The Australia of 1967 hanged its last man, nuns caned errant school children, television was black and white and some milkos still used a horse and cart for household deliveries.
And Aboriginal Australians didn’t count in the national census.
It was also a time when government authorities were still removing Aboriginal children from their mothers. Those left behind mainly lived on reserves, subject to official controls.
Fred Chaney remembers the year well. As a young man he handed out how-to-vote cards for a landmark referendum that would overwhelmingly approve changing the constitution to allow the commonwealth to legislate for indigenous affairs.
And count them in the census.
“I was strongly on the side of those who believed in the fundamental value and equality of all human beings and that was not part of our foundation as a country,” Chaney said this week after being named Senior Australian of the Year.
(People) will say if Tony Abbott thinks this is okay, then there’s no trap.
Australia back then was a segregated society. We limited the way indigenous people lived and were recognised and we determined new entrants to the country through a White Australia policy.
But change was blowin’ in the wind — as Bob Dylan sang at the time — across the Pacific and Chaney believes the US civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, and the rapid decolonisation of Africa was responsible for a strong shift in the public mood of Australians.
A replication of the American Freedom Rides carried out through country NSW towns also attracted national attention.
A group of Sydney university students, led by Charlie Perkins, travelled through the state in 1965 to highlight cases of segregation at public pools, movie theatres and pubs where Aboriginal people were refused entry.
Chaney believes the success of the 1967 referendum — in which the Yes campaign won nearly 91 per cent of the vote and carried all six states — was due to a 10-year awareness campaign as well as the complete absence of a No campaign.
“You can’t sneak up on the Australian people with constitutional change,” he says.
Which is why he believes it was a good call by the Gillard government to delay a referendum on recognising indigenous people as the first Australians in the constitution.
Instead the government directed cash to a public education campaign called Recognise.
Constitutional change in Australia is notoriously difficult: 36 out of 44 referendums have failed because of the need to achieve a double majority of votes. To be successful, you need to win the majority of votes overall and a majority of the states.
Conservative governments have a better strike rate than Labor administrations, having presided over seven of the eight successful referenda.
It was the government of Liberal prime minister Harold Holt that proposed the changes in 1967.
For this reason, Chaney — a former Aboriginal Affairs minister in the Fraser government — believes it is fortuitous a referendum on the constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians is likely to be put to the vote by Tony Abbott.
“(People) will say if Tony Abbott thinks this is okay, then there’s no trap.”
Indigenous leader Noel Pearson agrees that a conservative leader is the only hope for change.
He likened Abbott to a “Richard Nixon type who could go to China on indigenous reconciliation”, referring to the US Republican president’s historic visit to the then-communist recluse which normalised relations between the two countries.
Abbott, who regards the status quo as a “stain on our soul”, wants to release for public discussion a form of words by September and hold a referendum within his first two years in power.
But he’s wary of rushing to the ballot boxes, warning a “rushed job might be a botched job”.
Not only does he have to win over Australia’s mainstream, any campaign must garner support from the diverse indigenous population itself made up of hundreds of different language groups across remote, regional and metropolitan areas.
The Recognise campaign last year embarked on a nationwide relay to promote the cause at grass-roots level.
As an interim measure both the coalition and Labor voted to pass an Act of Recognition.
Pearson believes a narrative needs to be built around the link between the symbolic and practical outcomes of any constitutional change.
Chaney says an improvement in the economy will be a factor in getting the public to focus on non-economic issues.
“The more comfortable people feel, the more they will widen their thinking towards matters that don’t directly affect their personal lives,” he says.
Chaney believes 2014 is the most promising time of his life to advance reconciliation.
“We are so much further along the road,” he said, citing the land rights movement, racial discrimination laws, Mabo, Paul Keating’s Redfern speech, footballer Nicky Winmar’s shirt raising gesture, the apology to the stolen generation and public support for Adam Goodes.
Goodes, named 2014 Australian of the Year, is likely to play a prominent role in the Yes campaign.
“It isn’t about us wanting to get our land back, it’s not about wanting compensation, it’s about wanting recognition that we were the first Australians,” Goodes says.
Another Aboriginal leader, Mick Dodson, wants to use planned commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli in 1915 to argue for the same spirit and depth of empathy towards indigenous people.
“Australians would never declare that we should just get over it when it comes to the commemoration of the Anzacs,” he says.
“Why, then, should that demand be made of (indigenous) Australians about the events of a century before that and all that followed?”