In 1956 promising boxer Les Davison, of the Dharawal people of Botany Bay, reached the qualifying round to represent Australia in the Melbourne Olympics, but was told to lose the match.
‘I said, ‘why do you want me to lose?’ And they said, ‘because if you win you’ll have the right to represent Australia in the Olympic Games, but you’re not going to be allowed to’.’
Former deputy prime minister John Anderson recounted the tale of racism that Davison told him when they first met ‘without bitterness and without rancour but with deep sadness’ at the Garma indigenous festival in Arnhem Land on Monday.
Mr Anderson is a member of a federal review panel driving the push towards a referendum on constitutional recognition for indigenous people.
‘As someone who believes that we as a people base our freedoms on a profoundly important and powerful idea, that every individual has worth, and dignity, and is worthy of respect and a full place in terms of their citizenship of this country, that was a shocking moment,’ he said of Mr Davison’s experience.
Support for constitutional change has been strong from both sides of politics, with former prime minister Bob Hawke and Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion just two to back it over the weekend.
Senator Scullion said the reform ‘would be a real spear to the heart of racists in Australia’ but stressed the need to take the time to raise awareness of the issue.
A recent poll shows 49 per cent of the public now know about the push for recognition.
Mr Anderson believes that ‘extraordinary stories told by ordinary people’ such as Mr Davison would be the motivating force for Australians to vote yes in what will be the 45th referendum. They have a spotted history of success: only eight have been successful, most notably that of 1967, to include indigenous people in the census.
Senator Nova Peris sounded on the verge of tears as she told the audience at the forum that the referendum could not fail.
‘(We must) truly shift the mindset of white Australians and make them realise you’ve all benefited from 200 years of systemic injustices that have occurred in this country,’ she said.
‘I don’t want to be an Aboriginal politician going out there, as a traditional owner, begging white people to recognise us, because you’re killing us. You’re killing our spirit.’
She said the constitution is ‘a whitefella rule book’, and so the rule makers needed to make the change.
‘This movement can’t come from Aboriginal people who constantly don’t have a voice; this movement needs to come from whitefellas because you need to realise you are here in this country, and we Aboriginal people are prisoners in our own country,’ she said.
Yolngu elder Galarrwuy Yunupingu chided Prime Minister Tony Abbott for not attending the festival after supposedly saying he would.
‘I was looking forward to (seeing him), but he didn’t turn up,’ he said.
Mr Abbott promised at Garma festival last year that if elected he would spend his first week as prime minister at the neighbouring Yirrkala community.
He is due to visit in September, but Mr Yunupingu made it clear he had noted the broken promise.