The 1967 referendum on commonwealth powers to make laws to benefit Aborigines was an overwhelming call by Australians to do something about the plight of Indigenous people. Unfortunately, the referendum did not say what to do.
The Age newspaper advocated a "Yes" vote on the grounds that the new laws would give Aborigines opportunities to live normal lives. The policy consensus of the 1970s, however, was anything but normal.
The consensus was to establish a mock Aboriginal economy based on collectivised property rights. It was to be funded by mining royalties, work for the dole and pensions. It was to be controlled by race-based political associations such as land councils, housing, health and legal services.
Avenues of escape from the mock economy were cut off. Education was gutted by the effective suspension of compulsory attendance and the prejudice of low expectations for academic achievement. Outstations were funded and migration to cities was discouraged: incentives to move to economic opportunity were weakened. Apparently, Aborigines were not meant to work, they were meant to be Aborigines.
The message was, "you stay there and be Aborigines, and whites will look after you". Well, some stayed and they suffered. Those who got out and ended up as leaders became obsessed with their Potemkin villages. These are the hell holes scattered across northern and central Australia of which we read so much.
The goodwill of the 1967 referendum was snatched by those with a bizarre anti-liberal agenda. Identity was king; the modern economy was treated with disdain.
A problem which Paul Hasluck, one of the sponsors of commonwealth intervention in Aboriginal affairs, described in 1950 as "such a small problem" has grown.
The 1967 cry to do something continues in 2007 to the tune of more than $3.5 billion annually of commonwealth expenditure, plus a $1.5 billion Land Account and $60 million a year in the Aboriginal Benefits Account (from mining royalties) in the Northern Territory and millions in mining trust funds elsewhere. State governments continue to spend heavily regardless of the commonwealth being favoured by the referendum to carry on the good work.
The 1967 referendum occurred in the midst of many changes. The commonwealth had been involved in Aboriginal affairs since 1911, when South Australia handed over the NT. The commonwealth and WA governments granted Aborigines the vote in 1962, and Queensland followed in 1965. Social security benefits came in 1959. In 1966, the entitlement was extended to those classed as "nomadic or primitive".
The changes were driven by increasing numbers of Aborigines drifting off reserves and becoming unwelcome fringe-dwellers. They were driven by the resource boom, which brought activity to areas where Aborigines traditionally had lived. They were driven also by missionaries who questioned the paternalism of the times. Decolonisation made the white man think again that he knew best.
The referendum provided the commonwealth with a head of power to enact legislation. Some of these, however, enhanced separateness and blocked the liberalising trend. The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, the Aboriginal Land Fund Act 1974 and the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act 1976 are lauded, but they drove the collectivisation that hobbled the ability of Aborigines to live normal lives.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Queensland Reserves and Communities Self-Management) Act 1978 was an attempt to overcome paternalism, but another such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission Act 1989 was an attempt to form a new racially based political association.
Gary Johns acknowledges Background Paper No.11 1996-97 by John Gardiner-Garden of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library for some factual material. This article was first published in The Australian on May 15, 2007.
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