Grayden & Manslaughter, the Australian Freedom Rides & the Wave-Hill Walk Off: The Story Behind the 1967 Referendum’s Success

by Henry Sundram

The Grayden Report and film Manslaughter, the Australian Freedom Rides and the Wave-Hill Walk Off heavily contributed to the success of the Australian 1967 Referendum. The 1967 Referendum resulted in a resoundingly positive outcome for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples regarding their recognition and place within Australian society, with 90.77% of the population voting ‘Yes’. The Referendum had three provisions that benefitted First Peoples. It removed derogatory sections of Australian Constitution pertaining to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it included them in the census and it brought them into federal legislative jurisdiction. A series of high-profile events raised societal and media concern for the conditions experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The corresponding shift in societal values and attitudes of mainstream Australian culture allowed for the Referendum’s success. The 1956 Grayden Report and 1957 film Manslaughter stimulated awareness of the inadequate conditions faced by First Peoples and established a framework in which the 1967 Referendum could succeed. Charles Perkins’ 1965 Australian Freedom Rides furthered this changing social climate by exposing racism towards First Peoples that was prevalent nationwide. Finally, the 1966 Wave-Hill Walk Off provided White Australians an insight into a particular Aboriginal perspective and the prejudice they experienced, galvanising support for a successful Referendum.

By stimulating White Australia’s awareness of First Peoples’ dire plight in the Laverton-Warburton Ranges, the 1956 Grayden Report and the 1957 documentary Manslaughter contributed to the success of the 1967 Referendum. A parliamentary investigation into the “Native Welfare Conditions in the Laverton-Warburton Range Area” released the report and film, providing one of the first in-depth analyses of the welfare of an Aboriginal population. The document revealed the inadequate food, water, shelter, educational opportunities and healthcare First Peoples faced in the region and represented their experiences more broadly around Australia. At this time, Australian society was governed by the White Australia Policy which discriminated against non-White citizens, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Historian Henry Reynolds argued that the inadequacies experienced by First Peoples in the report and film were the product of “historical neglect” coupled with a lack of societal awareness of First Peoples’ current predicament, rather than the overt legal racism of the White Australia Policy. Applying Reynolds’ argument, the Referendum’s success depended not on opposing a ‘nation-wide racism’, but rather on stimulating White Australia’s awareness of the underprivileged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ plight. The public’s consciousness was first pricked through the extensive publicising of Manslaughter in churches, trade unions and, importantly, television in major cities. This led historian Pamela Faye McGrath to describe it as “one of the earliest examples of [Aboriginal] activis[m]”. Despite earlier protests occurring, McGrath’s label described the significance of the report and film in providing a genuine opportunity to reshape White Australia’s perceptions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and in doing so, established the framework for the 1967 Referendum’s success. As White Australia developed an understanding of the poor conditions and health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, societal attitudes shifted in favour of advancing First Peoples’ experiences in the Laverton-Warburton Ranges and more generally around Australia. Letters of protest were delivered to politicians, including Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Press articles were published that described the “horr[or]” elicited from the documentary and report regarding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander position within society. The documentary and report also generated international media scrutiny for Australian practices towards First Peoples from countries such as Malaysia, New Zealand and England. The attention humiliated the federal government and damaged Australia’s international standing, resulting in the official statement “the film is not designed to give a balanced picture of the circumstances of aborigines in Australia”. The basis established by this international pressure and domestic attitudinal changes allowed for the success of the 1967 Referendum.

Inspired by the American Freedom Rides of 1961, the Australian Freedom Rides, led by Charles Perkins contributed to the outcome of the 1967 Referendum by stimulating media and public awareness of the poverty in Aboriginal communities resulting from unjust treatment and administration. In February 1965, University of Sydney students from the Student Action for Aborigines group travelled through New South Wales campaigning against the poor conditions and obstacles experienced by rural First Peoples. Perkins sought to generate “creative tension” by exposing instances of blatant racism towards First Peoples. The publicity of such events, raised by Perkins’ Rides, sought to make society and the federal government “uncomfortable” and generate societal pressure for change. The attitudinal changes in Australian society that ultimately led to the success of the 1967 Referendum can be partly attributed to the Rides’ extensive publication of significant racism in towns such as Walgett and Moree. From the beginning of the Rides, Perkins describes being “completely swamped” by “all the newspapers, television and radio” coverage which allowed the riders to highlight the racial discrimination and prejudice of Australian society to both the nation and the global community. Such attention was strategic with journalist Darce Cassidy riding on the bus and providing daily news feeds and updates. The media’s involvement extended to national coverage with cartoons like ‘Getting in the Swim’ mocking racist practices and generating public awareness and discussion of the inequities faced by First Peoples. As author Noeline Briggs-Smith describes, “what Charlie did was let the rest of the nation know about racism and segregation, and that led towards the overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote in 1967”. A notable example of the Rides’ media usage was in Moree where the Freedom Riders who were arguing for desegregating the town’s swimming pool were confronted and pelted with rotten eggs and tomatoes by White townsfolk. The incident induced extensive media coverage across the country with local and international television crews such as the British Broadcasting Commission and Channel 7 drawing comparisons to racist American practices. The Freedom Rides exposed the systematic racism that existed in Australian society “to the severe embarrassment of many white townsfolk”. The media’s involvement raised greater awareness and desire for the advancement of First Peoples amongst the White population, ultimately generating the momentum for the 1967 Referendum’s success. 

The 1966 Wave-Hill Walk Off contributed to the success of the 1967 Referendum by raising significant media and public awareness of the impoverished conditions faced by First Peoples. Gurindji elder Vincent Lingiari led the strike of 200 Gurindji stockmen who demanded improved labour conditions and pay. The protest was the first publicised land rights claim in Australian history. Through their abilities in managing the land, the Gurindji provided the cattle stations’ workforce and underpinned the stations’ successful operation. However, they subsisted in squalor, evidenced by a 1945 report which revealed some were not paid even the Aboriginal wage – a minimum of 5 shillings a day. The Gurindji’s protest contributed to the 1967 Referendum’s success as it moved from simply describing the situation experienced by First Peoples to directly taking action against such conditions by preventing the operation of White enterprise. The disruption generated by the Gurindji’s protest provided a platform for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice to be effectively heard by the White population. This platform made the squalor and disempowerment experienced by First Peoples visible and facilitated an attitudinal change amongst White Australia, culminating in the Referendum. As described by historian Minoru Hokari, “the episode succeeded in gaining the wide public attention of contemporary Australia”. The public perception of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was shifted through the Gurindji’s active publicization of their cause which involved nationwide visits and campaigns raising awareness. Such a shift was reflected in the contemporary media, such as by the supportive article ‘Boy! That’s still a territory word for aboriginals’ in the Melbourne Herald

The Gurindji strikers gained high-profile support from politicians, lawyers and unionists, including the secretaries of Liquor and Allied Trades Union and the Transport Workers Union who described the “injustice[s] to our own native people [as doing] little to raise our national image throughout the world.” These public expressions of solidarity encouraged attitudinal shifts in the broader White community. Over time, protests supporting the Gurindji increased, with arrests occurring and many students, churches and unions raising money for the effort. The various protests and support generated for the Gurindji was indicative of a broader societal shift in White Australia’s perception of First Peoples. This social climate was conducive to a successful Referendum.

The 1967 Referendum was underpinned by changes in White Australia’s perceptions and attitudes towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Such changes were inspired by the 1956 Grayden Report and 1957 Manslaughter film, the 1965 Australian Freedom Rides and the 1966 Wave-Hill Walk Off. Ultimately, the Referendum was the culmination of a huge reshape of traditional values and attitudes regarding First Peoples and their position and place in society. Such social changes were reflected by then Prime Minister Harold Holt who stated “[the discriminatory sections are] completely out of harmony with our national attitudes and modern thinking.”

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Primary Sources:

Australian Broadcasting Commission. ”The Wave Hill Walk-off: more than a wage dispute.” August 17, 1968. News Broadcast, 6:58.!/media/105332/two-years-after-the-1966-wave-hill-walk-off.

Canberra Times. “The strike at Wave Hill.” September 3, 1966.

Frith, John. ”Getting in the Swim!.” Melbourne Herald, 20 February 1965. 

Grayden, William. Report of the Select Committee Appointed to Inquire into Native Welfare Conditions in the Laverton-Warburton Range Area. Perth, Western Australia: Western Australian Government Select Committee, 1956.

Kebel, M., M. Kebel, J. Kebel, B. Kebel, A. Willmingham, and R. Willmingham. Warburton Ranges Film, Manslaughter [Letter]. Canberra: National Archives of Australia, April 14, 1957.

Melbourne Herald. “Boy! That’s still a territory word for aboriginals”. February 22, 1965.

Melbourne Mercury. “Big Bayswater Meeting sees the most horrible film made in Australia.” March 28, 1957.

Townley, AtholActing Prime Minister replies to letter from Prime Minister Menzies’ constituents [Letter]. Melbourne, Victoria: National Archives of Australia, June 12, 1957.

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Campion, Jessica. ”How Aboriginal Activism brought about change.” Australian Geographic. Published July 14, 2011.

Faye McGrath, Pamela, and David Brooks. ”Their Darkest Hour: the films and photographs of William Grayden and the history of the ‘Warburton Range controversy’ of 1957.” Aboriginal History 34, (Aug 2010): 115-141.

Grieve Black, Robert. The Story of Australia. Sydney, Australia: Creative Commons Share Alike, 2012.

Hokari, Minoru. ”From Wattie Creek to Wattie Creek: an oral historical approach to the Gurindji Walk-off.” Aboriginal History 24, (2000): 98-166.

Korff, Jens. ”Walk-off at Wave Hill: Birth of Aboriginal Land Rights.” Creative Spirits. Published February 8, 2019.

Peterson, Paul. Wave Hill Walk Off 50 Year Anniversary. Queensland, Australia: The Maritime Union of Australia Queensland Branch, 2016.

Perkins, Charles. A Bastard Like Me. Kew, Melbourne, Victoria: Griffin Press, 1975.

Shoemaker, Adam. Black Words, White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929-1988. Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1989. 

Stewart, Libby. ”Yes: the Ongoing Story of the 1967 Referendum.” Museum of Modern Democracy. Published May 25, 2017.

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