That Time Australia Got It Right

“A country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become. Now, this country is going to be transformed. It will not be transformed by an act of God, but by all of us, by you and me.”

James Baldwin
Notes For A Hypothetical Novel


With so much perpetual wrong hanging overhead, lingering like some ominous storm cloud, it’s so easy to gloss over the times we as a nation actually got it right concerning Indigenous affairs. May 27th marks 50 years since the 1967 Referendum and for mine is the proudest moment in Australian history. An overwhelming 90.77% of Australians voted to amend our constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census. Whilst this still wasn’t a vote about equal rights for Aboriginal people it was a step in the right direction, many believing it to be key in establishing those civil rights. For the first time in 179 years First Nations Peoples were now seen and counted as human beings. 90 plus percent is a fairly convincing fraction, you might call it a landslide. Pat yourselves on the back Australia – Good job. We can proudly say that in 1967, less than 10% of the population deemed the first ‘Australians’ less than human.

It seems so absurd doesn’t it. That a referendum was even needed to classify Aboriginal people as people, of course they are. We all eat, sleep and shit. We hurt, cry and bleed just the same, hell our blood is even the same colour. So why so much contempt and hatred for a fellow human being by no other means than the colour of his or her skin? In fact if we are to get technical, every single derogatory tag or stereotype attached to Aboriginal Australia has come about by the hand of Europeans. We’ve defined a victim and persecuted him for it. With such a large victory 50 years ago, the thing I struggle with is why haven’t we moved further than where we are today? As I mentioned the vote was not about equal rights, but I would like to assume that of that 90.77%, the majority would be in favour of an inclusion of Indigenous culture into our mainstream.

On ANZAC Day this year I was once again reminded of the distance. It was so glaringly obvious, but as I’ve spoken about before, the status quo is so engrained in us, that everything is just fine the way it is, that we look straight past it. Despite having a rather anti view on war in the first place, please understand that I say the following with an utmost respect and gratitude for the Australians that have fought and died for our country. I was a little late to the dawn service at Nobby’s Beach here in Newcastle, or Whibay Gamba as it is known to the Awabakal and Worrimi Nations, so I cannot confirm if there was an acknowledgement or welcome to country, however I can confirm that there was no inclusion of Indigenous culture anywhere else throughout the service. Whilst over the past few years we’ve seen the acknowledgements and special interest stories and documentaries of Aboriginal soldiers flow through, they are still treated as such – special interest stories. What highlighted the gap was the inclusion of Maori tradition in New Zealand’s parts of the ceremony. A member from the community was introduced to the stage and gave an address in Maori tongue and then later, as it is tradition for every single New Zealand National event, God Defend New Zealand, the national anthem is sung first in Maori before it is sung in English. How can our little sister nation that we look down on get it so right while we remain so clueless?

Until recently I didn’t know of Australia’s 1967 Referendum. Only through my own reading and research have I learned about it. All my life I’ve known that Captain James Cook sailed into Botany Bay and ‘discovered’  Australia, but not a word about how, in my parents lifetime no less, the whole country stopped and voted to include its original people as humans. Just another reminder to me that we live in an exclusive country – great for most, no so much for others. SBS have done a wonderful job this month of promoting and sharing stories of this important date, however the people that need to be watching are still of the idea that SBS programming is foreign news, soccer and nudity with subtitles. This date is positive. This is something we can proudly say we got right and so it should be celebrated and owned by mainstream media. The idea of including traditional culture in our mainstream excites me. First Nations culture should be the jewel in our crown yet we treat it like a blemish. I for one would be proud to stand up and sing our National Anthem in traditional language at public events. I want to embrace a culture with more substance than meat pies and Holden cars and I believe celebrating significant moments in history like the Referendum would help inspire pride in becoming a culture of inclusivity.

Earlier this year my partner and I attended 1967: Music In The Key Of Yes, a performance at the Sydney Opera House to commemorate the 50th anniversary. An ensemble of Indigenous artists singing songs of protest and freedom. The whole show an example of how powerful a positive fusion of traditional and western culture can be. I have never understood exactly what freedom is. I’ve never had to and I am truly thankful to live in a country that has a system in place that assures me as a white male I probably never will. 90 something percent screams to me that we are capable of extending that luxury.

In 1967 we came together and did a good thing. I don’t want to discount the significant steps taken since the Referendum, but we can do so much more. Forget the politics, forget the greed and lets just do what is right and just. We will never be able to fully atone for the crimes committed in our past and present, but we can change to make sure they don’t happen again. Lets listen and learn. Lets note the example of our neighbours, embrace our original culture and be proud of it.

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