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Mixed results for Indigenous rights, 40 years -

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Mixed results for Indigenous rights, 40 years after referendum

Reporter: Deborah Cornwall

This Sunday will mark 40 years since the referendum in which Aborigines were finally given full
citizenship rights. The push for Aboriginal rights has produced mixed results, with poor health and
poverty rates in Indigenous communities remaining an international blight.


KERRY O'BRIEN: This Sunday will mark 40 years since that embarrassingly long overdue referendum in
which Aborigines were finally given full citizenship rights in their own country.

The overwhelming "yes" vote was the culmination of a 10-year campaign by white and black
Australians, led by the daughter of a South Sea Islander slave, Faith Bandler.

At the time it was widely hoped the referendum would also deliver something closer to equality for
aborigines, but after more than 100 years of deep inequality, Aborigines were also looking for

Forty years on, the push for Aboriginal rights has produced mixed results. The poor health and
poverty rates of Aboriginal communities remain an international blight.

Deborah Cornwall reports on the campaign which led to the 1967 referendum, and its legacy.

Indigenous viewers are warned that this story contains images of people now deceased.

MALE ABORIGINAL ACTIVIST: You can't trust a bloody black fella doesn't matter where he is. He gets
on the plonk and he won't work.

YOUNG BOY: A few of them are nice and they're clean and they wear nice clothes and everything but
most of them are all dirty and everything.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: Aborigines were all but invisible in 60s Australia. Most of them fringe dwellers,
forbidden to travel, denied entry to pubs, paid in meat and salt instead of dollars. Under the rule
of State welfare boards they weren't even counted in the national census.

FAITH BANDLER: What has been forgotten in the history of the country are those terrible years when
the first people were locked away on reserves. Their whole lives were totally controlled by one
white person.

ABORGINAL ACTIVIST 1: We were being herded into almost a concentration camp. In our own country.

ABORGINAL ACTIVIST 2: My father, and anybody of his generation couldn't go beyond year 4 at school.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: At the time, the only Aborigines allowed to live or work outside the reserves had
to have a licence. They call them dog tags.

FAITH BANDLER: The dog licence could be bought from the Aboriginal welfare board. I mean, it's too
crazy to think of it today, but that's how it was.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs Faith Bandler.

(audience clapping)

DEBORAH CORNWALL: It was in this climate, Faith Bandler a daughter of a South Sea Islander slave,
began pressing a simple proposition. She wanted Indigenous Australians to have the same citizenship
rights as White Australia. Opening the doors to basic Commonwealth services like health and
education. And the mood for change was gathering force.


FAITH BANDLER: Never to bring reconciliation and healing...

(end of music)

DEBORAH CORNWALL: In 1965 Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins led a busload of university students
on the now infamous Freedom Ride, touring NSW confronting locals and demanding an end to

CHARLIE PERKINS: The white person in Australia must be educated to be able to understand the
Aboriginal person to be more tolerant towards him.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: A year later, stockmen in the Northern Territory staged the first ever strike by

(excerpt from A Changing Race)

NARRATOR: These Aboriginal stockmen are on strike. They walked off the job over a month ago. Their
wives, children and relatives went with them. This is the Wave Hill mob.

(end of excerpt)

DEBORAH CORNWALL: It started with a call for equal wages at Wave Hill pastoral station but quickly
developed into ownership of the land.

(music by Jimmy Little)

DEBORAH CORNWALL: Jimmy Little, Australia's best known black entertainer of the '60s was another to
join the fight for recognition.

JIMMY LITTLE: Now perhaps for the first time, you are going to see a film in which nothing but
coloured people of my race are given the opportunity to express themselves and tell you of the
problems which have prevented them from their rightful place in this community.

ABORIGINAL ACTIVIST: They hung on every word I spoke, and what a grand opportunity to say, "Hello
friends, oh by the way, there's a lot of Jimmy Littles out there who want the same opportunity."

JIMMY LITTLE (singing): Vote yes for Aborigines.

(excerpt from archival footage)

FEMALE ABORIGINAL ACTIVIST: The referendum is on Saturday and it's important that we should have
the maximum vote because the eyes of the world are on Australia.

(end of excerpt)

DEBORAH CORNWALL: After a decade long campaign in clubs and Town Halls across the country, in May
1967 Faith Bandler and her supporters in the Federal Council of Aborigines and Torres Strait
Islanders finally got the referendum they had been fighting for.

An overwhelming 90 per cent of Australians voted yes, ushering in a new order for Aborigines and
paving the way for unprecedented spending on welfare and education programs.

FAITH BANDLER: I couldn't believe it. (Laughs) Couldn't believe it. I didn't think that people
cared that much about it.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: It would take another 26 years before the High Court delivered the landmark Mabo
judgment, a final recognition that Aborigines did have a claim to their native lands.

But while land rights are mired in legal battles and the life expectancies of Aborigines remains a
scandalous 17 years short of the national average, Faith Bandler believes the gains four decades
on, have been profound.

FAITH BANDLER: Today we have young people walking in and out of universities like I walk in and out
of my kitchen. Well that was unknown not that long ago.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: Lawyer and Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson says the referendum was a
remarkable achievement. But he fears many of the gains in the past 40 years have been squandered.

NOEL PEARSON, CAPE YORK ABORIGINAL LEADER: What was not well understood back then was that putting
people on a permanent hand out would ultimately unravel the strengths that they had managed to
muster together in 100 plus years of prevailing against all odds.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: Noel Pearson's tough love doctrine has antagonised many Aboriginal rights
activists. But his call for Aborigines to start weaning off welfare and begin aspiring to home
ownership and mainstream jobs is now being championed by the Howard Government as an historic new
direction for Aborigines.

NOEL PEARSON: There's no white saviour being in the form of an omnipotent government or a
bureaucrat at the frontline of that government. They can't save us and they can't guarantee a
future for our children. Only we can do that.

FAITH BANDLER: Look at this poor old tree.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: At 89, Faith Bandler says hers is now a very private life well away from the
front line. But she often reflects on the extraordinary struggle she faced to bring the rest of the
country along with her.

Would you do it all again?

FAITH BANDLER: Oh, I'm sure I would. I'm sure I would do it again. Wasn't easy, but it was most

KERRY O'BRIEN: The 40 year anniversary and the faith of Faith Bandler. Deborah Cornwall with that

(c) 2007 ABC