Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum

Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum

Today in 2022 we celebrate the 55th anniversary of the winning of Aboriginal rights through the 1967 Referendum. Here we discuss why this came to be, the implication for First Nations people and were we are at today.

Image from Australian National University

The Australian Constitution contains the governing rules of Australia. The Australian Constitution determines the makeup of Parliament, as well as how it functions and what authorities it has. In a series of referendums, Australians approved the Constitution. Referendums are the only way to amend the Constitution in Australian colonial law. Prior to 1967, there were two problematic sections that do not include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in certain Australian rights: Section 51 and Section 127. Injustices sparked many protests that inspired the 1967 Referendum. 

What the 1967 Referendum is About

A referendum is only valid if a majority of voters in a majority of states, as well as a majority of voters nationwide, support it. A double majority is the term for this occurrence. The 1967 Referendum, for the first time in Australian history, made clear that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be part of the census, and gave the Commonwealth the authority to make laws for First Nations people. It was on 1967 that more than 90 percent of Australians voted for “Yes” to “Aboriginal Rights”. It was the largest "yes" vote ever cast in a Commonwealth referendum.

As mentioned, this referendum resulted in including the First Nations in the census, and allowed the Commonwealth Parliament to make laws related to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Referendum's greatest accomplishment was to raise Indigenous and non-Indigenous people's expectations about Aboriginal rights and welfare. There are many misconceptions, however, about the referendum such as giving the right to vote, social security, and wage equality. Fortunately, the said referendum pushed the government to make decisions that are in favor of Aboriginal welfare, like “closing the gap”.

Image from Library of South Australia

What the 1967 Means for the First Nations

Given the results of the vote in the referendum, it showed how many Australians wanted equality. It is, indeed, a symbolic turning point. It also made the Lands Right Act possible. However, there are also cons of the referendum. It still did not recognise that Aboriginals are the first inhabitants of the land. Also, in an academic essay by Brooke Ottley entitled “Contemporary consequences of the 1967 Referendum”, it particularly stated:

The 1967 Referendum has done little to address disadvantage, systemic oppression and power imbalances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, particularly in relation to white Australians and the federal government maintaining their role as benevolent benefactors.” Ottley, 2020

DLGSC of Western Australia also has a publication entitled “Community Perspectives” which includes a collection of perspectives from First Nation and non-First Nations people about the referendum.

Although the referendum has had many positive repercussions there is so much more that needs to be addressed.

Land ownership is a key factor as well as respect and shared understanding for Aboriginal Lore. Constitutional recognition to address the health and incarceration inequality between Indigenous and non-indigenous people as well as recognition of the distinct identities and cultures.