Rachael Maza: 1967 was a moment when it seemed easier to tell the truth. We need another such moment

Photograph: Steven Rhall/IndigenousX

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Rachael Maza is a proud Yidinji/Meriam woman. She is currently the Artistic Director for ILBIJERRI Theatre and sits on the boards of The Black Arm Board, APACC, the Circus OZ Indigenous Advisory Panel, and Australian Opera’s Indigenous Advisory panel.

I was three at the time, so I don’t remember any of it, but the impacts on my life are profound. 27 May 1967 is widely understood as the day Australia stood as a nation almost unanimously in support of Aboriginal people and their right to be citizens of this country. In fact, never at any other time in this country’s history have we seen such an overwhelmingly positive feeling toward Australia’s First Peoples. 90.77% voted yes in support of Aboriginal people being included in the national census and to allow the federal government to make laws that included Aboriginal people.

Thinking back to this unprecedented moment in our recent history, I wonder at the perpetual state of delusion the nation seems to live under – in a constant state of denial, having to create fabricated stories of the past, hoping to push down the ever-present guilt and shame of past deeds, always on the defence.

But every now and then we have a moment, a split second, in which it just seems so much easier to tell the truth, to be honest, even though it’s uncomfortable, even though it’s shameful. But this moment passes, and the cloud of delusion returns and the opportunity is gone.

The 1967 referendum was just such a moment. For a slither of a moment it looked like we might move forward as a nation – white and black Australia , side by side, hand in hand. But that was not to be.

The conservative government, led by John Gorton (1968-1971) then William McMahon (1971-72), was determined to shove it under the carpet but as history unraveled this was to be their unraveling. McMahon lost the 1972 election, ending 23 years of conservative government and making way for one of the most renowned and celebrated heroes in Australia’s political history: Gough Whitlam.

There is no doubt the Aboriginal movement played a significant role in Labor winning that election. The very public and highly effective establishment of Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House, followed by the excessive response by the conservative government sending in the riot squad to violently remove the activists, was an action that sent shockwaves nationally and internationally.

So here we are 50 years on from the 1967 referendum, reflecting over what has changed. In some respects, there have been improvements, but depressingly, many things have not changed, and in fact have got worse. I don’t think I need to reel off the all too-familiar statistics (Google them if you want).

And now we have a national debate in response to a federal government-funded and led campaign to get Aboriginal and Torres Strait people mentioned in the constitution, as if this is something we need. You also may recall that we’ve never heard alternative opinions, all objection was somehow being silenced and not given airtime. One couldn’t help but smell a rat.

I liken the Recognise campaign and the push to make mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution to the scenario of someone moving into your house, taking over, and kicking you out into the yard in the shed. After many years, maybe even several generations, they come out to the yard holding the contract that states their rights to the house that was once yours, and suggest that it’s only fair to include a sentence that says: “We acknowledge that you once lived there.”

“There you go! Now you’re recognised,” they say, and they go back into your house and you go back to the shed.

I’m very proud to be in the state of Victoria that has led the way in disregarding the entire concept of Recognise and instead said, “Let’s talk treaty”. To the Andrews government’s credit, they’ve said: “OK, let’s talk”.

Regardless of the outcome, the will is there, and if there is anything to learn from reflecting on the 1967 referendum, it’s to remind ourselves as a nation that if there is ever going to be any real change, it’s going to take willpower, courage, time and passion. We demonstrated we had all that in 1967 and if we can do it then, we can do it now.

This article first appeared in Guardian Australia on 27 May 2017 as part of the IndigenousX edited Opinion section commemoration of the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 Referendum.

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