Anniversary of 1967 Referendum

Anniversary of 1967 Referendum

Thu, May. 27, 2021

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The 1967 Referendum was a landmark achievement for Indigenous Australians. Following decades of Indigenous and non-Indigenous activism, over 90% of all Australians voted in favour of amending two sections of the Australian Constitution:

Section 51 (xxvi)

 The Parliament shall, subject to this 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 people in any State, for whom it is necessary to make special laws.

Section 127

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

According to political historian, Scott Bennett, these sections were originally included in the Constitution because of the widely held beliefs that:

  • Aboriginal people were 'dying out’ and, hence, would soon cease to be a factor in questions of representation. 
  • Indigenous people were not intellectually worthy of a place in the political system. A Tasmanian Member of Parliament (MP) dismissed the need to include indigenous people in a national census: "There is no scientific evidence that he is a human being at all (1)" (2)

Following the 1967 Referendum, the words "…other than the aboriginal people in any State…" in section 51(xxvi) and the whole of section 127 were removed, allowing for Indigenous people to be included in the census, and giving federal Parliament the power to make laws in relation to Indigenous people.

Prior to the Referendum, making laws for Indigenous people was the responsibility of the states, and laws varied greatly from state to state. For example, Indigenous Australians could own property in New South Wales and South Australia but not in other states. Advocates for the Referendum believed that if federal parliament was granted the power to legislate for Indigenous people, it would act in their best interests, leading to better conditions for Indigenous people.