In the Media – February Archives

Indigenous people a step closer to the  constitution

February 13,  2013   
Michael Gordon – Political Editor, The Age

Shirley Peisley with unnamed politicians lobbying for the 1967 referendum vote

Ms Peisley campaigning in 1967.

There will be echoes of 1967 in Parliament House on Wednesday when both sides  of politics pass legislation that will give momentum to the push to recognise  the first Australians in the nation’s founding document.

Shirley Peisley was 26 when she pinned badges on the lapels of politicians in  support of modest but hugely symbolic constitutional change. On Wednesday she  will watch as a new indigenous generation does the same in support of something  more ambitious.

Back then, Ms Peisley was a woman in awe, inspired by the leadership and  example of Lowitja O’Donoghue, who organised her trip from Adelaide to a  planning meeting for the 1967 referendum campaign. Like most of the activists,  they stayed at Brassey Hotel, then called Brassey Hostel. ”Anyone who had a  room – and some of us did – would have swags all over the floor,” Professor  O’Donoghue recalls. ”The dining room was full of people who weren’t guests. It  was amazing how they put up with us.”

Lowitja O'Donoghue and Shirley Peisley in CanberraLowitja O’Donoghue and Shirley Peisley on Tuesday. Photo: Andrew  Meares

When they weren’t talking about the struggle or singing We Shall Overcome  and other anthems of the American civil rights movement, Professor  O’Donoghue recalls some of the activists throwing boomerangs on the vacant land  opposite.

  This week, the two women are back in the same digs, and hoping that the  unity, energy and optimism that abounded almost half a century ago will be  replicated – and help transform the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait  Islander people.

The 1967 referendum resulted in indigenous Australians being counted in the  census and gave the national government the power to make laws for their  benefit, but only conferred what Noel Pearson described as a ”neutral kind of  citizenship”.

The Act of Recognition to be backed by Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott confers  a positive acknowledgment of the unique place of the country’s first peoples,  their culture and their languages – and is the forerunner to a referendum to  enshrine this recognition in the constitution. In the spirit of reconciliation,  the Prime Minister will acknowledge the courage of Kevin Rudd in delivering the  apology to the stolen generations this day, five years ago – and of the  indigenous people for accepting it.

Ms Peisley’s expectation is that, like the 1967 referendum, the proposed  change will win the support of more than 90 per cent of voters. But, like  Professor O’Donoghue, she admits to being on tenterhooks. ”This is what we’ve  worked for all our lives – to see us as being part of the country,” she  says.

”The biggest fabrication was creating a constitution that said nobody was  here, that the land was barren and empty. We definitely were here. It’s  the biggest lie ever told in this country and we’ve got to change that. It’s  about setting the record straight.”

Professor O’Donoghue agrees, and says one of the biggest challenges is to  achieve the kind of unity among Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders that  prevailed in 1967. But she has a deeper worry that stems from the experience of  being part of special symbolic moments that don’t lead to far-reaching change on  the ground – the 1967 referendum, the bridge walks of 2000 and even the  apology.

”I live in hope every time that something special like this comes, that  something special comes from it,” she says. ”But every time our hopes and  dreams are always shattered – not at the time, but later. We don’t get any  satisfaction. This time I’m hoping it will be different.”

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