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Still fighting for our rights 50 years after the referendum



This month, we commemorate a significant political event in Australian history. The 1967 Constitutional Referendum represented a time at which all Australians recognised Aboriginal peoples as people.

Protestors march for Aboriginal citizenship rightsThe Australian Constitution racially discriminated against, and politically excluded, Aboriginal peoples across Australia, post-colonisation. The referendum was significant not only because it showed a level of political and cultural progression among a non-indigenous majority community, but also because it exhibited federal legislative change within a legal instrument that is notoriously difficult to change.

The practical effects of the referendum on Aboriginal rights included a complete repeal of section 127 of the Constitution, which prohibited Aboriginals from being counted as people within the Australian census. It also amended the wording contained within section 51 (xxix), which gave the Australian parliament power to make special laws for people of any race — except for Aboriginals.

An interesting aspect of that political event was the shift in the mindset and understanding regarding Aboriginal rights among non-indigenous Australians. To note the way in which one dominating western culture moved toward recognising the rights of another culture that was (and continues to be today) oppressed is quite remarkable.

We should consider those aspects of the mentality shift (from both cultures and their understanding of what the 1967 referendum meant) if we are ever to revisit that type of federal movement again.

The Grayden Report in 1957 had exposed the harsh and inexcusable living conditions Aboriginal peoples were being subjected to prior to the referendum. It was the first time the broader non-indigenous community saw exactly how high the levels of malnutrition, blindness and disease being suffered among Aboriginal peoples actually were.

The report influenced a positive shift in the mentality of non-indigenous Australians to the extent that they developed a whole new level of empathy. Many non-indigenous Australians affiliated themselves with Aboriginal action groups like the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, and joined the fight for constitutional reform. After a decade of continuous advocacy, a referendum was agreed to.

There were, however, many misconceptions among the Aboriginal community as to what the practical effects of the referendum would be. The issues being grappled with by the broader Aboriginal community were that they were being disadvantaged politically, and that their human rights went unrecognised.


"Aboriginal peoples are reclaiming political space by advocating for continued improvements to their full citizenship rights and respect for their cultural identity."


Most Aboriginals thought the referendum would grant them voting rights, citizenship rights and equal rights more generally, which was not in fact the case. Legislative and policy restrictions to their citizenship rights, particularly with regard to their rights to education and political inclusion, meant most Aboriginal peoples lacked an adequate level of understanding of what exactly the referendum entailed.

On the education front, for example, Aboriginal children in NSW were only allowed to attend separate Aboriginal schools, which had been established in 1901 and employed less than ideal teaching methods. Quite often only manual activities were taught, by an untrained wife of a reserve manager.

It wasn't until 1943 that Aboriginal parents were given the opportunity to completely reject their cultural identity to receive an 'Exemption Certificate' (otherwise referred to as a 'dog tag') to allow them to send their children to school. So Aboriginal peoples were at a major disadvantage when it came to knowledge of laws and a political system that had sought to oppress them.

From a political participation perspective, Aboriginal peoples' level of understanding and their contributions to the 1967 referendum were also inadequate. Aboriginal peoples were completely under-represented within the Australian political system and federal decision-making processes during that era.

This is exemplified through voter exclusions that existed within state and territory jurisdictions, which excluded Aboriginals from voting unless legislation was enacted that permitted otherwise. In fact, it wasn't until 1962 (just five years before the referendum) that Aboriginal peoples became enfranchised with amendments made to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902 that acknowledged Aboriginals should vote at federal elections.

With the slow progression of both those two elements of Aboriginal citizenship rights, and in balancing our understanding of the positive shift in mentality among non-indigenous peoples against the lack of inclusion we saw among Aboriginal peoples, it is no wonder there remain mixed feelings among all Australians in acknowledging this event.

For Aboriginal peoples, feelings of happiness were prevalent (and still are), given federal progress had finally been made to acknowledging them as people. Yet on the other hand, many Aboriginal peoples still feel a level of disappointment given not enough was truly achieved to impact positively on their broader citizenship rights.

Since then, we have seen a significant increase of political involvement among Aboriginals across Australia, with advocacy work consistently on the rise. Aboriginal peoples are reclaiming political space by advocating for continued improvements to their full citizenship rights and respect for their cultural identity.

The Recognise movement exhibits a modern day equivalent to what we saw with the work undertaken by the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement. This is a positive step for all Australians. For that reason we ought to not only acknowledge the 1967 referendum for representing cultural progression, but also celebrate the increased Aboriginal advocacy efforts that fight for respect to cultural identity, inclusion and diversity within our political system.


Dani LarkinDani Larkin is a Bunjalung woman who grew up on the Aboriginal community Baryulgil. She is an admitted lawyer and has practiced in a variety of areas of law. Dani is studying her PhD in law at Bond University with her thesis topic on 'The Law and Policy of Indigenous Cultural Identity and Political Participation: A Comparative Analysis between Australia, Canada and New Zealand'.

Topic tags: Dani Larkin, 1967 referendum



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Existing comments

Very interesting article. Changing a few words here and there, it could also describe the political and educational emancipation of Catholics in the conservative (Tory),English Protestant colony. The great father of the constitution, Henry Parkes, held his education bill aloft in the Parliament in the latter part of the nineteenth century and declared, "In my hand I hold the death knell of the Roman Catholic Church in this country". The response - build the biggest independent school system in the country - at great personal sacrifice if necessary.. A Catholic could not be preselected to run for election in the federal parliament until the 1970s when Billy Snedden changed the rules. Catholics were rarely chosen to represent Australia at cricket, the national game, in those days and when they were they were often ignored by some of the iconic Protestant captain knights of the game. (Reminiscent of the great Queensland Aboriginal fast bowler, Eddie Gilbert, chosen to play for Australia in a test against England and banned by the English Board because it was inappropriate for an Aborigine to play at Lords) Catholic schools made it through and the parliaments are now full of Catholics (nominal and otherwise). Keep plugging away responsibly, our Aboriginal people. You too will triumph as the bigotry of English domination fades even further into the past with the decline of Empire into the land of fairy tales.

john frawley | 23 May 2017  

While I endorse a need for our first peoples to have constitutional recognition I must ask: who are the 'aboriginal peoples' for the purposes of the constitution? Is an aboriginal anyone with a smidgin of aboriginal blood? Or, perhaps, someone who identifies and/or is politically involved as aboriginal? Are 'they' separate from the rest of 'us' or part of us? Our census doesn't help here because it invites self-identification and asks questions not about ethnicity but relating to cultural ancestry. That doesn't help my wife who, being wholly jewish by blood but with ancestors who came from England and Europe, has to express her ancestry in it as 'Australian'. How many jewish Australians are there (she is not one) or people of jewish background? Nobody knows any more than we know how many kiwi Australians (maori or pakeha) there are? Or aboriginal australians? We need to acknowledge in the constitution that there were people here long before our country was constituted in 1901 and indeed before the European and Asian occupations. But, beyond that, clauses that might advantage (or disadvantage) any groups of Australian - especially ones to do with race - just should not be in the constitution

Ian Bowie | 24 May 2017  

Perspicacious and compelling, Ian Bowie.

john frawley | 24 May 2017  

Thank you. Without wishing to add to the discussion I should correct the record: my wife is a Jewish Australian but not an Australian Jew. Words matter and the Australian Constitution should be in words whose intent is as clear as humanly possible.I'd be happy to see Clause 116 extended to include race and ethnicity and Clauses 25 and 51 (xxvi) taken out if we had a Bill of Rights enacted. But we dont

Ian Bowie | 25 May 2017  

Thanks Dani I have just come across the RECOGNISE website myself and been impressed as the need to listen and spread the perspective of Australia's first people on this matter is vital at this juncture in our history for justice and truth to be enacted and to shift our self-understanding as a nation toward healing the past on a spiritual level - the level which most deeply impinges yet has failed to be recognised among other levels inadequately addressed. The Uluru - Statement of the heart, so aptly named speaks to me of vision and determination to make Makarrata (coming together after struggle) an ongoing reality which is visionary for it leads us all toward a better future based on truth telling...it is good for the soul of this nation and will foster practical outcomes vis health, business, respect...if we get on board by spreading the word. I was re-reading JPII statement at Alice Springs in 1986 (http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1986/november/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19861129_aborigeni-alice-springs-australia.html) which is embodied in the standing up and standing for evident in the Statement of the Heart which has come out of Uluru showing the great dignity of the people of this land who have never given up in the face of extreme challenges.

Gordana Martinovich | 28 May 2017  

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