Saturday marked the start of National Reconciliation Week. This year the bookends are significant anniversaries of milestone events in the reconciliation journey. The 27 May marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Referendum and 3 June the twenty fifth anniversary of the landmark High Court decision in the Mabo case.
Both of these events are significant, not only for what they achieved in terms of advancing the rights of Indigenous Australians, but also for what they tell us about the path for meaningful change and the courage, resilience and bravery of the individuals driving it.
The 1967 Referendum granted power to the Commonwealth Government to make laws for Indigenous Australians and for Indigenous Australians to be counted as citizens in the national census. While the push for federal power over Indigenous affairs can be traced back to soon after Federation, the campaign began in earnest in the mid-1950s, driven by a small group of activists who formed the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).
Over 10 years, FCAATSI embarked on a tireless and passionate campaign. The FCAATSI kept the issue alive in parliament by tabling petition after petition – the Prime Minister of the day, Menzies, remarked “your petition has become like the prayer of the House now. It’s first up every day”.
The campaign weathered leadership changes, federal elections, the Vietnam War, debates about precise wording of the referendum, and failed private members bills and went on to become the most successful referendum in Australian history with 90.77 percent support. Despite some discontent that it failed to deliver the transformation hoped for, the referendum was a crucial step in progressing the reconciliation journey and speaks volumes about the determination and spirit of Indigenous activists.
One such activist was Eddie Mabo. After participating in the 1967 Referendum campaign, Eddie dedicated his life to the recognition of Indigenous land rights. And like the path to the Referendum, the path to recognition of Indigenous land rights was a prolonged one, arguably one that commenced at white settlement. It was Eddie Mabo’s bravery, courage and unwavering commitment, in a 10+ year battle through the legal system that formally upended the principal of terra nullius and recognised the unique connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to their ancestral lands. Former Prime Minister, Paul Keating in his historic Redfern Speech, spoke of the Mabo decision as “a practical building block of change … a historic turning point, the basis of a new relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians” – a critical step towards reconciliation.
As we reflect on the past, and look ahead to the Constitutional change and structural reforms that might serve as the next major milestones in the reconciliation journey, there are a number of lessons we might learn. The path forward is not always clear and progress not always swift. There will be roadblocks and obstacles forcing a shift in gears or a change in direction. But, we should be buoyed by the successes and inspired by the efforts of those who have gone before us. Through their effort, the foundations for reconciliation have been set and good-will in the form of bipartisan and community support for reconciliation.
Last week’s Uluru Convention demonstrated the path forward remains complex, but provides further cause for optimism and renewed motivation to forge ahead to achieve meaningful change.
And, just as we must sustain our momentum on the big changes, we must continue to focus on the smaller, practical measures that contribute to the overall reconciliation effort. Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs) are one way corporate Australia is doing this. In the last decade, over 820 organisations have adopted RAPs, driving important social change and economic opportunity for Indigenous Australians through job creation and the emergence of Indigenous enterprise.
Let’s take the opportunity this National Reconciliation Week to learn about and draw strength from the past, while maintaining our focus on the future.
Let’s stay the course, focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and continue to drive towards a reconciled Australia.