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Changing the Australian Constitution

In 1967, after 10 years of campaigning, a referendum was held to change the Australian Constitution. Two negative references to Aboriginal Australians were removed, giving the Commonwealth the power to legislate for them as a group. This change was seen by many as a recognition of Aboriginal people as full Australian citizens.

Black and white photo of campaigners on a float fixed with protest banners.
Aunt Celia and Granny Monsell campaigning in Brisbane for a YES vote

The referendum campaign effectively focused public attention on the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians were second class citizens with all sorts of limitations — legislative and social — on their lives.

This decade-long campaign to change the Constitution came to symbolise the broader struggle for justice being fought during these years. Activists presented the case for a Commonwealth government which would be prepared to take responsibility for Indigenous citizens wherever they lived, for the first time.

Teachers resource

The 1967 Referendum: Will you put it in the Australian 'Human Rights Hall of Fame'?

  • Topics: History, Civics and Citizenship, Society and Environment, Indigenous Studies, English, Media Studies
  • Years: 8–12
Teachers resource

Calls to amend the Australian Constitution to give the Commonwealth power in Aboriginal affairs went back to the first decade after Federation.

Churchmen, anthropologists and activists such as Bessie Rischbieth of the Australian Federation of Women Voters had argued that the federal government should have responsibility for the Aboriginal population. William Cooper, a respected Aboriginal activist from Cummeragunja, New South Wales, also called for the Commonwealth to have power to legislate in Aboriginal affairs.

In 1929 Archdeacon Lefroy, representing the London-based Anti-Slavery Society, called for a referendum on the issue of Commonwealth responsibility for Aboriginal welfare. He argued to a Royal Commission on the Constitution that the Aborigines:

should be made a national responsibility because all Australia owes to them a debt of reparation. We have certainly dispossessed them of their country; no one will question that.

The President of the Victorian Women's Citizen Movement, Edith Jones, also presented evidence before this Commission, pointing out the contrast between the Commonwealth's responsibility, under a League of Nations' Mandate, for New Guinea, and its lack of responsibility for Australia's Indigenous peoples.

Some Royal Commissioners supported the calls for constitutional change to empower the federal government in Aboriginal matters but the majority rejected federal control of Aboriginal affairs.

Black and white photo of a group of men, women and children holding protest placards and standing in front of a large banner that includes the text: 'ABORIGINES CONFERENCE'.
Day of Mourning, Australia Hall, Sydney, 1938

On Australia Day 1938 William Cooper (of the Australian Aborigines' League) joined forces with Jack Patten and William Ferguson (of the Aborigines Progressive Association) to hold a Day of Mourning to draw attention to the losses suffered by Aboriginal people at the hands of the whiteman.

This group demanded 'a national policy for Aborigines' and 'Commonwealth Government control of all Aboriginal affairs'. But with the outbreak of war the following year political activism on this matter slowed.

Greater federal power to legislate for Aboriginal Australians was one of fourteen proposals put to the voters by the government of John Curtin in a 1944 referendum, but the proposals were put as one question. As a consequence this referendum failed with less than half the electorate supporting the fourteen proposed increases in federal power.

References

See Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus, The 1967 Referendum: Race, Power and the Australian Constitution, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2007 for a more detailed analysis of these early calls for constitutional reform.

Written on the image by Mary Bennett: 'Norman Bilson, (Walaru), Aborigine Station Hand, suffers from cataract but is still in request for his skilled work. W.A. 1961. Age 66 in 1960.' - click to view larger image
Norman Bilson, Kalgoorie, 1960

Note on the content of this page

This content was specifically developed to complement a stand-alone unit of work for students. It summarises content about the Warburton Ranges and Social Services found elsewhere on the site. If you are not a student working on the 1967 Referendum, you may wish to skip to Early petitions.

Two worlds

Australia in the immediate postwar period consisted of two separate worlds.

The vast majority of its people lived in a world of houses serviced with water and power, where laws ensured social order, where people on the whole had jobs to do and enough to eat and, if they didn't, the state helped them through hard times.

Most people lived in or near cities. They were proud to be subjects of the Queen and believed that they lived in a fair and just democracy, unhindered by problems such as class distinctions in Britain, or racial tensions in the United States or South Africa.

The other world was inhabited by people whose ancestors had lived here for many generations — the Indigenous Australians. By the 1950s most had lost their lands and lived in poverty on the fringes of non-Indigenous society.

Many were not eligible for the dole or other state or federal benefits which non-Indigenous people received. State laws controlled where many Indigenous people could live, where they could or couldn't move and whom they could marry.

Many Indigenous Australians were not legal guardians of their own children and were not permitted to manage their own earnings. Norman Bilson (pictured below) had to fight to receive the old age pension. For more on his struggle see Social Service benefits.

There was little contact between the inhabitants of these two worlds and the majority were ignorant of or indifferent to the difficulties faced by Indigenous Australians.

Some, who were both aware of Indigenous disadvantage and doing what they could to address it, recognised the possibilities of a grassroots reform movement to bring the rights and protections of Australian citizenship to all Australians.

The catalyst for change

Early in 1957 news of a report by the Western Australian Government provided the catalyst for a reform movement. It drew attention to the plight of Aboriginal people still living traditionally in the central Australian desert.

According to this report, malnutrition, blindness and disease were all commonplace among the Aboriginal people of the Warburton Ranges region.

The Report of the Select Committee appointed to 'Enquire into Native Welfare Conditions in the Laverton-Warburton Ranges area' (known as the Grayden Report after its principal author Bill Grayden, MLA) argued that the extreme conditions under which these people lived was made worse due to the use of their lands by the Australian–British atomic testing program.

Rockets were launched at the Woomera Rocket Range in a north-westerly direction towards the Monte Bello Islands.
Map showing areas affected by the British–Australian testing program
View of meteorological station buildings on right edge, most of the image is desert landscape. - click to view larger image
Giles Meteorological Station

In addition, a natural oasis at Sladen Waters was chosen as the place for a weather station to support the rocket-launching program, upsetting the natural rhythm of hunter and hunted.

Although the Commonwealth program was having a negative impact on the people living difficult lives on the reserve, Aboriginal affairs were a state responsibility — in this case the Western Australian Government. For a more detailed account, see Warburton Ranges controversy

Grassroots organisations form

A film covering these events, later called Manslaughter when it was shown on television, was made to provide evidence of the suffering of the Aboriginal people to a horrified Australian public. It was shown in local halls and community centres across the country.

From the community outrage generated by this film the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (VAAL) was formed in 1957 with the purpose of working towards the achievement of full citizens' rights for Aboriginal people throughout the Commonwealth.

Doug Nicholls, who had met with and provided temporary food relief for an Aboriginal group still living traditionally, vowed to work for Aboriginal people across Australia. He became a Field Officer with VAAL.

Black and white photo of a man talking to a large group of people.
Pastor Doug Nicholls distributes food to a malnourished group, February 1957
Newspaper clipping of three men in business suits in discussion. The text above reads: Discuss Native Affairs. - click to view larger image
Aboriginal delegates Jeff Barnes, Doug Nicholls and Bert Groves

In 1958 VAAL joined forces with eight other similar bodies to form the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA).

The goal of FCAA was the achievement of 'equal citizens' rights' for Aboriginal Australians.

One of its strategies for attaining citizens rights was the amendment of the Australian Constitution to give the Commonwealth Government power to legislate for Aboriginal people.

Petitions were an effective way of mobilising support for Indigenous civil rights, and were used throughout the period leading up to the 1967 Referendum. The Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship ran a petition campaign in 1957 which was launched at a huge meeting in the Sydney Town Hall on 29 April that year.

This petition was the brainchild of Jessie Street, who had drawn it up with Brian Fitzpatrick of the Council for Civil Liberties and lawyer Christian Jollie-Smith.

Jessie Street persuaded Faith Bandler, Pearl Gibbs and other members of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship that the Town Hall meeting they had arranged to draw attention to Aboriginal disadvantage was the perfect place to launch the petition.

The petition began by drawing attention to the fact that the 'Aboriginal Residents of Australia suffer under disabilities, political, social and economic' and argued that the situation could not be remedied 'without Amendment of the Constitution'. The first of these petitions was presented to the House of Representatives by Labor MHR Leslie Haylen on 14 May 1957.

The next year a petition by the newly formed Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement was framed in similar language, although it was more carefully worded. It was signed by more than 25,000 people in three months and tabled in the House of Representatives by Gordon Bryant on 17 September 1958.

Further petition forms were tabled by other Labor Party members later in the month.

Both petitions called for the amendment of section 51 (xxvi) and the repeal of section 127 of Australia's Constitution, which required a national referendum.

Why focus on the Constitution?

The only references to Aboriginal Australians in the Australian Constitution were negative. Section 51 (xxvi) stated that:

The Parliament shall, subject to the Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to the people of any race other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.

Campaigners wanted the phrase 'other than the aboriginal race' to be deleted so that the Commonwealth could pass special laws to assist Aboriginal Australians as a people.

The second reference was section 127 which held that:

In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.

They wanted this section to be repealed, arguing that it was an affront for Aboriginal Australians to be specifically excluded by the Constitution.

Section 109 of the Constitution was also relevant to the issue. It read:

When a law of a State is inconsistent with a law of the Commonwealth the latter shall prevail, and the former shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be invalid.

Reformers believed that if the Commonwealth had the power to pass special legislation to assist Aboriginal Australians and used this power, state laws (such as those operating in Queensland) could be challenged under section 109.

References

Commonwealth of Australia Constitution, Parliament of Australia: Senate

In 1962 the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) Annual Conference decided to run a national petition campaign. The goal was to collect a quarter of a million signatures from all states.

The core Melbourne executive of Gordon Bryant, Stan Davey, Doug Nicholls, Barry Christophers and Shirley Andrews worked on a carefully worded draft which was sent to delegates in other states for refinement.

The wording of this petition was quite different from that of earlier petitions. It referred to 'discriminations' which gave 'support to other laws and regulations which deprive Aborigines of equal wages and employment opportunities and deny them the right to own and develop their remaining tribal lands'.

The Melbourne executive composed and circulated a leaflet which explained the arguments for change.

Pastoral industry awards, for example, contained clauses which excluded the many Aboriginal stockmen and women from the award wage and conditions enjoyed by other workers. Some Commonwealth laws specifically excluded Aboriginal people, such as the Tuberculosis Act 1948.

In Queensland, under the Aborigines Preservation and Protection Act 1939 people could not marry without permission, nor were they legal guardians of their children.

In Western Australia Aboriginal people could apply for a certificate of citizenship under the Natives (Citizens Rights) Act 1944, but they had to prove that they had cut off ties with their extended family, had been honourably discharged from the armed services and were not carrying certain contagious diseases. These were some of the 'discriminations' which the petition drafters had in mind.

For 12 months from October 1962 to October 1963 activists set up tables in the streets of all capital and regional cities and in country towns, urging people to sign the petition. Sporting clubs, community organisations, churches and unions were all targeted.

This was a broad community education exercise as well as a petition gathering one. Gordon Bryant, MHR and President of the Aborigines' Advancement League, set out the arguments for Constitutional change.

Alick Jackomos recalls petition-gathering

Alick Jackomos, who was FCAA state secretary for Victoria at about this time, recalls his street campaigning:

Resources 26 Mar 2020

Petition-gathering for the referendum

Alick Jackomos, Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders Oral History Project, 12 December 1996, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra.
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Presenters: Alick Jackomos
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By the end of this year of intense activity over 100,000 signatures had been collected. This was short of the mark but impressive when we remember that the work was carried out after people had finished their work, on weekends, and at evening meetings.

The Melbourne-based national campaign committee now considered how to get the maximum effect from petition forms. They sorted over 6000 forms according to electorates and over a seven-week period in 1963, every sitting day in the House of Representatives began with the tabling of these petitions.

One parliamentarian commented that the petitions had become so reliable and regular that they were like the prayer with which Parliament commenced. Even Prime Minister Robert Menzies tabled a petition from his upper-middle class Kooyong constituents on 11 September 1963.

'Will the Prime Minister support the petition?', Gordon Bryant asked. Menzies didn't answer this direct question but upheld the right of his constituents to petition parliament.

Constitution Alteration (Aborigines) Bill, 1964

In May 1964 Arthur Calwell, Leader of the Labor Opposition, opened the matter to debate with his Constitution Alteration (Aborigines) Bill. Following the petitions, which continued to be tabled, his Bill proposed that section 127 of the Constitution be repealed and that the words 'other than the aboriginal race in any State' be removed from section 51 (xxvi).

Attorney-General Bill Snedden described section 127 as an anachronism. It may have been difficult to count Aboriginal people in 1901 but by 1964, where possible, they were counted. This section, he agreed, may be offensive but it was not discriminatory.

Charles Barnes, the Minister for Territories, considered that there were grounds for amendment but argued that it was not important enough to hold a referendum in order to repeal this section.

Black and white photo of a group of men standing around two seated male officials who are entering information into ledgers.
Census collection, Ernabella Mission, South Australia, 30 June 1966

Debate over the removal of 'other than the aboriginal race in any State' also centred on the meaning of 'discrimination'. Attorney-General Bill Snedden equated 'special laws' with 'discriminatory laws', by which he implied negative discrimination, and argued that the government wanted to move to a situation where no special legislation was necessary.

Kim Beazley (senior) argued that discriminatory laws, if they discriminated positively, were what was needed when infant mortality in some parts of Australia was 208 in 1000 or 10 times greater than the national average.

Gordon Bryant reminded members that the Repatriation Act discriminated in favour of returned servicemen and women in order to assist them with housing, medical needs, pensions, land settlement and education. The Bill was lost.

Debate within Cabinet

Discussion about the issue continued in Cabinet. The argument circulating since the 1962 National Petition campaign that section 51 (xxvi) was discriminatory seemed to have had some effect on public perception.

In 1965 a group of students from the University of Sydney, Student Action for Aborigines, organised a bus trip through western New South Wales towns to draw public attention to racial discrimination.

Dubbed a 'Freedom Ride' (after the freedom rides in the southern US states) this group, led by Charles Perkins, used the media to show the public evidence of discriminatory practices and by-laws against Aboriginal people in these towns.

Attorney-General Bill Snedden told Cabinet in February 1965, 'I think that the public believes that the underlined words [other than the aboriginal race in any State] amounts to a discrimination'. While Snedden rejected this interpretation, he argued that Cabinet should take account of the electors' views of the matter.

Acceptance of the campaigners' interpretation of these clauses in the Constitution was growing, making it difficult for the government to put an opposing view without appearing to the electorate in a negative light.

Six months later the Attorney-General took Cabinet through the arguments for and against amending section 51 (xxvi) and concluded that the Commonwealth should hold a referendum to empower it to amend section 51 (xxvi) so that it could 'implement its policy to the advantage of the aboriginal people'. Cabinet was still not persuaded.

Constitution Alterations Bills, 1965

In November 1965 Prime Minister Robert Menzies introduced two Constitution Alteration Bills. Section 24 of the Constitution stated that the number of members of the House of Representatives should be 'as nearly as practicable twice the number of the senators'.

The government wanted to break the nexus between the numbers in the two houses. This was the Constitution Alteration (Parliament) Bill. The other was the Constitution Alteration (Repeal of Section 127) Bill. Menzies described section 127 as being 'completely out of harmony with our national attitudes'.

The Prime Minister used his first reading speech to explain why he was not including the amendment of section 51 (xxvi) in the Bill. Menzies argued that the words 'other than the aboriginal race in any state' was a protection against discrimination by the Commonwealth Parliament.

He held that if the phrase was removed the parliament could set up 'a separate body of industrial, social, criminal and other laws relating exclusively to Aborigines'.

This was a valid argument but by this time the electorate so strongly favoured the view that the clause was discriminatory and its removal would be a positive step for Aboriginal people, that the Prime Minister's point appeared academic and unconnected to the debate taking place in the community.

The possibility he outlined seemed unthinkable. The Bill was passed and a date was set for a referendum.

The retirement of Menzies early in January 1966, after more than 18 years as Prime Minister, provided a new political environment in which to debate this matter.

The new Prime Minister Harold Holt announced that the planned referendum to repeal section 127 would be deferred, and debate reopened on whether the amendment of section 51 (xxvi) should be included in the referendum question to be put to the voters.

Private Member's Bill

In March 1966 Liberal backbencher William Wentworth introduced a Private Member's Bill, which proposed that the whole of section 51 (xxvi) be deleted.

He proposed a new section, 117A, which would prevent the Commonwealth and states from making or maintaining any law 'which subjects any person who has been born or naturalised within the Commonwealth of Australia to any discrimination or disability within the Commonwealth by reason of his racial origin'. Wentworth's Bill also failed to get the necessary support.

By 1965 the Legislative Reform Committee of what by then had become the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) had taken responsibility for keeping the Constitutional amendment issue politically alive.

Black and white photo of a group of people including Lady Jessie Street, Shirley Andrews and Lorna Lippmann.
FCAA conference, Telopea Park High School, Canberra, probably 1963

Lorna Lippmann, as convenor of this committee, wrote to all members of parliament explaining that section 51 (xxvi) needed to be amended so that 'the federal government may take positive steps to improve the lot of Aborigines'.

Don Chipp, Minister for Tourism, expressed concern that if the phrase 'other than the aboriginal race in any State' was removed from section 51 (xxvi) a future government would be able to discriminate against Aboriginal people.

Lippmann, in response, pointed out that the existence of the phrase had not prevented the Commonwealth from discriminating against Aboriginal people so far.

As evidence she cited the failure of the Commonwealth government to 'pay unemployment benefits to Aboriginal people in the north-west of Western Australia, and the well below award wages that have prevailed for most Aboriginal workers in the Northern Territory'.

Following the passage of the Constitution Alteration (Repeal of Section 127) Bill in February 1966, Barrie Pittock, who succeeded Lorna Lippmann as convenor of this committee, refined a petition sent to the Committee by Mr AS Luchetti, MP.

This one asserted that the paragraph 'the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws' implies a discrimination against Aboriginal people.

The petitioners who signed this form asked that the Commonwealth be given power to 'make laws for the advancement of the Aboriginal people'.

Members of the Legislative Reform Committee envisaged a future when such 'advancement' might include the establishment of an Aboriginal arts board, or an Aboriginal education foundation along the lines of the Maori educational foundation in New Zealand.

References

Lorna Lippmann to Don Chipp, 6 February 1966, Pittock personal papers.

In a February 1967 Cabinet meeting, Attorney-General Nigel Bowen reviewed the arguments put by his predecessor, Bill Snedden. Bowen considered the merits of the Wentworth proposal and told Cabinet that he believed there would be widespread dissatisfaction if the Commonwealth did nothing about section 51 (xxvi).

He urged members to support a proposal that the government hold a referendum to 'seek legislative power for the Commonwealth with respect to aborigines' by omitting the words 'other than the aboriginal race in any State'.

If the referendum was successful, Bowen suggested that the Commonwealth would 'hold discussions with the states to formulate a joint policy' whereby the states would be responsible for administration but the Commonwealth would have a role in formulating policy. Such a situation already existed.

This time Cabinet accepted the Attorney-General's recommendation and decided to hold a referendum.

The government hoped that support for the other constitutional alteration being proposed at this referendum, the breaking of the nexus between the number of seats in the House of Representatives and the number of Senators, would increase by its association with the more popular alteration of clauses relating to Aboriginal people.

In April a Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) delegation went to Parliament House to seek the support of all federal members of parliament on the Aboriginal question.

Black and white photo of Gordon Bryant MHR, Faith Bandler, Prime Minister Harold Holt, Pastor Doug Nicholls, Harry Penrith, Winnie Branson and William Wentworth, MHR.
FCAATSI delegation canvassing parliamentarians, April 1967

And in the streets speakers put the case for a referendum.

The placard refers to land. The speaker is Aboriginal trade unionist, Ray Peckham.
Street meeting on the Aboriginal referendum, 18–20 May 1967
Public figures, such as Faith Bandler, religious leaders, and children featured in the campaign for a YES vote on the Aboriginal question.
Reverend Michael Horsburgh, Faith and Lilon Bandler campaigning for a YES vote, 1967

The usual practice when a question is put at referendum is for the arguments for and against the change to be set out for voters. In this case, however, the changes were supported by all major parties so no opposing case was presented.

Churches came out in favour of a YES vote. The Australian Council of Churches, the Methodist Commission on Aboriginal Affairs and the Society of Friends had developed policies in Aboriginal affairs which favoured greater Commonwealth power in formulating and implementing policy for Aboriginal advancement.

Some journalists made dire predictions for the society if the NO vote was the stronger.

A lively debate was conducted through the letters to the editor pages of daily newspapers, and campaigners wrote directly to the Prime Minister, Harold Holt, urging him to publicly support a YES vote.

Aboriginal spokespeople gained effective media coverage throughout the campaign. The government supported the passage of the referendum but it had no plans for change.

The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, (FCAATSI), set up a national 'Vote YES' directorate headed by Gordon Bryant and Joe McGinness. State directors were also appointed to run the campaign in each state. It was FCAATSI, rather than the government, which campaigned strongly for a YES vote.

Black and white portrait photo of a large group of men and women.
Indigenous delegates and observers at the 1967 FCAATSI conference in Canberra

Their campaign was driven by the view that the vote for change needed to be overwhelming in order to persuade the federal government that it had a responsibility to use the power provided by the amendment. Notice the strategies used to persuade voters in the following four different appeals.

Throughout the 1960s states had been removing discriminatory laws and, by this time, discriminatory state legislation existed only in Western Australia and Queensland. With very minor exceptions the discriminatory clauses in Commonwealth legislation had been removed as well.

Campaigners did not draw attention to this fact. The 'rights' rhetoric continued to be used as a strategy that they believed would be most likely to persuade voters.

On 27 May 1967 over 90 per cent of the Australian electorate did vote YES on the Aboriginal question. On the other question put, concerning the relationship between the number of senators and the number of lower house members, the voters said NO to the proposed change.

The size of the YES vote was vitally important. During the 10 years of the campaign many laws had changed: discriminatory clauses had been removed from Commonwealth laws, and by 1967 Aboriginal people living in all states but Western Australia and Queensland no longer had their civil rights as Australian citizens curtailed by state laws.

The huge YES vote would make it difficult for the government to ignore its new power.

Black and white photo of a group of people cheering and raising their drinks in celebration.
Victory celebration, Tranby College, Sydney, June 1967

For the campaigners, this was a moment of triumph and celebration after a decade of work for this end.

Stan Davey, General Secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), congratulated the Prime Minister. Harold Holt and FCAATSI outlined their view of what should happen next.

While understanding the symbolic value of the passage of the referendum after a decade of work, FCAATSI president Joe McGinness cautioned supporters. ‘Winning the referendum’, he told them, ‘is an important step forwards — but it is only a first step’.

He reminded people that ‘the government is showing no hurry to legislate for us on education, housing, wages, trade training, land grants and many other things we need’.

References

J McGinness, Letter to supporters, Cairns, June 1967, Joe McGinness Papers, MS 3718, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Islander Studies, Canberra.

Indigenous responses

Charles Perkins, Vice-President of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), referred to the referendum as 'the moment of truth whether the white people really are interested in our welfare or rights'.

He wrote to the Prime Minister Harold Holt setting out his ideas about how the government might use its new power.

Perkins had met Harold Holt in New York in June and the Prime Minister had invited him to submit his ideas on how the government might respond to the mandate in Aboriginal affairs.

Perkins suggested the development of a Federal Aboriginal Affairs Bureau, which might see employment and education as priorities. He also referred briefly to the issue of land ownership and recognition of Aboriginal status as original owners.

The strong YES vote signified community acceptance for him, as it did for Doug Nicholls, Joe McGinness, Kath Walker, Bert Groves, Bill Onus and Chicka Dixon.

Black and white photo of a group of men and women.
FCAA group photo

Kath Walker, who had directed the Queensland campaign, wrote to congratulate the Prime Minister and looked forward to 'further enlightened policy' in the near future. The Prime Minister, in response, referred to 'further action, now that the people have expressed their views in such a convincing fashion'.

Some Aboriginal and Islander activists, people with a lifetime of experience of disadvantage were moved by the size of the vote.

Harriet Ellis, Aboriginal convenor of the NSW Trades Hall 'Vote Yes' Subcommittee, considered that the referendum result 'would help to eliminate an inferiority complex'. She believed that Aboriginal people 'particularly want to be counted as Australians'.

Speaking 30 years after the event, Harry Penrith (later known as Burnum Burnum), a Federal Council committee convenor, concurred: 'personally, it made me lose my inferiority complex'.

Some Aboriginal people have suggested that, prior to 1967, they felt that there was no point in voting because political parties showed no interest in their concerns. After the referendum, however, they felt less ignored and more inclined to use their vote.

Other Aboriginal and Islander people saw the passage of the referendum as irrelevant to their lives or as having a negative effect. Elizabeth Hoffman, interviewed in 1997, commented that the referendum 'didn't really affect everyday life — you still now have to fight for things. We had to fight for anything we ever got and are still doing it'.

David Mowaljarlai argued that the referendum 'made things worse for my people. Drinking and those sorts of freedoms have caused things to be much worse'. Bev Elphick saw the referendum as only having created more politicians.

Parliamentary responses

Charles Barnes, Minister for Territories, favoured maintaining the status quo, in which the Commonwealth gave some policy direction such as establishing that assimilation was the agreed policy basis for all states and territories with regard to Aboriginal affairs. He added, however, that there seemed to be a need to define the Commonwealth's role in Aboriginal affairs.

William Wentworth, the government member who had been most interested in Aboriginal issues, drew the Prime Minister's attention to the electoral angle. If Aboriginal voters voted in a block for Labor seven northern Australian seats could be in doubt.

The Prime Minister's Cabinet submission of July or August 1967 stressed joint arrangements with the states, and warned against magnifying 'the Aborigine problem out of its true reality'. But it also referred to the establishment of a Bureau of Aboriginal Affairs.

By early September five Members of Parliament (MPs) with seats in northern Australia were getting nervous. They wrote of 'serious repercussions' if the government failed to come up with a plan of action in Aboriginal affairs.

Finally, more than five months after the electorate voted so strongly for federal power in Aboriginal affairs, the Prime Minister announced the setting up of a Council for Aboriginal Affairs, to be headed by the governor of the Reserve Bank, the widely respected HC Coombs.

This council, a statutory body, would play a key role in the next few years, listening to Indigenous Australians and providing policy advice to the federal government.

With the election of a Labor government at the end of 1972 Gordon Bryant became the first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs supported by a department. For the activists in FCAATSI and outside it the idea of a Commonwealth government passing legislation in Indigenous affairs and then, under section 109 of the Constitution, challenging Queensland, seemed possible.

References

Cited by Bill Onus, Director, Vote Yes Campaign Committee, 'Aboriginal Rights and the Referendum', nd, Bryant papers, MS 8256/175, National Library of Australia.

H Ellis, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 1967.

Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus, The 1967 Referendum: Race, Power and the Australian Constitution, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007.

Conversations with Len Fox, Josie Briggs and others. See also comments by Leisha May Eatts and Tjuka Pumpjack, 'Aboriginal oral sources', in Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus, The 1967 Referendum, or When Aborigines Didn't Get the Vote, Canberra, 1997, pp. 138–139. Such comments also help to explain why 1967 has often been remembered as the time when the right to vote was granted even though the Commonwealth Electoral Act extending the vote federally to all Aboriginal and Islander people was passed in 1962. See Heather Goodall, 'Aboriginal history and the politics of information control', in R White and P Russell (eds), Memories and Dreams: Reflections on Twentieth Century Australia, Sydney, 1997, for an insightful discussion of how oral evidence might be read.

'Aboriginal Oral Sources' (compiled by Dale Edwards and Kath Schilling) in B Attwood and A Markus, The 1967 Referendum: Race, Power and the Australian Constitution, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007.

Resources

Further information on the documents referred to in the Civil Rights sections

Resources
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