has waned in government, that we do feel that both the Liberal and Labor 40 years on are not weathered to civil rights as they were.
There is a very strong sense that it may have been a period that we wasted the opportunity given by the Australian population in 1967.
NANCE HAXTON: Mrs Peisley was on the board that helped produce the play Never Turning Back which is now playing in Adelaide, to commemorate the anniversary of the referendum.
(excerpt from the play)
ACTOR: So…(inaudible) hoping to spot an Aborigine! (laughter from the audience) And we’ve been told that there could be one right here in this area.
NANCE HAXTON: The referendum anniversary has also brought up issues that have been on the backburner for years, such as whether an apology should be given to members of the Stolen Generation.
A song about a mother’s reaction to having her child taken away features in the play Never Turning Back.
(song from the play)
FEMALE ACTOR (singing): How can it be? My brown-skinned baby, they take him away.
NANCE HAXTON: Shirley Peisley hopes that the public rally and march through Adelaide’s city centre and other capital cities around the nation on Sunday makes people pause to consider what Aboriginal people have achieved in the past 40 years, as well as what still needs to be achieved.
SHIRLEY PEISLEY: We have come a long, long way. We live better, we live longer, we are seeing more children at school. Things that really didn’t happen before. And for me I think it’s about people working together, collaboration, we can do so much when we work together.
(Aboriginal activist song)
SINGERS: We shall not be moved. Black and white together. We should not be moved, just like a tree standing by the waterside. We shall not be moved!
MARK COLVIN: Nance Haxton prepared that report.
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