Our his­tory

Fifty years ago, in the run-up to Aus­tralia’s 1967 ref­er­en­dum on in­clud­ing Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in the cen­sus, one im­age summed up the mood of the na­tion.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - JOHN PICK­RELL

Racial dis­crim­i­na­tion – what’s that?

TWO DAYS BE­FORE the 27 May 1967 ref­er­en­dum, this im­age ap­peared on the front page of the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald ( SMH) un­der the head­line “Racial dis­crim­i­na­tion – what’s that?” The boys pic­tured hold­ing hands in a lane in the Syd­ney sub­urb of Chip­pen­dale were six-year-old Mark An­thony (right) and five-year-old Vic­tor Hookey.The cap­tion be­neath read “To th­ese two Aus­tralians, Satur­day’s ref­er­en­dum on Abo­rig­ines will not mean much – they prob­a­bly have not heard of racial dif­fer­ences.”

The im­age was part of a se­ries taken on 24 May by pho­tog­ra­pher Ge­orge Lip­man and it ap­peared in the news­pa­per the fol­low­ing day along­side a story with the head­line “Few peo­ple un­der­stand nexus is­sue”.This talked about an­other mat­ter be­ing voted on in the ref­er­en­dum – the ‘nexus ques­tion’ on al­ter­ing the bal­ance of num­bers in the Se­nate and House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

A com­mon mis­con­cep­tion to­day is that the 1967 ref­er­en­dum was a vote for Abo­rig­i­nal rights, or that it was about al­low­ing Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians to vote. In fact, Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple could al­ready vote and had done so in the 1962 Com­mon­wealth elec­tion – ev­ery­where, that is, ex­cept Queens­land, which didn’t leg­is­late for that right un­til 1965.

The 1967 ref­er­en­dum was ac­tu­ally on whether Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lander peo­ple would be counted in the cen­sus and on chang­ing the con­sti­tu­tion to give the fed­eral gov­ern­ment pow­ers to make laws specif­i­cally for In­dige­nous Aus­tralians.

What isn’t in doubt is that 90.77 per cent of peo­ple voted yes for changes they hoped would im­prove the lives of Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lander peo­ple.This is the most over­whelm­ing land­slide ever recorded in an Aus­tralian ref­er­en­dum, and the re­sult re­flected a wide­spread de­sire for po­lit­i­cal progress on is­sues sur­round­ing

In­dige­nous af­fairs.

In 2005 the SMH launched a cam­paign to track down the kids in the photo and 10 years ago, on the 40th an­niver­sary of the ref­er­en­dum, the news­pa­per an­nounced it had been able to find Vic­tor. He ac­knowl­edged the photo had been staged. “In the style of the times, the pho­to­graph was a set-up,” noted the 2007 SMH ar­ti­cle. “In re­al­ity, the boys weren’t found hold­ing hands, in­stead they’d been hold­ing out their hands ask­ing for money.”

The two were friends who had sneaked out of Ersk­ineville Pub­lic School, but when Ge­orge Lip­man found them they were beg­ging. “We were just mis­chievous things, ask­ing peo­ple for money and pre­tend­ing we were lost,” Vic­tor told the news­pa­per, which failed to lo­cate his mate Mark.

Sadly, the ref­er­en­dum didn’t de­liver, as many peo­ple had hoped it would, on rapidly im­prov­ing the lives of In­dige­nous Aus­tralians. But it is cred­ited with sow­ing the seeds of the Abo­rig­i­nal rights move­ment that grew in Aus­tralia in the 1970s, in­clud­ing the cre­ation of the Tent Em­bassy on the lawn of Par­lia­ment House in 1972 and the sub­se­quent push for In­dige­nous land rights.

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