Voice referendum: What Marcia Langton could learn from the woman who convinced 91 per cent of Australians to vote for Indigenous rights in 1967
Leading Yes case campaigner Marcia Langton’s putdown of the No case as ‘racist’ has highlighted the major difference with the 1967 referendum that passed with 91 per cent support.
Back then, Faith Bandler was the leading campaigner for the Yes case to enable the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and to remove prohibitions on them being counted in the Census.
This May 1967 referendum passed overwhelmingly with 90.77 per cent support, the strongest ever backing for Constitutional change since Federation in 1901.
This victory demonstrated the need for bipartisan support, which the upcoming Voice referendum lacks, along with a unifying message of equality.
Just eight out of 44 referendums to amend the Constitution have passed since the first vote in 1906, and multiple opinion polls have revealed a majority of voters opposing Labor’s Voice to Parliament ahead of the October 14 referendum.
Mrs Bandler, a descendant of South Sea Islanders who died in February 2015 aged 96, made the case for change in 1967 by uniting Australians and advocating for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to be treated equally.
She held a placard in that era which said: ‘Count us together, make us one people.’
Her daughter Lilon Bandler, now an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, recalled standing next to her mother holding that sign in Sydney’s Martin Place as a girl during the 1960s.
‘The 1967 referendum had that huge majority, which is incredibly unusual in Australian referenda, that reflected that time,’ she told an Oxfam video in 2013.
‘It needed to reflect what our Australian community thought was important and that was to get rid of discriminatory clauses.’
Lilon Bandler said her mother made the Yes case relevant to everyday Australians.
‘It was about raising awareness and taking the time to explain to people why is this important, why should you care about it, what does it mean to you, and why you should actually think this is of significance,’ she said.
‘For Faith, she talked to anybody: she talked to people in the street, people in the train, she talked to prime ministers, but she also did that daily work of talking to anybody who would listen to her.
‘If you don’t have conversations about any change that you want to bring up, then you don’t have the groundswell that will support change.’
The successful referendum was the result of years of campaigning, which had begun in 1957.
This saw churches lend their support for the 1967 referendum, a contrast to 2023 with big corporations the most prominent backers of the Yes case.
‘An understanding of how long a campaign needs to be and how grassroots and daily it needs to be comes when you think about my mother’s work towards that 1967 referendum and it went on for years and years before anybody had ever heard of the word referendum,’ Lilon Bandler said.
Faith Bandler’s unifying advocacy was a stark contrast to Professor Langton who this month told a forum in Bunbury, in Western Australia, the no campaign was racist.
‘Every time the No case raise their arguments, if you start pulling it apart you get down to base racism – I’m sorry to say that’s where it lands – or sheer stupidity,’ she said.
Professor Langton later retracted that remark and suggested the No campaign was using racist tactics, and denying she had suggested No voters were racist.
‘I am not a racist, and I don’t believe that the majority of Australians are racist. I do believe that the no campaigners are using racist tactics,’ she said.
But in July last year, the co-author of the Indigenous Voice Co-design Process, questioned if critics of the Voice, including within the Liberal Party Opposition, ‘can read and write’ during an interview with Radio National broadcaster Patricia Karvelas.
‘I see this demand for more detail as just mischief making and sowing confusion,’ she said.
‘I do wonder if some of them can write and read, but anyway.’
Faith Bandler, a co-founder of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, had quietly lobbied Liberal prime ministers Robert Menzies and Harold Holt for a referendum to bring about racial equality back when the white Australia policy was still law.
A decade after that referendum, Mrs Bandler recalled how she and fellow activist Kath Walker, later known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, sat down with Sir Robert, who offered them a drink.
‘The six of us, and we pounded him for about an hour or two, and then it was over and he said, “Come and have a drink”,’ she told This Is Your Life host Roger Climpson in 1978.
‘And Kath said, “Mr Prime Minister, you could be jailed for offering me a drink in the place that I come from”.
‘And he become very indignant and remember he said, “I am the boss around here” and so Kath had the drink and we got the referendum.’