Jessie Street Trust
1967 Referendum Fortieth Anniversary1967 Referendum

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SpeakersSharpe The Hon Penny

Page: 75

    The Hon. PENNY SHARPE [3.56 p.m.]: Jessie Street was a great Australian feminist, a peace activist and an influential campaigner against racial discrimination in all forms. On 20 April I had the privilege of attending the 18th annual Jessie Street Lunch. The annual lunch is held in conjunction with the Jessie Street Trust and the Street family. This year's speaker was Professor Marcia Langton, who spoke intelligently and eloquently about the ongoing failure of the Federal Government to address the real needs of Aboriginal people. Another important part of the lunch was to hear the report back on the outcome of the Jessie Street Trust grant from 2006.

    In 2006 the Jessie Street Trust awarded funds to Reconciliation Australia to tell the stories of seven women who organised and campaigned in the lead-up to and during the 1967 referendum campaign to formally recognise Aboriginal people for the first time in the Australian Constitution. The fortieth anniversary of the 1967 Federal referendum is on 27 May this year. The second question asked of voters in 1967 sought changes to the Constitution that would enable the Commonwealth to make specific laws in relation to indigenous people and to take account of Aboriginal people in determining the population of Australia. This question was resoundingly successful; it was an achievement in itself, given that only eight of 48 constitutional referendums have ever succeeded.

    At 90 per cent, the yes vote was higher for this question than for any other referendum question on the Constitution put to the Australian people before or since. This resounding result is widely recognised as a defining moment in our nation's history and a landmark event in the movement for reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. The referendum has been recognised, both then and now, as a victory for all those Australians, both indigenous and non-indigenous, who have sought justice for indigenous people. It is a symbol of what can be achieved by a mass movement for reconciliation in Australia, as many of the leading campaigners were not politicians but ordinary Australians, both indigenous and non-indigenous.

    As might be expected in the grassroots movement for social justice, women were frequently found at the fore of the campaign. The Jessie Street Trust 2006 became a project called Women of the 1967 Referendum: A Story Worth Repeating. I put on the record today the contribution that seven women made towards reconciliation in Australia. The scientist Shirley Andrews was the founding secretary of Victoria's Counsel for Aboriginal Rights. She completed much of the work involved in analysing the confusing and complex mix of laws governing the lives of indigenous people in the States and the Northern Territory—work that formed the foundation of the next decade's campaign. Faith Bandler, the daughter of a Pacific Islander forcibly brought to Australia to work on sugar plantations, devoted her life to achieving an Australia in which black and white people could live and work together. She played a leading role in organising the launch of the petition to Parliament that led to the referendum campaign and in establishing a national organisation for the campaign.

    Ada Bromham, an ardent feminist and successful businesswoman, had already spent a lifetime championing Aboriginal rights in Western Australia, South Australia and overseas, when in 1958 she established the United Council of Aboriginal Welfare in Queensland at the age of 78. Aboriginal issues were originally brought to the attention of Ada and other Australian feminists by Mary Bennett, the daughter of a pastoralist. She was one of the first to highlight the suffering inflicted on Aboriginal people by policies of State control, particularly the removal of children and the enforced employment of women in domestic service. The conditions of young Aboriginal girls conscripted into domestic service by State authorities was also a central concern for Pearl Gibbs, who began work as a domestic servant herself at 16. Pearl was of the view that the so-called Aboriginal problem was, in fact, a white problem.

    Pearl Gibbs's involvement in the referendum campaign was preceded by a lifetime of work as an Aboriginal activist, including participating in the first Aboriginal deputation to a Prime Minister in 1937 and organising the Day of Mourning protest against the celebration of 150 years of white occupation in 1938. Healthy disrespect for the pomp and ceremony of white society was equally characteristic of the career of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who was one of several indigenous leaders who forged State and national networks of indigenous people and also developed contacts with indigenous people overseas. This work was critical to the success of the referendum campaign. In 1988 she handed back her Order of the British Empire [OBE] in protest at the bicentenary celebrations.

    Finally, there was Jessie Street, who inspired the holding of a referendum. Jessie was convinced that the treatment of Aboriginal people breached Australia's obligations under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and she was determined that the Commonwealth should have all the powers it needed to rectify this situation. She brought to bear all the contacts, experience and influence she had built up during four decades of work as a leading activist in the women's movement and peace movement on the pursuit of the referendum campaign. As Faith Bandler commented at the time of Jessie's death, "If it were not for Jessie Street, we would never have had the 1967 referendum." I pay tribute to these women and to the Jessie Street Trust for making sure that their stories continue to be told.