This week, here in Australia, we have been looking back. You see, forty years ago tomorrow, Australia emerged as a nation (not 106 years ago as widely presumed) by voting in a referendum to recognise the citizenship rights of our indigenous people. It was a turning point.
Before this, the Australian Government had put in place a series of policies and laws that systematically disadvantaged and marginalised Aboriginal people. Some of the worst of these included policies that forcibly removed children from their parents (the Stolen Generation), the results of which will be with us for many years.
The year before the referendum, in 1966, a Gurindji man, Vincent Lingiari, led his fellow aboriginal stockmen to walk away from their jobs in a dispute over pay and conditions. This also was a turning point but one which would turn an industrial dispute into a battle for land rights. The story of this story was turned into a song, From Little Things, Big Things Grow, by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody which captures the emotion and depth of the situation better than I.
The ceremony shown in the photograph represented a high point in Aboriginal-white Australian relations. It has been thirty two years since then, and despite much talking, some "landmark native title cases" and broad-based community activism around "reconciliation", very little has changed. The leaders of our country refuse to apologise over the past treatment of Aboriginal people, there is no treaty or agreement in place, and education and life expectancy rates for Aboriginal people continue to lag those for non-indigenous people.
Australians have always seen themselves as egalitarian … yet we continue to turn a blind eye to the problems that exist in our own backyard. My hope is that another forty years doesn’t need to pass before some of these problems and issues are resolved. Perhaps this fortieth anniversary of this great event helps re-focus and redouble our energies in a way that allows those seeds of hope to grow.