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Still fighting for our rights 50 years after the referendum

  • 22 May 2017


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.

The 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