The referendum of 27 May 1967 raised hopes that the Commonwealth government would move to improve the lives of Aboriginal Australians; the possibility of land rights seemed a prospect.
The referendum had the effect of changing two sections of the Australian constitution: Aboriginal people, previously excluded from the census, would now be counted; and the Commonwealth Parliament was given the power to legislate for Aboriginal people, wherever they were.
Harold Holt, Liberal Party Prime Minister, was apparently taken aback by the overwhelming support (90.77%) for change, and it was not until 7 September that he announced in Parliament that he would establish an Office of Aboriginal Affairs within his own department. He later appointed a three-person Council for Aboriginal Affairs to advise the Government on policies affecting Aboriginal people. The Office would serve the Council.
The Council comprised Dr H C (‘Nugget’) Coombs as chairman, who would retire as the first Governor of the Reserve Bank to take up the appointment; Professor W E H (Bill) Stanner, a renowned anthropologist who had worked in the Daly/Wadeye region; and Barrie Dexter, an officer of the Department of External (now Foreign) Affairs.
Holt died in December 1967, without having settled a statutory framework for the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, which would operate without a charter until November 1973 – “a sort of twilight existence”, as Professor Stanner said in July 1969. Holt’s progressive ideas of improving the lot of Aboriginal people were not matched by his Liberal Party successors, John Gorton and Bill McMahon.
The Council and the Office had a tumultuous history, but remained a force to be reckoned with. They were at constant loggerheads with successive ministers and bureaucrats (mostly from the Country Party-aligned Department of the Interior) as they challenged policies and practices.
As well as being a member of the CAA, Dexter also headed the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, which became the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) immediately after the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972. Dexter retired from DAA in 1976, having served under five Prime Ministers.
Barrie Dexter has written the history of the CAA in a voluminous book, Pandora’s Box, published late last year. The title derives from a conversation when Prime Minister Holt recruited Dexter, which Dexter records in his book:
I said: “But I don’t know anything about Aborigines.” Mr Holt replied: “That’s why I asked you to take on the job. I’m frightened by people who think they do know something!” I said: “Mr Prime Minister, you asking me to open Pandora’s Box!” “That,” he replied, “is precisely what I am asking you to do, Barrie.”
Dexter is now 94 years old. Much of the content of the accompanying article is drawn from his book.
He wrote the original manuscript during a Visiting Fellowship in the Department of Political Science at the Australian National University from 1984-1987. It sat in the archives of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, until it was retrieved and edited by Professor of History Gary Foley and Dr Edwina Howell.
The book is available from the publisher, Keeaira Press – www.kpress.com.au