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Activism brings ‘remarkable list of firsts’

Clarence Valley woman, Evette Clague, spoke on behalf of her mother, Joyce, at the National Museum Australia last week – to mark the 50th anniversary of the referendum that recognised Aboriginal people as full Australian citizens. Image: Contributed
In May 1967, after ten years of campaigning, a referendum on Indigenous recognition in the Australian constitution was held. The outcome: it was the most successful referendum since federation; almost 91 per cent of the electorate voted to amend the constitution to recognise Aboriginal people as full Australian citizens. At an event – a Radio National panel discussion to mark the referendum’s 50th anniversary – held at the National Museum Australia on Wednesday May 24, the museum’s Programs and Engagement deputy director, David Arnold, introduced Clarence Valley woman, Joyce Clague MBE, to those gathered. “She built a remarkable list of firsts for a young Aboriginal woman in the fields in which she worked, in her political activism and in her contribution to international social justice as a member of the World Council of Churches Commission Program Combat Racism,” he said. “…A true matriarch, she has chosen to assign to the youngest of her four daughters, Evette, the task of speaking for her today about anniversaries and change.” She was one of several speakers whose theme was the question: ‘Has change really come, or is it coming still?’ Evette Clague, who is blind and read from a Braille document, began by recounting her recent visit to Alice Springs. “It was the 50th anniversary of [my parents’] move to the Alice to set up their home, begin our family, work and get involved in community,” she said. “May 27th came and went and they watched from the centre of Australia the conduct and outcome of the referendum that for the Northern Territory was all but irrelevant. “Territory residents did not have a vote in referendums in 1967.” Ms Clague said her mother “stood as an independent candidate for the NT Legislative Council electorate of Stuart at the election held in October 1968”. “Her overtures to the local ALP branch to stand as their candidate were not well received,” she said. “…Mum was told that traditional Aboriginal men would not vote for a woman but it was clear that the handful enrolled at Papunya and Yuendumu did so. “She was told that one of the Welfare Branch assistant directors had declared she was not an Aboriginal because she spoke English too well. “Mum was labelled one of those east coast communist agitators. “My dad was paraded before the director of Welfare, Harry Giese, to be told that mum’s political activism was an embarrassment to his career. “This year is the 46th anniversary of a voter enrolment program across central Australia carried out by Central Australian Tribal Council volunteer field workers. “They included Helmut from Hermannsburg and Harry and Rex from Yuendumu. “They charged around central Australia in an early model soft top green Nissan Patrol … its remains are on Ulgundahi Island in Mum’s country on the Clarence. “In May 1975 … Nungera Co-operative Society Ltd was registered. Nungera immediately embarked on a program to remedy a chronic housing shortage confronting the families of mum’s home Yaegl community. “At an auction held on this fourth Saturday in May they purchased four surplus ex-NSW public works dwellings in little more than an hour for the grand sum of $40,000. “Mum says that … her point is that change is not ‘gonna come’, but that change has come and will continue to come in the face of oppression, disadvantage and discrimination while ever and wherever there are people brave enough and cheeky enough to give change a nudge here and a big fat shove there.” “That describes my mum perfectly, brave and cheeky, a life spent nudging and shoving for change.” This is an edited speech; the full text can be read on the Independent’s Facebook page.