50 Years On – the Historical Importance of 1967

16 Jun 2017

I’d like to thank Aunty Zeta and Aunty Caroline for their warm welcomes to the country we are on today – the country of the Boonerong and Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation.

Aunty Pam Pedersen, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, AFL Commission Chairman Richard Goyder, my CEO Gillon McLachlan, colleagues from the AFL, distinguished guests, the change makers in the room.

Thank you for inviting me to speak today.

My role with the AFL is concerned with inclusion and social policy. Both are on proud display this weekend as we celebrate the Sir Doug Nicholls round. It is now an annual highlight of the AFL season, embraced by players, fans and even some of those unusual people who don’t passionately love AFL.

It’s both a celebration of the central and proudly disproportionate role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander athletes play in our game.

I’ve noted elsewhere that the surprising thing is not that a professional sport would perceive a need for social policy, but that it ever prospered so well without it. Sport is entirely social. It’s built solely on relationships and human interactions.

A sport like AFL is underpinned by a range of impressive attributes but the ones that resonate most loudly for me are the pillars of pride, tradition and culture. In the context of footy, these are all things many Australians feel strongly about and are not afraid to express emotionally. If you don’t believe me ask an umpire.

Yet pride, tradition and culture are also some of the essential elements that comprise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity. If more Australians come to understand that, connect with their own experience of the same, we can travel a long way along the road to a truly reconciled and just nation. Sport helps us along this journey together.

The same conditions can be found in great political and social struggles. Disparate, diverse people must unify around the goal, otherwise the full potential of their intent cannot be achieved.

It’s difficult to express adequately the importance of these anniversaries we’re marking here today. It is directly descended from the importance of what happened back in 1967. Australia’s most emphatic referendum ‘yes’ vote by a country mile – more than 90 per cent.

It was a vote for inclusion, for modernisation, for fairness, for a pretty fundamental bit of ‘social policy’ and for nation building. The sheer size of the ‘yes’ vote says something indisputable about the national spirit in which it took place. The vast majority of Australians must have felt very happy with what they did that Saturday. They must have really felt part of something big to learn that so, so many of their compatriots felt the same way.
It was achieved by some extraordinary people who campaigned relentlessly for many years. They understood their goal, they never took their eyes off the prize for one second. And they united with courage, integrity and love – the result was a significant nation building moment.  We owe that generation of campaigners a great debt.

Formal Political leadership was also critical and we are fortunate to have leaders who understand that a conversation like this, once begun, has to be brought to resolution. And the goodwill and de-politicised spirit in which it was begun, must be maintained. We all stay at the table until we get it done.

They are steps that brought us to today, celebrating the AFL’s Sir Doug Nicholls round, commemorating a big anniversary, contemplating our next steps.

It’s my fervent hope that we can re-kindle some of that unity of purpose shown by the pioneering campaigners of 1967.

I have often said, it can sometimes feel that when 5 or more blackfellas are gathered, you may find up to 6 different factions represented.  And yet the unfair expectation upon us is that we will naturally unify on all matters. 

I have just returned from a privileged opportunity in Uluru led by the Referendum Council where over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were gathered. Years of discussion, debate, disbelief and passion has resulted in a united position in the form the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

It is full of hope, determination and challenges for us all. 

So what do the lessons of the 1967 Referendum, the Mabo Decision, the Bringing Them Home Report and so many other change makers has taught me is that if we want change, you don’t give up, and that means staying in the conversation, staying at the table until we find a way through.

I want to be, along with my AFL Colleagues, an Australian who can say I did my part, however small it may be.  Watching the Marngrook match last night – Sydney vs Hawthorn, Buddy Franklin was man of the match, and he absolutely was.  Proudly wearing the number 67 he had a cracker of a game.  But without his team, his club, his supporters, he would not have been able to make the same impact.

I am learning, in footy, as in life, change requires us to work together, to never give up and through mutual respect and understanding, make the change, reach the goal together.  It will be the only way to honour the example of 67 and the determination and resoluteness of the Mabo decision.  I look forward to our next moment when we do just that.

Thank you.

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