• A real life friendship which inspired a children's picture book about the referendum (Illustrations: Paul Seden)Source: Illustrations: Paul Seden
The 1967 referendum brought a nation to its feet, but how do you explain its significance to children 50 years later? A Melbourne-based author has attempted to do just that, drawing from the real-life friendship of her older sister and her Aboriginal best friend.
Rachael Hocking

25 May 2017 - 2:59 PM  UPDATED 25 May 2017 - 4:08 PM

Mandy Brown and Margaret Castles have been friends since childhood. They met at a prestigious Adelaide private college during their primary years where they developed a friendship built on a mutual disregard for the rules.

"We just sort of hung around on the edge… other kids were running in and wanting to be little girls, Marg and I were never like that. We were never involved in the little cliques that little girls had,” Mandy explains.

“And we had a lot of contempt for the other children!”

Marg is more direct.

“Neither of us tolerated bullshit."

Mandy and Marg have the same laugh: high-pitched, loud and infectious. What brought them together, they explain, was an ability to laugh at the serious and embrace silliness.

"We got caught smoking once," Marg giggles.

"So we had to go and see the headmaster, and we gave a bit of back-chat I think. So we had to do gardening for three nights, and one night we're sweeping all these autumn leaves."

"We got so annoyed, that we swept them all into a great big pile in the middle of the driveway," Mandy laughs. 

"And I was just thinking, if we get caught, we'll tell them 'well you didn't tell us where to put them!'" 

From a young age both of them say they had a deeply felt understanding of right and wrong: in high school they fought tooth and nail for a female rowing team, despite having little interest in sport.

“We agitated for equality and rights,” Marg says.

“And standing up to authority,” Mandy adds.

Marg grew up the daughter of renowned historian and author Alex Castles, and Mandy grew up Aboriginal, adopted by a white family along with other Aboriginal children who were not related to her. 

“[Our adoptive parents] didn’t talk about it at all. They didn’t want to acknowledge the Aboriginality, really,” Mandy explains.

What she was told was that her mother had been a prostitute, and that she had been neglected. Something Mandy later found out to be untrue. 

It wasn't until her 30s, when she found her family and started researching the Stolen Generations, that Mandy realised what had happened to her.

"That was a real shock to me, to think 'I'm one of them and this has happened to me,'" she says.

"I was horrified. And my brothers and sisters, that just devastated them I think. And the fact that we could've been returned, that was the biggest thing." 

The story Mandy grew up hearing about her family was the same one Marg had been told. 

“I knew she was (Aboriginal)… we sort of knew the story was they’d been adopted and they were better off where they were: you know that old myth that went with all the stolen children stuff in the 60s and 70s,” Marg says.

But this dark reality never got in the way of their friendship. Put simply: they enjoyed each other’s company and that was that. 

“You know just this morning I can remember Mandy and other Aboriginal kids at the school having racial epithets thrown at them quite commonly and it was not unusual and it was pretty outrageous,” Marg says.

“But… I also remember that [Mandy] and I were having a conversation down there somewhere about whether it was better to be black or fat.”

Their ability to laugh and find comfort in each other was admired from afar by Marg's younger sister, children's author Jennifer Castles.

“As a younger sister, I spent a lot of time watching those two: they were great mates, they were funny, they were naughty, they were clever, and they were silly. And I really envied them,” Jennifer says.

Jennifer says that for the last few years she's been researching a book that would help explain the significance of the 1967 referendum to kids.

“Well a couple of years ago, someone was talking about the 67 Referendum, and I thought ‘I don't know what that is’,” she says.

“So I started reading up about it and was pretty sort of stunned to read what the law was like in the 60s.”

This included by-laws in places like Moree in New South Wales, which prevented Indigenous people from entering swimming pools. And laws that banned Aboriginal people from travelling interstate without permission in certain states and territories.

During this time, Mandy and Marg were children. While Mandy suffered from being taken from her birth mother and culture, being adopted by a white family meant she was not exposed to some of the harsh laws of the time.

What put this all into perspective for Jenny was a simple thought: how would Mandy and Marg have had a friendship if they had been impacted by these laws?

The book that resulted is called Say Yes, and it combines illustrations by Wuthathi and Muralag artist and author Paul Seden, with actual artefacts and photos from 1967.

“Although most of the text and the story and the pictures are very, very simple and could be read and understood by very small children,” Jennifer says.

“At the back of the book there are actually some very simple explanations of what the laws were like in the 60s.”

The book was launched at the beginning of April this year, and it’s hoped it will become an education resource aimed at primary school children.

In the meantime the two little girls who inspired the story couldn’t be happier.

Reflecting back on 1967 they agree that – had they been alert to the historic campaign – they’d have been making ‘Vote Yes’ buttons, and advocating “as feisty seven-year-olds”.