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The 1967 Referendum was a landmark achievement for First Nations people.

The 1967 Referendum was a landmark achievement for First Nations people. Following decades of First Nations and non-Indigenous activism, over 90% of 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:

  • First Nations people were 'dying out’ and, hence, would soon cease to be a factor in questions of representation
  • First Nations people weren’t intellectually worthy of a place in the political system.

In 1902, a Tasmanian Member of Parliament dismissed the need to include First Nations people in a national census on the basis that:

"There is no scientific evidence that he is a human being at all." [1] [2]

What changes were made to the Constitution?

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 First Nations people to be included in the census, and giving federal Parliament the power to make laws in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Prior to the Referendum, making laws for First Nations people was the responsibility of the states, and laws varied greatly from state to state. For example, First Nations people could own property in New South Wales and South Australia but not in other states.[3]

Advocates for the Referendum believed that if federal parliament was granted the power to legislate for First Nations people, it would act in their best interests, leading to better conditions for First Nations people.

Mythbusting the 1967 Referendum

The right to vote: First Nations people’s right to vote in federal elections was secured by changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act in 1962, not the 1967 Referendum.

Citizenship rights: By 1967, First Nations people were already legally considered citizens, although many people experienced discrimination in their everyday lives.

Equal rights: Even though the Referendum revealed a desire to extend equal rights to First Nations people, the referendum didn’t guarantee equality. The Referendum gave the federal government the power to make laws for First Nations people, but it didn’t require that those laws would ensure equality and wouldn’t be discriminatory.[4]

What was the impact?

Many First Nations people regard the 1967 Referendum as a symbolic turning point, revealing a widespread desire for equality in Australia. Others feel that the Referendum was irrelevant to their lives, having little effect on the daily discrimination they experience. [5]

The Referendum has had a lasting impact on First Nations policies. It enabled the Federal Government to pass the (Northern Territory) Land Rights Act, which has benefited many First Nations people. However, despite the assumption that the power given to the Federal Government by 1967 Referendum would be used only to benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in some instances, the changes have been used enact laws that have eroded First Nations people’s rights. For instance, the referendum enabled the Intervention (or Northern Territory Emergency Response), including the exclusion of First Nations people from the protection of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth).

The Referendum’s failure to substantially improve conditions for First Nations people resulted in disillusionment and a new wave of activism in the 1970s, including the modern land rights movement. It also ensured continuing activism for further changes to the legal system to create equality and rights protection for First Nations people.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists today are concerned that the 1967 Referendum didn’t remedy the Constitution’s original failure to recognise the unique status of First Nations people as the original inhabitants of the land. [6]

Stop and think: the laws that frame our lives

Imagine being born in a country that didn’t think you were worth counting in the Census? How might this affect your self-worth and sense of value in your community? Given that this is such recent history, can you think about how this is still impacting people in Australia today? In what ways can you imagine First Nations people feeling both encouraged and discouraged in the aftermath of the 1967 Referendum?

The very real disparities in well-being measures indicate that there are still some stark issues of inequality faced by First Nations people today. A history of being dealt with in overly authoritarian ways by the government meant that the change of Constitution continues to have positive and negative effects for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, both in their relationship to authorities, and in their day-to-day life in particular communities.

As we continue to journey forward as a nation, more and more generations will grow up knowing only Constitutional equality between First Nations people and non-Indigenous people in Australia, which will hopefully help nurture more respectful relationships between us all.