Your browser is not Javascript enable or you have turn it off. We recommend you to activate for better security reason


Two referendums and a battle: lessons from history

Written by: Louisa L. on 4 September 2023


This is the third of five comments on the Voice Referendum approved by the Central Committee - eds.

As we face the coming referendum, the past gifts us experience. On January 26 this year we pointed out, “The 1967 referendum shifted focus to constitutional change. First Peoples saw it as a turning point. The Australian masses had turned towards them. Racism still existed, but 91 per cent had voted for them to be counted in the census and to transfer control from vicious state governments to the federal parliament. First Peoples were more free to travel and organise.

“Struggle everywhere ramped up. Federal funding for Aboriginal services followed. 

“Dialectics teach us to look below the surface to understand something, and that a thing may become its opposite, positive become negative, in certain circumstances. 

“The 1971 Census exposed for the first time the horror of living conditions for First Peoples, life expectancy, blindness and ill health, arrest, imprisonment and infant mortality rates. TV cameras brought vision into suburban lounge rooms.

“Capitalism did not change its spots. Today, the same shameful lived statistics for the majority of First Peoples, with the addition of substance abuse and child suicides.

“The Gurindji waited seven more years to be ‘given’ a piece of their own land. An Australian government had to negotiate with the invader’s Vestey Group! Who actually ruled?

“And in 2007, John Howard with ALP opposition support used Section 51(xxvi), the Constitution’s “race powers” introduced in 1967, to impose the 15-year genocidal NT ‘Emergency’ Intervention, for the benefit of resource giants,” we stated.

Howard had already relied on Section 51(xxvi), to extinguish native title claims of Ngarrindjerri women against SA’s Hindmarsh Bridge on a sacred site. With Justice Kirby dissenting, the High Court ruled Section 51(xxvi) could work to the detriment of First Peoples. 

Waves of struggle

The Whitlam Government came to power on waves of peoples’ struggles. It began the process which returned Gurindji land, later finalised by Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser. It outraged US imperialism mired in and soon losing the Vietnam War, when its little buddy Australia took some steps to greater independence.

US corporations faced a government trying to “buy back the farm” from US economic control, and even worse, with a loan from the rival Moscow Narodny Bank through an Arab intermediary. The government blocked sales of uranium to US Westinghouse Corporation which was sued for its inability to fill nuclear power station contracts. There was a lot more for the US to hate about Whitlam’s Government. It all came from the strength of the people.

The US appointed coup master Marshall Green as its ambassador to Australia. Protesters pointed out the coup death toll of his time in Indonesia – between 500,000 and 2,000,000. 

After a long period of undermining the government, the CIA overthrew the Whitlam Government using the British queen’s governor general. 
Two decades later, John Howard took on the growing republican movement. There were similarities to the gathering near Uluru, but the Constitutional Convention was entirely handpicked by Howard, completely omitting the working class and those who led struggle. It chose a referendum question doomed to fail specifying the president would be chosen by parliament. A true politicians’ referendum, so long chanted against by Dutton recently with so little truth. 60 percent voted no.

In 2000, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation made three recommendations to the Howard government.  All three were rejected in 2002, including the proposal for a referendum to change the preamble to the constitution to recognise Indigenous people as the first peoples of Australia

Howard and his ideological liars immediately began rewriting history for the ruling class. Australians opposed a republic, Howard said, while massively funding and speaking of our ‘British heritage’, ‘our flag that flew over battlefields’ and - often helped by state Labor governments – demanding the removal of Peoples’ history of resistance and struggle that kids thrived on from school curriculums. Instead, Federation, lists of prime ministers and favoured sports people and World War One battles made students turn their backs on our shared history.

Many First Peoples point out Australia can never be a republic until just settlement is made.

How we deal with defeats is as important as how we deal with victories

Thirty years after Whitlam’s sacking, two giant waves of mass struggle arose, the waterfront dispute and later Iraq war protests. Unlike the lead-up to Whitlam’s rise, when the Vietnam Moratoriums saw workers ‘Stop Work to Stop the War’, the working class was not nationally organisationally mobilised before the Iraq invasion. 

It was a lost opportunity. 

How we deal with defeats is as important as how we deal with victories. 

One of the failures of the anti-Iraq war movement was that we didn't go beyond the Stop the War demand and organisations which left the movement with nowhere to go once the war started.  The call for an independent foreign policy and opposing imperialist wars was not raised sufficiently by us or anyone at that time, which would have offered political direction and incentive to continue the struggle. Those of us who led those protests were not farsighted enough to make preparations for when war was declared, against over 94 percent opposition from the Australian people. Nationally, the working class was not systematically organised against it. There could have been major uplift in struggle, major disruption of capitalist profits. 

Why didn’t our lead-up publicity or protest speeches and banners make preparations for immediate action and protracted struggle following any declaration of war? 

Far more people marched before the Iraq War than during the Moratoriums. We felt our immense collective power. Yet it created pessimism. ‘We failed’, was the lesson learned. 

There’s always both negative and positives in any situation. Muslim people knew they were part of a world-wide and Australian mass movement. We all understood who our enemies were. We could have built on that. 

First Peoples are already looking beyond the coming referendum. Whatever the result, we all have to hit the ground running.




Print Version - new window Email article


Go back