Indigenous campaigners awarded Australia Day honours for role in 1967 referendum

Ruth Hennings, Diana Travis, Alfred Neal and Dulcie Flower honoured for service to their communities

On the day of the 1967 referendum, Ruth Hennings was handing out “vote yes” flyers at a local school in Cairns.

It was the first sign she had that the campaign to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were included in the census, and to give the federal government power to make laws specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, had won the support of a majority of Australian citizens.

Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning

“Nearly everyone who was there, they all said good luck and hoped everything would turn out good,” Hennings said. “So they gave me a good feeling of ‘it will change’.”

When the votes were counted, that feeling was confirmed: 91% of Australians voted yes.

The next step, Hennings said, was a plan to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were recognised in the constitution as the First Peoples of Australia.

Fifty-two years later that still has not happened and the Uluru Statement, which sets out a path forward, was rejected by the federal government.

Hennings is 85 now, a celebrated elder. On Saturday she will be one of four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people honoured for their role in the 1967 referendum, and for a lifetime of other community work.

She was a founding member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League in Cairns, which began in 1958, and attended meetings while working as a cleaner around the town for 15 shillings a day.

She told Guardian Australia constitutional recognition was still badly needed.

“We really need to get a body together where we can talk in one voice,” she said. “All of these things have been happening, money is being thrown around, and there’s no result … the main thing is getting that constitution right and making sure that we are all one people, we are all one Australia.”

Henning, Aunty Diana Travis, and Uncle Alfred Neal will be awarded the medal of the order of Australia (OAM) on Saturday for their service to their communities and work on the 1967 referendum.

Aunty Dulcie Flower, who was granted the OAM in 1992, was made a member of the order of Australia (AM) for her work on the referendum, her role in the establishment of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, and her work as a nurse.

Travis was just 19 when her grandfather Sir Douglas Nicholls, one of the most revered figures in Victoria, drove her to Canberra to take part in the referendum alongside her heroes: Charlie Perkins, Chicka Dixon, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, and Faith Bandler.

“They were all wonderful leaders, wonderful workers, focused and aware, so I was just in my joy being there, mingling and being amongst them all in Canberra,” she said.

Travis is now involved in native title work as a Dja Dja Wurrung claimant and a member of the Dhuudora native title group, and is an active participant in the Victorian treaty process.

“It may be a different time now but I still believe that there’s good people out there,” Travis said. “Some of them may not understand, but I just say: listen please, listen to us, talk to us. We’re not targeting you, it’s all about the government.”

She said she was in “two or three minds” about accepting the Australia Day honour, both because she does not support the celebration of Australia Day on 26 January – she will spend the morning in protest in Melbourne, as she does every year – and because she was not sure she had done enough to earn it.

Both Hennings and Travis said the singular focus and united purpose behind the 1967 referendum campaign was absent from modern reform debates.

“At that time we all had that one goal,” Henning said. “We all knew what we wanted, we were focused and willing and happy and we had FCAATSI (Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders) … But today there’s nothing.”


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Australia Day honours list: Jane Turner and Campbell Newman among 2020 recipients
Teen LGBTQ activist Georgie Stone is the youngest to be honoured alongside war veterans’ advocate Colin Hamley, 97

Naaman Zhou

25, Jan, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
Australia Day honours: Anna Bligh and Jimmy Barnes speak up for first Australians
Naidoc female elder of the year MaryAnn Bin-Sallik and TV host Andrew O’Keefe also among those honoured who cite troubled history of 26 January

Calla Wahlquist

25, Jan, 2017 @7:02 PM

Article image
Australia Day honours: David Walsh and Elizabeth Broderick among recipients
Philanthropists Maria Myers and Susan Alberti, scientists Chennupati Jagadish and Mary O’Kane, and paediatrician Robert Ouvrier receive highest honour

Melissa Davey and Adam Brereton

25, Jan, 2016 @1:01 PM

Article image
Australia Day: honours, citizenship, protests, sport, Hottest 100 - as it happened
Our coverage of events both serious and fun throughout Australia Day, including Indigenous responses and the reaction to the Australian of the Year announcement

Michael Safi, Elle Hunt, Paul Farrell,Calla Wahlquist and Helen Davidson

26, Jan, 2016 @9:22 AM

Article image
26 January: Clashes between police and protesters at Australia Day rally – live
Hundreds of events are taking place around Australia, including citizenship ceremonies, protests and Triple J’s Hottest 100 – follow all our coverage

Helen Davidson (now), Christopher Knaus (earlier), Paul Farrell (earlier), Elle Hunt (earlier) and Calla Wahlquist (earlier)

26, Jan, 2017 @7:02 AM

Article image
Oxfam Australia chief Helen Szoke recognised in Australia Day honours
Szoke, who has been made Officer of the Order of Australia for her service to social justice, says rising nationalism is compromising human rights

Ben Doherty

25, Jan, 2018 @1:01 PM

Article image
Morrison marks 26 January by saying Australia has 'risen above brutal beginnings' – as it happened
Invasion Day marches take place around Australia as debate around the national day rages. This blog is now closed

Mostafa Rachwani and Calla Wahlquist

26, Jan, 2021 @7:34 AM

Article image
Bettina Arndt rejects claims she misrepresented herself as a psychologist
Recipient of Australia Day honour for services ‘to gender equity’ has been repeatedly introduced as a clinical psychologist, despite not being legally registered

Josh Taylor

30, Jan, 2020 @1:51 AM

Article image
Australia Day honours list: Kylie Minogue and Peter Reith among 2019 recipients
Women account for 37.5% of those honoured – a record but still short of the 40% target promised by Labor

Naaman Zhou

25, Jan, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Australia Day honours: Evonne Goolagong-Cawley and Tracey Spicer on male-dominated list
Just 33% are women of 900 notable names across media, medicine, science, advocacy, sport and politics

Helen Davidson

25, Jan, 2018 @1:01 PM