This essay investigates the significance of the 1967 referendum.
A printable copy of this essay with full bibliography can be downloaded here.
The 1967 Referendum question on Aborigines arose in a time of growing awareness for indigenous issues both in Australia and worldwide. Debate in parliament was legalistic under the Menzies Government, whilst pro-Aboriginal pressure groups presented daily petitions to try and influence members of the house that there was a great public outcry for reform. It was not until Menzies’ retirement that the Commonwealth Parliament was convinced to include the removal of all discriminatory clauses from the constitution in the referendum. The public was easier to win over, already aware of the humanitarian issues that the Aboriginal people faced, however pressure groups still worked to achieve a resounding approval for the referendum question. There is a great amount of myth surrounding what the change to the constitution actually meant for the Aboriginal population, however governments gradually utilised the new powers granted to the Commonwealth to advance the Aboriginal people of Australia.
When the Commonwealth Constitution Act (1901) was passed, it was considered one of the most democratic in the world, however two sections of the new document discriminated against the indigenous population, section 127 and section 51 (xxvi). Despite there being numerous people involved in the framing of the constitution who took a humanistic, sensitive approach to the Aboriginal population, including Alfred Deakin, the idea that the new commonwealth government should have some obligation to legislate with regard to the aborigines was not mentioned once in the conferences. The passing of the 1967 referendum saw this discrepancy rectified with amendments made to both of these sections. The most major change was the removal of Section 127, and Section 51 (xxvi) was amended to have discriminatory clauses removed. Section 127 had stated that “in reckoning the numbers of people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.” Section 51 had provided that “The Parliament shall, subject to the constitution, have power to make laws for peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to… (xxvi) the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”. The common perception of the 1967 referendum is that it changed the position of the Aboriginal people in Australian society. Although the referendum did establish a new structure of more equal law-making by including the Aboriginal people in general legislation like all other Australian citizens, it was changes to acts and political institutions that were made both before and after the referendum that did the most to alter the Aborigines’ position in society. In addition to the discrimination against Australia’s indigenous population in the constitution, just three years after Federation, the Commonwealth Parliament voted that there should be universal suffrage for men and women, however not for the indigenous population in a bid for uniformity amongst the states. Voting rights for Aborigines had been strongly opposed by some members, especially those representing Queensland and Western Australian seats.  These states would later be in the bottom three states as a percentage of electors in favour of the 1967 referendum question and at the time had the largest aboriginal population of any state, however each smaller than that of the Northern Territory. There was resentment from the Northern Territory as its people were unable to vote in referenda at the time. Constitutional alteration bills for a referendum on section 127 and 51 were presented to the House twice before its successful passage, once in 1964 by Labor Opposition leader Arthur Calwell, and as a private member’s bill from Liberal MHR William Wentworth in 1966.
A referendum on removing all exclusions of the Aborigines in the Commonwealth Constitution was hotly debated in Parliament, with strong views of prominent parliamentarians being shown and many submissions from pressure groups. The Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA), later the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Straight Islanders (FCAATSI), was established in 1958 and lobbied the states for the removal of restrictive laws for the Aborigines. In 1961 the Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, persuaded all mainland states to work toward the assimilation of the Aboriginal people into Australian culture so as to “[enjoy] the same rights and privileges, …the same responsibilities, …the same customs and… the same beliefs and loyalties as other Australians.” This achieved bipartisan support in the Commonwealth Parliament, however was rejected by the FCAA, which saw the potential of Aboriginal contribution to Australian society and argued instead for “integration”. A year later the FCAA began its fight for constitutional amendment. The FCAA was to become a significant influence on the Federal parliament, and achieved this through its awareness that it needed to prove to parliamentarians that there was significant public support for the referendum. The national campaign conducted by the FCAA included a petition ‘towards equal citizenship for Aborigines”, which argued that sections 127 and 51 “in effect give support to other laws and regulations which deprive Aborigines of equal wages and employment opportunities”. The petition, which argued that “the Commonwealth constitution discriminated against the Aboriginal people in two sections”, was signed by more than 100,000 Australians in one year, with Australia’s population at the time being just over ten million people (excluding the indigenous population). Petitions from the FCAA were strategically presented to parliament to bring the issue of constitutional change to the forefront of federal politics. Petitions were presented to parliament daily over a seven-week sitting period, making the debate a part of daily proceedings as it became ‘similar to the opening prayer’. The petitions were successful and in 1966 cabinet agreed to hold a referendum to repeal section 127. Prime Minister Robert Menzies was a high profile opponent to the constitutional change, and it was under his coalition government that the constitutional alteration bills of Calwell and Wentworth were defeated. Menzies opposed the proposed amendment to section 51 (xxvi) for mainly conservative reasons, arguing that the words of the forefathers who wrote the document should not be altered. Menzies was particularly vocal in his rejection of the proposed alteration to section 51 (xxvi), saying during a debate on the repeal of section 127 that if the clause “other than the aboriginal race in any state” was removed, that it would allow a future parliament to establish a “separate body of industrial, social, criminal and other laws relating exclusively to Aborigines.” Menzies in turn argued that “the words are a protection against discrimination by the Commonwealth Parliament in respect of Aborigines”, adding that “there can be in relation to them no valid laws which would treat them as people outside the normal scope of the law.” Menzies accepted the removal of section 127, in fact tabling a constitutional amendment bill to remove it saying that it was out-dated, however not the amendment to section 51.
The inclusion of section 51 (xxvi) in the referendum was not achieved until after Prime Minister Menzies retired from parliament and Harold Holt took control of the governing Coalition. The amendment to section 51 (xxvi) as well as the repeal of section 127 had been part of the Labor party’s policy since 1959. Holt agreed to include section 51 (xxiv) in the proposed referendum in 1967. The year before Barrie Pittock and Lorna Lippmann had started a second petition, this one argued that “specific provision should be made in the constitution for the advancement of the Aboriginal people.” This petition, although loosely worded, called for the amendment to section 51 as it called for the commonwealth to establish laws to assist the Aboriginal people. This was in line with other words already established in the constitution, which Labor Parliamentarian Gordon Bryant pointed out during the debate allowed the Commonwealth Parliament to pass legislation peculiar to other groups in the community, such as migrants or pensioners, but could not give the same benefit to Aborigines. A “silent vigil” conducted in 1952 and consisting of Aboriginal people from New South Wales lobbied the government to “give us equality in all States: include section 51 in the referendum.” The call for change to section 51 was accepted by the Holt government and the referendum bill was passed through Parliament with almost bipartisan support. No party presented a “no” argument against the referendum, however the lack of support from both the Holt and Menzies governments at various stages shows that support for the referendum was not entirely bipartisan. Although a key part of other discussions in regard to Aboriginal rights, land rights were not widely discussed in the debate on the referendum, with the social and humanitarian aspects of the legislation being the focus of the debate.
The general public had been exposed to shocking news footage of desert-dwelling Aboriginal people suffering from starvation and illness in 1957, an image that brought to the attention of all who saw it the need for a change in the way in which Aboriginal people are treated by Australian governments. The footage, shown by the Council for Aboriginal Rights, was utilised by the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League, which took hold of the horror felt by the public after seeing the images. The League circulated a leaflet that year, which used images from the film with the title “WE WANT TO STOP THIS:… HELP US TO HELP THEM!” and a caption to one of the images reading “Flies! But too weak to bother.” One journalist commented upon seeing the film that it was “one thing to read about a tragedy – it is another matter to see it.” The pictorial and cinematic campaign had had a profound effect on the electorate and gained support for constitutional change. Another early campaign which drove for public support for the change was that of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins. Perkins led a “Freedom Ride” through country New South Wales in 1965 to raise awareness of discrimination against the Aboriginal people in local laws.
The 1967 referendum question on the revision of section 51 (xxvi) and the repeal of section 127 was only the fifth referendum to be approved by the Australian people at the time and, with 90.77 per cent of voters in support, was and remains the single most supported referendum question in Australian history. The alteration to both discriminatory sections had been supported by the Labor party since 1959, however support from the coalition remained conservative on the issue until Holt’s assent to the Prime Ministership. Menzies’ complex legal argument, where he argued that the constitution in fact allowed for better treatment of Aborigines, was seen as archaic and no longer represented the views of the population. The clause “other than the aboriginal race in any state” in Section 51 (xxvi) was seen as discriminatory by the public after years of activism working toward the referendum. Since the shock of the 1957 footage, Australia underwent what Jessie Street of the London Anti-Slavery Society described as a “psychological movement” in which reforms might be successful. The FCAATSI, in trying to convince the maximum possible voters that constitutional change was needed so as to make a result in favour of the question, attempted to associate a “yes” vote for the referendum question with Australianness, and with fairness and justice. Political scientist Charles Rowley noted that the 1967 referendum showed that Australians were seeking direction to an ideal Australia, as evidenced by slogans of the “Yes” campaign including “Towards an Australia Free and Equal: Vote Yes.” The referendum campaign occurred during a greater international movement of decolonisation, where numerous colonies in Africa, Asia and Central and South America and the defeat of the referendum would have damaged Australia’s international standing and reputation around the world. The Vote Yes campaign utilised this international pressure, clearly shown in a campaign song sung to the tune off Waltzing Matilda which went: “Vote Yes, Australia, Vote Yes, Australia, The eyes of the world are upon us today” and the campaign directors’ assertion that “a “no” vote… will brand this country racist and… in the same category as South Africa.” Similar international pressure would later prompt Paul Keating to make his “Redfern Address” in response to the international Year of Indigenous People. The American Black Power movement would also have an effect on Australian Aboriginal Rights campaigns in the 1960s and 70s. Despite there being no political “no” case at the time of the referendum, there was some public opposition to the alteration to section 51 (xxvi). Arguments included that a potential “Yes vote would allow a future centralised Commonwealth Government to pass legislation discriminating against Aborigines on racial grounds”, and that “the Aborigines who link us with the pre-historic past have remained free in their nomadic state”, with the proposed amendment to Section 51 “[requiring] that [the Aborigines] be counted, …put on an electoral role, be fined if they don't vote, submit an income tax return and generally come under all the controls that go with civilised progress.” The latter of these arguments also motioned against the removal of Section 127. There were other concerns in that the states were more locally equipped to deal with Aboriginal affairs than the often remote Federal Parliament, and that the referendum was taking away more of the states’ rights. The reason for Section 127’s provision in the Constitution is considered to be one of two possibilities – amongst others, including Labor MP Kim Beazley Sr, Menzies acknowledged the difficulty in counting the Aboriginal people which became less of an issue as technology improved. The other possible reason was that Aborigines were seen as a “dying race” with no significant future. Ironically, poor estimated counts of the Aboriginal population had estimated the “dying race’s” numbers at much lower than they probably were.
The effects of the 1967 referendum are surrounded by myth. Although the event did change the mentality of the general public, the actual immediate achievements were few. Many other acts that are associated with the referendum were actually not the direct result of the referendum or were passed prior to the referendum coming in to action. Guaranteed voting rights for Aborigines were established prior to the referendum, and other important steps like the granting of award wages occurred the year after the referendum. There was some disappointment from activists that there had been little action from the Commonwealth Parliament in legislating for Aborigines “on education, housing, wages, trade training and land grants.” The referendum had however made a pathway for several other developments. Charlie Perkins lobbied Harod Holt to establish a federal Aboriginal Affairs Bureau. Holt set up an Office of Aboriginal Affairs in his department and appointed Wentworth as Minister-in-Charge of Aboriginal Affairs, and also appointed a Commonwealth Council for Aboriginal Affairs, however no department was established. After Holt, Prime Minister Gorton added no more to Holt’s work, stating that “I believe that the Minister and the Council, in their relations with the States, should seek to… allocate funds from the Commonwealth to the State for Aboriginal advancement,… to gather information regarding Aboriginal matters… [and] assist the States in coordination of their policy.” This approach was little different to the system that was in place prior to the referendum. Prime Minister William McMahon did not see a distinction between the issues of white and black Australia, stating that he “couldn't see there was any problem about Aborigines that was different from unemployed or poor white people.” McMahon did however make a general-purpose lease for Aborigines and their land, which required that Aborigines “make reasonable economic and social use of the land” and excluded all mineral and forest rights. Frustration at the land rights record of the McMahon Government led the establishment of the “Aboriginal tent embassy”, which remained in place until Gough Whitlam was elected Prime Minster in 1972. Whitlam instated a royal commissioner to investigate how land could be granted to the Aborigines in the Northern Territory, and appointed a minister to a new full Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Malcolm Fraser strongly opposed racism and upheld the reforms of the Whitlam Government whilst also passing the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) which gave Aborigines title to Northern Territory reserves. Further attempts at reconciliation were made under the Hawke/Keating Government, symbolised by Keating’s “Redfern Address” on the 10th of December 1992, where he all but apologised for the mistreatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples. The Howard Government was seen as a step backwards in its approach to Aboriginal issues. When calls for reconciliation and an apology arose, Howard argued that “Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control.” Howard also removed the full-time position of Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, undoing Whitlam’s work from 1972. The Commonwealth’s control over Aboriginal issues had seen vast ideological changes in the way in which Aborigines were addressed in legislation.
Although the immediate effects of the change to the constitution were few, the long-term use of the new powers by the commonwealth worked to advance the Aboriginal people, and the referendum was symbolic of a changed mind-set amongst the Australian people. Although challenges were faced with the referendum, such as the inclusion of section 51 (xxvi) and the inaction of consecutive conservative governments after the passing of the referendum, the change to the constitution has benefited the Aboriginal people.
Footnotes:  John Hirst, The Sentimental Nation (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2000) page 288.  Dr John Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum, Background Paper 11 1996-1997 prepared for the Department of the Parliamentary Library, c2007, online text.  The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Government Printer, Canberra, 1901.  Deborah Gare and David Ritter, Making Australian History: Perspectives on the Past Since 1788 (Thomson: Melbourne, 2008), Page 524.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, Page 524.  Hirst, The Sentimental Nation, page 288.  Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum.  C.D. Rowley, The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, (Canberra : Australian National University Press, 1970), Page 384.  Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, Page 527.  Ibid, Page 525.  ibid, Page 526.  Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, Page 526.  Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Historical Population Statistics 2008, Cat. no. 3105.0.65.001, Canberra, 2008, AusStats http://www.abs.gov.au.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, Page 526.  Ibid, Page 527.  Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 11 November 1965, pp. 2638-2659.  Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum.  Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 11 November 1965, pp. 2638-2659.  Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum.  Bain Attwood, Rights for Aborigines (Crows Nest, NSW : Allen & Unwin, 2003), Page 171.  Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum.  Rights Bain Attwood, Rights for Aborigines, Page 172.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, Page 527.  Ibid, Page 527.  Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, 528.  Rights Bain Attwood, Rights for Aborigines, Page 151.  Rights Bain Attwood, Rights for Aborigines, Page 150.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, Page 528.  Ibid, pp525-533.  Ibid, Page 527.  Ibid, Page 527.  Ibid, Page 525.  Rights Bain Attwood, Rights for Aborigines, Page 175.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, Page 527.  Rights Bain Attwood, Rights for Aborigines, Page 176.  Ibid, Page 176.  Rights Bain Attwood, Rights for Aborigines, Page 176.  Ibid, Page 321.  Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 11 November 1965, Page 2638.  Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, Page 524.  Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, Page 528.  Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, Page 528.  Gardiner-Garden, The Origin of Commonwealth Involvement in Indigenous Affairs and the 1967 Referendum.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Rights Bain Attwood, Rights for Aborigines, Page 347.  Ibid, Page 346.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, Page 531.  Ibid, Page 546.  Ibid, pp510-511.  Gare and Ritter, Making Australian History, Page 582.  Mark McKenna, “A Reconciled Republic?” in This Country (Sydney : UNSW Press, 2004), Page 14.
A printable copy of this essay with full bibliography can be downloaded here.
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