Legislative Council: Wednesday, September 13, 2023


First Nations Referendums

The Hon. T.T. NGO (15:25): I rise to speak about a children's picture book which tells of the injustice Aboriginal people suffered before Australia's 1967 referendum. The book, titled Say Yes, provides young children with a lesson in history about the racist reality of Australian society in the 1960s.

Most Australians will likely have some understanding of how life was for Indigenous Australians in the sixties; however, I wonder if we are all familiar with the simple truths told in this picture book. Say Yes reminds us of the 1902 rule for teachers working in government schools called 'the exclusion on demand policy', which was practised in parts of Australia up to the seventies. The rule gave parents the right to request that an Aboriginal student be removed from their children's school on the basis that they may have disease or could be a bad influence on the white kids.

In the sixties, the town of Moree in New South Wales had a law that Aboriginal people were not allowed in the local swimming pool. Aboriginal people living in the town of Bowraville in New South Wales could not enter a cinema through the main door or sit near white Australians. In Queensland, as well as some other parts of Australia, if an Aboriginal person needed to travel to another state because of an illness or death in the family they had to request permission first.

Author of Say Yes Jennifer Castles and illustrator Paul Seden tell how two young women, Mrs Jessie Street and Mrs Faith Bandler, are making speeches everywhere about the unfair way Aboriginals are treated and about the importance of changing the law and voting yes in the 1967  referendum. The illustrations and text describe how two children, one white and an Aboriginal girl called Mandy, want to go to the movies together, but the law says they are not allowed. When they start school they cannot sit next to each other because this, too, is not allowed. When Mandy's grandma is sick and Mandy and her mum pack a suitcase to visit her, they are not allowed on the train because they do not have permission from the Director of Native Affairs.

In the centrefold of the book there is a photograph of Ruby Hammond taken in 1967, collaborating with Andrew Jones MP, the Liberal member for the federal seat of Adelaide. The pair are pictured together holding a 'Vote yes' message. As we know, Ruby Hammond was our first Aboriginal woman to run for parliament in 1988. Although unsuccessful, the state electorate of Hammond now honours her name, and she certainly paved the way for other Aboriginal women to make their mark.

Australians consider the 1967 referendum to be a great turning point that rightly gave our First Nations people equal rights. More than 50 years later we can look back and acknowledge the positive changes. However, we can also see what has not worked. Moving forward, we can do better. Australia is the only member of the 54-nation commonwealth that does not have a treaty with its First Nations people.

The Uluru Statement talks about Voice, Treaty and Truth. Establishing a Voice is only the first step. Without an Indigenous Voice, how can we have Treaty and Truth? Without an Indigenous Voice, how will the stories, cultures and histories of our First Nations people be passed on to our future generations? Without an Indigenous Voice, how will governments know what will work better so we can achieve better outcomes for our Indigenous communities?

Mr President, 27 May 1967 is described as a good day in this book. On 14 October 2023, I hope this nation has another good day and Australia says yes once again.