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.
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
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.