Saturday 27th of May marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum in which Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census.
The referendum put the following question to the Australian people:
Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled 'An Act to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population'?
The proposed law (Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) 1967) sought to give the Commonwealth Parliament power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people wherever they lived in Australia. It also sought to make it possible to include Aboriginal people in national censuses. The amendment deleted part of section 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution and repealed section 127.
Turnout for the referendum was almost 94 per cent, and the result was a strong ‘Yes’ vote, with a significant majority in all six states and an overall majority of almost 91 per cent. The results of the referendum vote are set out below:
|New South Wales
||2 315 828
||2 166 507
||1 949 036
||1 734 476
||1 630 594
||1 525 026
|6 182 585
||5 801 584
||5 183 113
The referendum also put a separate question on a proposed law seeking to remove the connection in the Constitution between the number of members of the House of Representatives and the number of senators; this question was not carried. The estimated cost of the referendum was $1,041,000 (approx. $12.9m in 2016 prices).
The reasons for the previous and explicit exclusion of Aboriginal people by sections 51 (xxvi) and 127 of the Constitution are not entirely clear. However, the effect of this exclusion was the implementation by the states of policies that could broadly be termed ‘assimilationist’, and laws that resulted in Aboriginal peoples’ dispossession, oppression and alienation.
Following longstanding calls for greater Commonwealth involvement in Indigenous affairs, in the 1960s the pressure for change built rapidly. In the face of evidence that assimilationist policies had failed, and with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists drawing attention to the denial of civil rights and discrimination that these policies entailed, the plight of Aboriginal people became a significant political issue. Activists ran petition campaigns to amend the Constitution in support of Indigenous civil rights, and bills seeking to amend the Constitution in favour of Aboriginal people were debated in the Federal Parliament.
In 1967, in response to a Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) petition calling for a referendum on sections 51 and 127 of the Constitution, the Holt Coalition Government introduced the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) Bill 1967 to the Parliament. The legislation was passed unanimously.
Because no parliamentarian had voted against the proposals relating to Aborigines, the Government only prepared a ‘Yes’ case for the referendum. The campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote gained widespread support among the Australian public and this was reflected in the final vote.
The significance of the 1967 Referendum has been somewhat obscured by a number of myths. These include the misconceptions that the Referendum granted Aboriginal people citizenship, the right to vote, wage equality and access to social security, among other things.
In terms of its practical significance, perhaps the main achievement of the Referendum was to raise the expectations of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people regarding Aboriginal rights and welfare.
The Referendum also had a great deal of symbolic significance. As John Gardiner-Garden has observed, the event ‘has come to act as a form of historical shorthand for a decade of change which began in the early 1960s and ended in the early 1970s’. The Referendum signalled a general shift in the way that Australian governments approached Indigenous issues, away from assimilationist policies towards policies based around self-determination, reconciliation and, more recently, ‘closing the gap’.
A related, forthcoming FlagPost will consider the impact of the 1967 Referendum on Indigenous health.
J Gardiner-Garden, The origin of Commonwealth involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum, Background paper, 11, 1996–97, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 1997.
J Gardiner-Garden, The 1967 Referendum—history and myths, Research brief, 11, 2006–07, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2007.
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), ‘The referendum Australia had to have’, AIATSIS website.
National Museum Australia, ‘The Referendum, 1957–67’, Collaborating for Indigenous Rights 1957–1973 website.
Parliamentary Library, Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, 44th Parliament, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2014.