It's with great pleasure that I stand today to pay tribute to those who campaigned and advocated for the constitutional referendum in 1967, and to the team and the community who brought before the High Court, 25 years ago, the matter we now call Mabo. I start with a recollection from a few weeks ago, when I joined many of my parliamentary colleagues to visit the Captain Reg Saunders Gallery and Courtyard, part of the Australian War Memorial here in Canberra.
Reg was a Gunditjmara man from western Victoria. He was the first Aboriginal soldier to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian Army. He enlisted in 1940 and fought in North Africa, Greece, Crete and Papua New Guinea. He wasn't alone; he served with his brother, Harry. Sadly, Harry died fighting for Australia in 1942.
Reg himself was wounded in the knee by Japanese gunfire during one of his engagements. He was treated well by the military and in later life was awarded an MBE. But the fact remained that Reg Saunders had fewer rights than did the men he led into battle. He couldn't vote, and he actually needed a special permit to go and get a beer with his mates at the pub when he got back to Australia. In 1960 Reg told his biographer, Harry Gordon: I reckon the average Australian has some feeling of sympathy for the black man but he doesn't do anything about it. He needs to be jolted.
Well, in 1967 we got one of those jolts: the referendum. Australians were compelled to consider the constitutional status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. They voted overwhelmingly—90.77 per cent—in favour of the proposition which would ensure that they could be recognised in the reckoning in the Australian Census and that the Commonwealth government, this parliament, could make laws with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Why was there such overwhelming support? There was a lot of agitation, a lot of campaigning, by those who were directly affected—the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—but there was also significant support from the community. In my own area, led by great Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, together with Uncle Fred Moore from the South Coast Trades and Labour Council, they formed the Aboriginal Advancement League, which was instrumental in getting out the voters and getting a very high vote in the 1967 referendum in the Illawarra and South Coast. They also had the support of the major political parties, the media and advocacy groups. But it was not inevitable. In opposition in 1964, Labor changed its platform and changed its policy to ensure that a future Labor government would bring such a constitutional question to the Australian people. It took until 1967 for the coalition government to catch up with Labor and with the sentiment of the population. It sounds familiar—one step in the process, but more to come. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were recognised, in a way, but their ownership of land was not.
In 1975 the Whitlam government famously poured sand into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, symbolically handing back ownership of the Wave Hill station to the Gurindji people, thereby foreshadowing the Aboriginal land rights act. It was a step forward, but there is an irony: the government was giving the land to the Gurindji people—land that they already owned. That's why the Mabo decision in 1992 was so important. On 3 June Australians received another of those big jolts that Reg Saunders thought they needed. The High Court found, in its decision, that terra nullius was a legal fiction—this abhorrent idea that Australia was a vacant land when James Cook planted the first Union Jack in Botany Bay. A continuous culture and settlement had existed in this country lasting back more than 50,000 years. In fact, recent research estimates that it is at least 65,000 years. That is a claim that no other country on earth can make and something that all Australians should rightfully be proud of.
But there was a difference between the 1967 campaign and the 1967 referendum, and the changes it wrought, and the Mabo decision. The Mabo decision was a judicial decision, not a legislative one. Many have since pondered whether, if it had been left to this parliament, this parliament would ever have made such a decision. Conservative politicians, vested interests, mining and farmers in particular ran a horrendous scare campaign after the Mabo and subsequent Wik decisions.
Voters were told that native title claims could be made over suburban backyards, that the CBD of Sydney was at risk and, in fact, that everyone was at risk. Of course, this was not true. It would have been constitutionally possible for the Keating government to legislate away the native title decision, as Keating was being urged to do from many quarters. To his great credit, Keating in government did not succumb to these pressures, and that's something that I think Australians are all now very, very proud of.
I want to say something about inevitability. The policy response of the Keating government was not inevitable. There was fierce opposition to the Mabo decision, as there was fierce opposition to the subsequent decision in Wik Peoples v Queensland. We can all remember that, after the Wik decision, the then Deputy Prime Minister of Australia promised Australians that there would be bucketloads of extinguishment. The passing of the 1967 referendum was not inevitable either, nor were these decisions—these great advances—irreversible. Further progress is not inevitable. We need to work for it. We need to ensure that we can live up to the challenge that has been given to us by the statement from Uluru these past two months. It is time, in the words of Reg Saunders, for us all to be given another jolt and for us to consider once again the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their place in the Constitution.
The proposition is simple, just as in the 1967 referendum it was simple as well. The proposition is that we amend the Australian Constitution to acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived on land and cared for land for millennia—more than 60,000 years. We must acknowledge and accept the true history of Australia, not the whitewashed version of the 19th and 20th centuries. We should also remove the obnoxious and discriminatory provisions that exist within the Constitution, like section 25, which allows people to be disqualified from voting because of their race.
At the Garma Festival over the weekend, the Leader of the Labor Party, Bill Shorten, gave a commitment on behalf of the Labor Party that Labor supports a voice for Aboriginal people in our Constitution. We support a declaration by all parliaments, and we support a truth-telling commission. He also set out the challenge for the government—in fact, for this parliament and for all Australians—that they should set a timetable to have a question put before the parliament and for that question to then be referred to the Australian people in a referendum to bring forward this much-needed constitutional change. In 1967, the Australian people rose to the occasion. In 1992, the Keating government rose to the occasion. In 2017, it's time for us all to rise to the occasion. It's time for the government and for this parliament to focus on what we need to do to set the record straight. It is simply unreasonable for us, as a parliament, to expect that the Australian people will focus on these issues if we're not willing to do so.