June 1, 2017 The 1967 Referendum and Mabo weren’t that long ago

Reconciliation Week has celebrated two steps forward – let’s get them situated.

It’s far from perfect, but Australia has been making some show-shuffling movements towards improving things for the Indigenous community over the past few decades, and it’s worthwhile celebrating the victories even as we gesture towards the vast amounts of work still left to do. It’s also worth thinking about how people will look back on 2017 in 25 or 50 years.

Will it be with pride, dismay or something in between?


50 YEARS AGO – 1967 Referendum

It’s been half a century since Australians voted overwhelmingly (90.77 per cent in favour, to be exact) to take the first step towards giving Aboriginal people the same constitutional status as every other Australian, and we’ve been patting ourselves on the collective back ever since.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the battle was easily won – it took decades to get the idea onto the national political agenda, as well as a range of Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups pushing for the change. And it certainly doesn’t mean everything magically became better overnight. A quick look at the response to this year’s call for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous body and/or a treaty with the Federal Government shows just how difficult it is to push Indigenous issues into the mainstream even today.

What else was happening in 1967?

Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared while swimming, we got postcodes and colour TV, and both Barnaby Joyce and Nicole Kidman were born. Oh, and Ronald Ryan was the last man officially hanged for his crimes in Australia, so it was a banner year for long-overdue reform.


25 YEARS AGO – Mabo Decision

The Mabo decision was a game-changer for Native Title claims, and since June 3, 1992 it has replaced the previous legal doctrine of terra nullius (the idea that nobody owned the land down under when it was claimed for England).

For the past quarter-century, the law has recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have rights to the land that existed before the British arrived. When you’re under the age of 25, that many years seem like a long time, but bear in mind that Eddie Mabo’s battle for land rights was fought for more than a decade before that.

Imagine starting something when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister that was only wrapping up now. Then imagine you died five months before the High Court’s decision. That’s what happened to Eddie, who didn’t live to see victory.

What else was happening in 1992?

Strictly Ballroom hit cinemas, Peter Sterling retired from rugby league and Gina Rinehart’s dad died. Oh, and the ban on gay people serving in the military was lifted, so it was a banner year for long-overdue reform.

Shane Cubis
is a contributor for A•STAR