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The Path to a Referendum: From Uluru via Garma to Canberra and on to the People

  • 17 August 2022

Daniel Mannix arrived in Melbourne from Ireland in 1912.  He became Archbishop of Melbourne in 1917, a role he fulfilled for 56 years, until 1963. Mannix was always his own man and he had an innate Irish sense of justice, especially when it came to adverse discrimination practised by those who exercised power together with privilege. Given the topic, The Path to a Referendum: From Uluru via Garma to Canberra and on to the People, it’s worth tracing some of Mannix’s steps, recalling just how far we have come as well as how far we still need to go, addressing the outstanding claims of First Australians to justice and recognition. 

In 1933, there were still serious suggestions of a punitive expedition to Arnhem Land to deal with Aborigines alleged to have killed some whites. Archbishop Mannix had cause to send a telegram to the Catholic Prime Minister Joe Lyons on 5 September 1933. It read: ‘Prime Minister, Canberra: With I hope majority of Australians I would regard the punitive expedition with grave misgivings and the possible result with horror. Archbishop Mannix.’[1] The punitive expedition did not go ahead.

In January 1938, Mannix attended the opening of the Pallotines’ missionary college in Kew, just a short distance from the archbishop’s residence Raheen.  The Pallotines had opened Aboriginal missions in the Kimberley.  Prime Minister Lyons was in attendance. The Argus newspaper reported:

‘Mr. Lyons said that a wonderful story had been told of the sacrifices made by the missionary fathers in working for the conversion of the aborigines. He was present to show the appreciation of the Government to the Pallottine Fathers for their work.  There had been much criticism of the Government in regard to the treatment of the blacks, and it had aroused the conscience of the public to the necessity for doing more for the aborigines than had been done previously.  In the near future the Commonwealth Government would deal with the question.  In a few days a conference of the aborigines would be held in Sydney, and, following the conference, a deputation of aborigines would wait on him.  The Ministry would do its best to wipe out whatever reproach remained in regard to the treatment of the blacks.’ 

The newspaper report continued: ‘Some who claimed to be experts said the blacks should not be interfered with so far as religious matters were concerned, said Mr. Lyons. Religion was their most precious possession, and surely Australians would not deny to the aborigines, to whom they owed so much, participation in it.’ [2] Prime ministers of all political persuasions have been