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Wesley Enoch - Brooke Boney - Emily Nicol
Photograph: Daniel Boud(L-R) Wesley Enoch, Brooke Boney and Emily Nicol

Two generations talk about the impact of the 1967 Referendum and the 1992 Mabo Decision

Emma Joyce
Written by
Emma Joyce

This month, we’re remembering two important dates in Australian history: the 1967 Referendum and the 1992 Mabo Decision. It’s 50 years since the vast majority of the population (90 per cent) voted to support a change to the Constitution, which ensured Indigenous people were counted in the census and gave the federal government power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It’s also 25 years since the High Court of Australia overturned the legal fiction of terra nullius, thanks to a campaign led by Torres Strait Islander Eddie Koiki Mabo. With the two anniversaries imminent, Time Out asked Triple J reporter and Gamilaroi woman Brooke Boney, 30, and Sydney Festival director Wesley Enoch, 48, to talk about the impact of these historical events.

On first learning about the 1967 Referendum

Wesley “My parents got married in 1967; they were 17 and 18, and there was a sense of moving forward, having a new vision for what the world could offer. My mother is non-Aboriginal but my father is Aboriginal. I wouldn’t say they got married because of the 1967 Referendum, but my life was a parallel all the way through. I grew up on Stradbroke Island, then we moved to Logan, south of Brisbane. It was one of those things you knew had happened. By the time I was in primary school all of the new policies were coming through.”

Brooke “As a kid growing up we knew that Aboriginal people had less rights than others, but it wasn’t until I went to uni that I realised all the things my grandparents would have been through, and my mum. My home country is northern NSW; they moved off missions when they started having fair [skinned] children. They weren’t very political people, but it definitely would have made their lives easier.”

On misconceptions of the referendum

Brooke “A lot of people think it was to allow people to vote. Then I think about it from a campaigning perspective and it makes sense that people didn’t know what they were voting for. The campaign ads said ‘Vote Yes for Aborigines’ with a photo of a cute Aboriginal baby.”

Wesley “People have lost track of what the ’67 Referendum meant and they’ve been conflated issues like Constitutional Recognition and the Recognise Campaign. There’s also a critical discussion to be had: what did the ’67 Referendum really mean? What did it achieve? Everything is cloaked in the idea that Torres Strait and Aboriginal people have deficiencies and that the government play a role in overcoming, rather than a real federal and national respect for, and understanding of, Aboriginal cultural values.”

Would we vote ‘yes’ again today?

Brooke “After the referendum an Aboriginal person – like my nan or pop – could walk down the street in Stanthorpe or Sydney and look around and know that nine of the ten people who walked passed had voted for their inclusion in this country. For the first time ever they had a measure for how people thought of them. You can’t imagine that. I can’t imagine walking down the street now and having people say ‘I support blackfellas’, like nine out of ten.”

Wesley “Ten per cent of Queenslanders voted for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Ten per cent voted ‘no’ in the referendum. Maybe it’s always been there. Think about the Marriage Equality plebiscite. The greatest fear is the lack of generosity and a lack of true public debate.”

Wesley Enoch talking with Emily Nicol
"Everything seemed possible at that time."
Photograph: Daniel Boud

On the personal impact of the 1967 Referendum

Wesley “Economically I’ve benefitted from it (job opportunities). Me and my family have been able to do simple things like buy a house and travel, which previously you had to get special permissions for – now those things have become our right. That’s been a huge plus and it’s also meant we’ve been able to move on and do other things. My sister is a politician, for example.”

Brooke “There’s no way I would have been able to go to uni if it wasn’t for special scholarships for Indigenous kids. I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of the people who fought so hard during those times. My grandfather couldn’t vote, wasn’t allowed into Parliament House, then two generations later I am able to travel around with the Prime Minister. It’s amazing how quickly change can happen if people are genuinely committed to it.”

On remembering the Mabo Decision in 1992

Wesley “I was working in Brisbane, in new theatres and detention centres with young Aboriginal kids. It felt like a momentum of change. The whole conversation around Reconciliation seemed possible at that time, everything seemed possible at that time. I remember talking with the kids about these decisions; the law of the land had acknowledged something we’d always known and there was this conflict: why do we need permission from these people to tell us something that we know is true?”

Brooke “I remember learning about it for the first time in high school. I remember thinking: why is it that we need to seek permission from these people? I was four years old [in 1992] and for so long this had been the legal truth about our country. It seemed so bizarre to me that there was this massive lie we were all living. It happened in my lifetime and it’s not that long ago.”

On fundamental change for Australia’s first people

Wesley “The ’67 Referendum was just a moment in time where we said we need to do something about this situation, to remedy to the things that preceded it. A lot of the discussion now amongst my peers is that maybe we need to go back to what it meant for Arthur Phillip and successive governors. Terra nullius [was declared] because there was no other legal way to understand the relationship they’d found themselves in. So do we have to go back to that and say that was a falsehood and every decision that was made from then is fundamentally wrong?”

Brooke “From the very beginning non-Indigenous people have benefitted from our demise. We find ourselves in this situation where things are unequal, where we are disadvantaged in so many ways. We need to have some sort of realisation as Australians that all of the good fortune – everything good about this place – was built on the back of the dispossession and misery of blackfellas. Unless we have that realisation as a country and stop putting the onus on blackfellas to fix our problems, I don’t think we’ll be able to grow and be the best country we can be.”

On the hard pills we have to swallow

Wesley “People say ‘well I didn’t do it’. Understand that whether your grandfather, your great grandfather or your great-great grandmother stole this land, the repercussions are that it replaced the economic system that was here. A system that didn’t believe in ownership of land was overtaken by people that did and there was no negotiation between the two systems. We are the beneficiaries of 200 years of dispossession and at some point we have to deal with that.”

Brooke “For me, [it’s about] recognition that we were dispossessed and that we’ve always been on the back foot. If you take away that history of dispossession and intergenerational trauma, then all that’s left to attribute all of the negative statistics is our race. It’s not our race, it’s the things that have been done to us. I get so riled up when people don’t recognise their privilege in that way.”

Brooke Boney talks to Emily Nicol
"It's about recognition that we were dispossessed."
Photograph: Daniel Boud


On removing racism from Australia’s Constitution

Brooke “How are we the only developed country in the world that still has elements of race in our Constitution? You can stop someone from voting based on race. Granted, that’s probably never going to be used, but why would we have it in there? It’s dangerous to still have it there. It’s not something that a modern democracy – a country as great as Australia – should have in our Constitution.”

Wesley “If you said to everyone ‘do you want to remove racism from the Constitution?’ [They’d say] Yes, let’s do it. Maybe the big change will come when Elizabeth dies and we have to think about a republic or not. [We need] a bigger discussion in the next ten years about what it means to be a republic and therefore to reset the conversation with Aboriginal Australia.”

On hopes for the future

Wesley “This conversation with Indigenous Australia is part of a whole maturation process that we really need to engage with. The juvenile nature of our politics comes because we haven’t really engaged with the long history of this landscape. We are not the deficit of this country, we have things to offer – ways of talking about how communities operate, the way arts and culture can be in the centre of all decision making and politics, the notion of Elders and the passing on of knowledge, the protection of landscape – we have so many things to teach. My hope for the future is that people look at Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Australia, not as something that’s going to hold the country back, but absolutely the key to help us grow into the future.”

Brooke “I hope that, instead of us or our issues being on the periphery, we’re a central part of the Australian identity. It’s something that is so special and we’re so unbelievably lucky to have it here – the oldest continuing surviving culture in the world. We’re such a beautiful people with a vibrant culture and an impressive and relentless will to survive and to thrive in such difficult circumstances. Instead of that being a threat to other people, or equality being a difficult thing for us to achieve, it should be something that helps us all move forward and feel stronger in being here on this country because it is so special.”

Brooke Boney is leading a panel discussion at Vivid Ideas called It’s Time. Or Is It? The Road to Constitutional Recognition.

Find the best Vivid Ideas talks and events taking place during Reconciliation Week.

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