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50 Years On: Does the ‘67 Referendum Still Matter?
Wednesday 24 May 2017
To mark the semicentennial anniversary of the iconic ’67 referendum on Aboriginal rights, Benjamin T. Jones of the School of History sat in conversation with Ann McGrath and Jo Chivers. The panel discussed issues such as sovereignty, reconciliation, constitutional change, and if the referendum still matters today.
27 May 2017 will mark the 50 year anniversary of the ‘67 referendum. The first question concerning the nexus of the House of Representatives and the Senate failed to pass. The second question on Aboriginal rights passed with a ‘Yes’ vote of over 90 percent. It was the most successful referendum in Australian history.
Support for the referendum was the result of a masterful decade-long campaign spearheaded by the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). Despite the overwhelming Yes vote, the technicalities of the referendum question were poorly understood at the time and many are still unsure today exactly what changed.
Ron Sutton has written a useful article about some of the persistent myths associated with 1967. In particular, he notes that Aboriginal Australians could already vote, were citizens, and were not considered to be flora or fauna before 1967.
The 1967 referendum changed two parts of the constitution. Section 51(xxvi) read that:
51. 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:-
…(xxvi) The people of any race, other than the aboriginal people in any State, for whom it is necessary to make special laws.
The words ‘other than the aboriginal people in any State’ were removed meaning that the federal government could – and had a responsibility to – pass laws to help Indigenous Australians.
Section 127 read that:
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.
The section was completely removed. Again, this compelled the federal government to consider the plight of Aboriginal Australians as a national issue.
50 years on, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia are still significantly disadvantaged in terms of health and life expectancy, education and career outcomes. The anniversary of the 1967 referendum is an opportune moment to reflect on the historic struggle for equal rights and the current agitation for constitutional recognition, closing the gap, and moving towards reconciliation.