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‘The eyes of the world are upon us’

Aboriginal people continued to be severely controlled by the Commonwealth and State Governments. This control prompted renewed vigour for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to campaign for Aboriginal rights, and so began a call to the nation for change.

Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship

In 1956, Jessie Street, now living in London and an executive member of the World Peace Council returned to Australia to report on the situation of Aboriginal people for the British Anti-Slavery Society. It was in this year that Street urged Aboriginal leader from Sydney, Pearl Gibbs, with Faith Bandler, a South Sea Islander activist for Aboriginal rights, to form the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship.

 “She rang me up late one night in 1956 (she always rang very late or very early) and said in her lovely, cultivated voice: ‘You can’t get anywhere without a change in the Constitution and you can’t get that without a referendum. You’ll need a petition with 100,000 signatures. We’d better start on it at once.’ And we did. Jessie’s role in our movement was absolutely vital. And she never wanted honour and glory. She’d give ideas away and the credit along with them.” – Faith Bandler talking about the pivotal role Jessie Street played in the campaign for the 1967 referendum.

The Fellowship advocated for Aboriginal rights, bringing together black and white activists. Pearl Gibbs was also Secretary of the Aborigines Progressive Association and had a key role in organising the Day of Mourning Protest in 1938. Faith Bandler and Jessie Street had met through the peace movement in the late 1940s.

The Warburton Ranges controversy

Meanwhile, on the other side of Australia, William Grayden, an independent Liberal member for South Perth had successfully pressed for a parliamentary inquiry into the welfare conditions of the Aboriginal people in the Laverton-Warburton Range Area. Grayden had seen first-hand the precarious conditions of life for Aboriginal people in this area when he had led an expedition to the Central Aboriginal Reserve.

The Report of the Select Committee inquiry into ‘Native Welfare Conditions in the Laverton-Warburton Range Area' caused great public controversy and raised questions of federal and state responsibility for the welfare of Aboriginal people. Many people were also shocked about the starvation and extreme deprivation experienced by the Aboriginal people.

When the findings of the report were questioned by Rupert Murdoch of the Adelaide News, Grayden returned to the area armed with a movie camera and accompanied by Pastor Doug Nicholls and other Western Australian parliamentarians. Pastor Nichols was a football star, an Aboriginal Minister and social worker from the Yorta Yorta people in Victoria. He became the pastor of the first Aboriginal Church of Christ in Australia.

This film, known simply as the 'Warburton Ranges film' was screened in major cities and to politicians. Many white Australians were shocked by its content of stick limbed children suffering malnutrition, and toddlers too weak or lethargic to brush away flies. For some people, the images were reminiscent of what they had seen in newsreels of Nazi concentration camps. Shocked and outraged, many people wrote to the Prime Minister, insisting the Commonwealth take action. 

Victorian Aborigines Advancement League

The 'Warburton Ranges controversy', as it became known, led to the formation of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (AAL) in 1957.

The League co-founders were Pastor Doug Nicholls, who was also its spokesman, and Doris Blackburn, a former federal politician and the second woman in Australia to be elected to the Australian Government’s House of Representatives. Stan Davey, a non-Aboriginal who devoted himself to working for the Aboriginal cause became the AAL Secretary and Gordon Bryant, the federal member for the Melbourne seat of Wills, impacted by the ‘Warburton Ranges’ film after seeing it, who attended the meeting at which the League was formed, accepted the position of its Chairman. The AAL quickly set about forming interstate affiliations through various contacts within church groups and trade unions.

In light of public reaction to the Warburton controversy, Jessie Street was convinced that the time was ripe to press the Australian Government for change. With the help of Brian Fitzpatrick, a journalist and one of the founders of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties and Christian Jollie-Smith, the second woman to be admitted as a solicitor in NSW, Street had drawn up a petition for a referendum to alter two clauses of the Australian Constitution; Sections 51 (xxvi) and 127.

On 29 April of 1957, the Fellowship with Aboriginal activist, Bert Groves as its President, held a meeting in the Sydney Town Hall with more than 1500 people attending, many were Aboriginal people. The ‘Warburton Ranges’ film was screened and the Fellowship launched the Petition for a referendum to alter two clauses of the Australian Constitution and to make Aboriginal Affairs a federal responsibility.

This meeting was hailed as a huge success and a little more than a fortnight later, the federal Labor parliamentarian, Les Haylen presented to the federal Parliament, the first of many petitions calling for a referendum to change the Constitution.

Over the next several months, Jessie Street, Shirley Andrews, a research biochemist from the Council for Aboriginal Rights in Victoria, Charles Duguid, a surgeon, founding member of South Australia’s (SA) Protection Board and President of the Aborigines Advancement League of SA, and Stan Davey from the Victorian AAL planned a Conference in order to found a national organisation to campaign for Aboriginal Rights.

The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines (FCAA)

In mid-February of 1958, a Conference was held in Adelaide for delegates to discuss a radical idea to form a federal council to press for greater Commonwealth involvement in Aboriginal affairs and to work for the removal of discriminatory state legislation.

The twenty-six conference delegates from all mainland States were mainly non-Aboriginal activists and three Aboriginal activists. They formed a unique socially and politically diverse group. The Aboriginal delegates were Jeff Barnes, who as a child was placed in a mission - the Colebrook Home in South Australia (SA) and later became the first Aboriginal man to join the Royal Australian Air Force in SA, Bert Groves and Pastor Doug Nicholls.

At the conference, the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) was formed and the Executive comprised largely of white men and women.

From the beginning, the FCAA adopted several principles to form the ‘basis for a common policy for the advancement of aborigines throughout the Commonwealth’. Conference delegates and the founders of the FCAA regarded ‘equal citizenship with other Australian citizens’ as central to the principles. Delegates realised to attain the goals of the FCAA, state-based affiliates would need to be established and would have to focus on calls for two particular changes.

  1. For the repeal of all legislation, both Federal and State, which discriminates against the aborigine, and
  2. For the amendment of the Federal Constitution to give the Commonwealth power to legislate for aborigines as for other citizens.

The Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement became the most important force in the national campaign for the 1967 Referendum.

The campaign for a referendum gained momentum not just through the work of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) but also through a range of events that struck at the core of the FCAA’s principles.

Soon after the meeting in Adelaide, the organisational arm of the FCAA set up in Melbourne. It remained there for the next ten years. Federal parliamentarian, Gordon Bryant played a key role in the FCAA’s early years, with his Wills electoral office becoming the communication hub for the Council and its State affiliates.

The Council took responsibility for the campaign for constitutional change, which had begun with the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship. They revised the original petition to affect a greater role of the Commonwealth as the pre-requisite for realising change in Aboriginal affairs, as the government which represented Australia in the eyes of the world and which had the greatest resources.

In a few short months, the Council had already gathered nearly 26,000 signatures on the new petition, which Gordon Bryant presented to the federal parliament.

In the same year, a Parliamentary Joint Committee report on the review of the Constitution decided that the section 127 be deleted on the grounds that it was liable to be misconstrued overseas as racially discriminatory.

In the following year of 1959, the Australian Labor Party’s federal conference adopted the alteration of Section 51(xxvi) and removal of section 127 as party policy. In the ensuing years, parliamentarians Gordon Bryant and Kim Beazley, who was the federal member for Curtin in Western Australia, were active supporters of the campaign for constitutional change.

Policy of Assimilation

In 1961, the Federal Minister for Territories Paul Hasluck agreed on and formalised a policy of assimilation at a meeting of federal and state ministers responsible for Aboriginal welfare. He announced the policy in a statement to the federal Parliament.

Launch of referendum campaign

In 1961, Joe McGinness, became the first Aboriginal President of the FCAA.

“We made it very clear that, as seen by us on the deputation, it was painfully ironical that while a census of sheep and cattle in the country was taken and the official popular number declared annually, the Aboriginal population was excluded from the exercise.”  - Joe McGinness

Joe McGinness claimed his political education came from the Cairns branch of the Waterside Workers Federation, of which he was an active member. He was the secretary of the Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League.

The campaign for a referendum was formally launched at a meeting in Sydney in 1962. Aboriginal speakers were given top billing since the Council felt it was important to raise their profiles and increase the participation of Aboriginal people in its work. Aboriginal representatives came from all states and territories, among them Kath Walker, a poet and activist who became the campaign national coordinator and undertook an Australian wide speaking tour.

Amendment of Commonwealth Electoral Act

The Australian Parliament’s House of Representative members amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 giving the vote in Australian Government elections to all Aborigines in 1962. It was not compulsory for Aboriginal people to register, but once they had, voting was compulsory.

Kim Beazley raised a Matter of Public Importance in which he urged the deletion of sections 127 and 51(xxvi) from the Australian Constitution. Gordon Freeth, the Liberal member for Forrest and then Minister for the Interior and Minister for Works, accused Labor of grandstanding and argued that though such changes might enhance Australia's international status, they would in practice disadvantage Aboriginal people as the States were better equipped to handle Aboriginal Affairs.

Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders

The following year, the Federal Council of Aboriginal Advancement changed its name to the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), in response to a request from the Torres Strait Islander people of the Torres Strait in Far North Queensland.

Northern Territory social welfare ordinance

A new Northern Territory social welfare ordinance gave the Director of Social Welfare power ‘over persons who in the opinion of the Director are socially or economically in need of assistance’. The Ward’s Employment Ordinance remained in force leaving Aboriginal people on Christian missions and government settlements unequal in employment, wages, vocational training and housing.

Equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers

Meanwhile, the campaign for equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers began when the North Australian Workers Union took a case for equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission.

Yirrkala bark petitions

The Yolngu people of Yirrkala in the Northern Territory, faced with 140 square miles being excised from the Arnhem Land Reserve for a Nabalco bauxite mine, sent two bark petitions to the Australian Government seeking Federal recognition of their rights to their traditional lands on the Gove Peninsula in 1964. Kim Beazley Senior MP moved that one of the bark petitions be printed and tabled.

Student Action for Aborigines 

In the southern state of NSW a group of young students from the University of Sydney formed a body called Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) to plan for a bus tour of western and coastal NSW towns.

They were inspired by the Freedom Riders of the American Civil Rights Movement and wanted to draw public attention to the appalling living conditions for Aboriginal people, challenge a ban against Aboriginal ex-servicemen at the Walgett Returned Services League and a demonstration against local laws barring Aboriginal children from the only public swimming pool in Moree, a small town at the heart of NSW’s northern wheatbelt – a region that endured many hot summers.

Charles (Charlie) Perkins, an Arrente man born in Alice Springs, a third year arts student at the university, was elected the SAFA president. 

1965 freedom ride

“The Freedom Ride was probably the greatest and most exciting event that I have ever been involved in.”Charles Perkins

In February 1965, Charles Perkins led 29 students including arts students Darce Cassidy, who was also a part-time reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on the bus ride of a lifetime, the 1965 Freedom Ride

The students ensured this important bus trip received national and international media coverage including television coverage. With news of the Freedom Ride beamed into homes, Australians came to see the things that weren’t right; segregation, racism, poverty and the appalling living conditions of Aboriginal people. The 1965 Freedom Ride was a significant turning point for the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, bolstering the campaign for a referendum. 

Lobbying Menzies

On 30 November 1965, thirty-six FCAATSI campaigners left Sydney by bus to Canberra to hold a peaceful, silent vigil outside Parliament House. Outside some held placards, “Give us Equal Rights through Australia” while others were inside lobbying Members of Parliament.

They were protesting a bill put to the House of Representatives by the Menzies government which included the repeal of section 127 and not section 51. Menzies described section 127 as being 'completely out of harmony with our national attitudes'.

The Prime Minister used his first reading speech to explain why he was not including the amendment of section 51 (xxvi) in the Bill.

The words are a protection against discrimination by the Commonwealth parliament in respect of Aborigines. The power granted is one which enables the Parliament to make special laws, that is, discriminatory laws in relation to other races-special laws that would relate to them and not to other people. The people of the Aboriginal race are specifically excluded from this paper. There can be in relation to them no valid laws which would treat them as people outside the normal scope of the law, as people who do not enjoy benefits and sustain burdens in common with other citizens of Australia...
If the Parliament had as one of its heads of power, the power to make special laws with respect to the Aboriginal race, that power would very likely extend to enable the Parliament to set up, for example, a separate body of industrial, social, criminal and other laws relating exclusively to Aborigines.

In the debate which followed the then leader of the Labor Opposition, Arthur Calwell, expressed his support for the repeal of s.127 but said that the Opposition would have liked to have s.51(xxvi) dealt with in the same Bill.

At the time, this was a valid argument put by Menzies but the electorate so strongly favoured the view that the clause was discriminatory and its removal would be a positive step for Aboriginal people, that the Prime Minister's point appeared academic and unconnected to the debate taking place in the community. The possibility he outlined seemed unthinkable.

Strong support for the amendment of s.51(xxvi) came from the Government Member for Mackellar, W.C. (Bill) Wentworth who was also championing the establishment of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Since the Bill before the House referred only to s.127, Wentworth intended moving a Private Member's Bill proposing that s.51(xxvi) be deleted and a new section added. Parliamentarians, Gordon Bryant and Kim Beazley supported Wentworth but the Government’s Bill was passed without amendment by both House and with no further action taken, the Bill lapsed.

A turning point for Prime Minister Menzies came later that afternoon, in the Prime Ministerial ante-room during afternoon tea when he met with a delegation of FCAATSI campaigners. Menzies offered Kath Walker a drink from his bar. She shook her head, "If we were in Queensland, you could be jailed for that," she told Menzies.

Faith Bandler recalls that shock and disbelief clouded Menzies' face. "I believe that was the turning point - the incident caused him to give the situation of Aborigines more thought."

Wave Hill walk-off

In August 1966, Aboriginal pastoral workers, mainly Gurindji people, walked off the job on the vast Vesteys' cattle station at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory. At first they expressed their unhappiness with their poor working conditions and disrespectful treatment. Conversations between stockmen who had worked for Vestey and the North Australian Workers' Union Aboriginal organiser, Dexter Daniels, led to the initial walk off.

The powerful Vestey Company had refused to pay the Aboriginal pastoral workers’ wages of $25.00 per week.

In 1967, the group moved to Wattie Creek, a place of significance to the Gurindji people. They asked author Frank Hardy to 'make a sign' which included the word 'Gurindji', their own name for themselves. Their disaffection was deeper than wages and working conditions. The walk-off from the Wave Hill Station to Wattie Creek was an initial response to Vestey’s refusal to pay, but the protest shifted to a more fundamental request - that traditional Gurindji lands be returned.

Although these stockmen and their families could not read, they understood the power of the white man's signs. Now their name for themselves, written on a sign, asserted a claim to Gurindji lands.

I bin thinkin' this bin Gurindji country. We bin here longa time before them Vestey mob.Vincent Lingiari

The referendum date is set

In 1967, the Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, announced the Government's intention to reintroduce the 1965 Bill to delete Section 127 of the Constitution tabled by Prime Minister Menzies.

This time, however, the Bill would also provide for the amending of s.51(xxvi) of the Constitution by deleting the words 'other than the Aboriginal race in any State'. Mr Holt said:

...the Government has been influenced by the popular impression that the words now proposed to be omitted from section 51(xxvi) are discriminatory-a view which the Government believes to be erroneous but which, nevertheless, seems to be deep rooted.

Mr Holt stated that the removal of the words would enable the Commonwealth Government to make special laws for the Aboriginal people if it were deemed necessary.

The Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam, in supporting the Bill pointed to the fact that the Labor Opposition had been calling for this action since 1961. He said that with the excision of the words in s.51(xxvi): the members of this Parliament will be able for the first time to do something for Aboriginals - Aboriginals representing the greatest pockets of poverty and disease in this country.

Gordon Bryant spoke of the long campaign which had been waged by the FCAATSI and the record number of petitions on the issue which had been presented to Parliament to bring about this alteration to the Constitution. The Bill was passed unanimously.

The Bill dealing with the Constitution's reference to Aboriginals was not, however, the only Constitution Alteration Bill to pass both Houses of Parliament at this time. The other related to the breaking of the nexus between the size of the Senate and the size of the House of Representatives. This was seen as the more controversial issue at the time.

On 14 March 1967, Prime Minister Harold Holt, in announcing the successful passage of the Constitution Alteration Bills, said that the Referendum (Constitutional Alteration) Act provided that if, within four weeks of the passage of the proposed laws through both Houses, the arguments for and against the proposed laws were forwarded to the Electoral Officer, he was to print them and send a copy to each elector.

The Government was preparing the ‘Yes’ case for this proposal and it was presumed that those who had voted against the Bill would prepare the ‘No’ case. Since no parliamentarian had voted against the proposals relating to Aborigines there was no ‘No’ case to prepare.

The date of the concurrent referenda was set for 27 May 1967.

FCAATSI members and others were jubilant that finally both proposed changes to the Constitution would be placed before the Australian voters. There was no room for complacency or rest and their campaign efforts intensified.

Ten years of activism towards constitutional reform ensured that the referendum campaign swung into action soon after the date for the referendum was announced.

FCAATSI established its campaign committee at the tenth annual FCAATSI Conference held in Canberra over the Easter holiday. National campaign co-directors were Joe McGinness and Gordon Bryant and state campaign directors were Kath Walker, Queensland; Faith Bandler, New South Wales; Bill Onus, Victoria; Mr L Bryan, South Australia; and Mr G Freeman, Tasmania.

The May-June issue of the FCAATSI newsletter, General Secretary Stan Davey set out a comprehensive five-point policy plan for the Australian Government, which was reprinted in Australian newspapers The Age and The Australian:

  • To establish a national policy on Aboriginal affairs based on the needs and desires of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders
  • To provide immediately for an expert survey of all matters relevant to Aboriginal affairs throughout the Commonwealth
  • To make provision for the establishment of a national secretariat involving all State Aboriginal authorities
  • To establish a National Education Foundation similar to that provided by the New Zealand Government for Maoris
  • To establish a National Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Board to encourage and protect the work of Aboriginal artists and craftsmen.

AIATSIS acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community.

We pay our respects to elders past and present.