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Australia’s 1967 Constitutional Referendum Related to Indigenous People: The Women Who Campaigned for “Yes”

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Cover of Reflections: 40 Years on from the 1967 Referendum (Neil Gillesppie ed., c2007).

I decided to observe International Women’s Day (today, March 8) by highlighting several Australian women, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who had key roles in bringing about a constitutional referendum held in Australia on May 27, 1967, and in campaigning for the “yes” vote.

The referendum contained questions related to two provisions in the Australian Constitution that discriminated against indigenous Australians. One related to the ability of the federal Parliament to make laws applicable specifically to Aboriginal people. The second meant such people could be excluded from the population count of each state, a count that was used to make certain calculations related to federal funding and parliamentary representation.

The referendum “saw the highest YES vote ever recorded for a Federal referendum, with 90.77 per cent voting for change.”

The Referendum

The process for amending the Australian Constitution is set out in section 128. First, each house of Parliament must pass, “by absolute majority,” a bill containing the proposed amendment or amendments. Once passed, the proposed law must, within six months, be submitted to each state and territory for electors to vote on the amendments. Then, “if in a majority of the States a majority of the electors voting approve the proposed law, and if a majority of all the electors voting also approve the proposed law, it shall be presented to the Governor‑General for the Queen’s assent.” This requirement is known as a “double majority.”

Since federation in 1901, when the Constitution came into effect, there have been 44 proposals to amend the Constitution in 19 referendums, with just eight of the proposals being agreed to.

The current rules for constitutional referendums are set out in the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 (Cth). At the time of the 1967 referendum, the relevant laws were the Referendum (Constitutional Alteration) Act 1906 (Cth), as amended (most recently by two laws passed in 1965). Only a few years earlier, in 1962, all Aboriginal people had been given the right to vote in federal elections as a result of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 (Cth). This change meant that all Australians over the age of 21 years could vote in the 1967 referendum (the voting age was later lowered to 18 years in 1973). Previously, since 1949, only those indigenous Australians who had completed military service or who already had the right to vote in their state were able to vote at the federal level.

The 1967 referendum asked voters whether they agreed with amending section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution and deleting section 127. These were the only two provisions that referred to Aboriginal people in the Constitution.

Section 51(xxvi) read as follows:

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.

This provision meant that laws related to Aboriginal people were within the purview of the states, rather than the federal Parliament. Therefore, the states were responsible for the welfare of Aboriginal people, and laws and regulations varied across the country. The referendum asked voters whether the wording in bold above should be removed, thereby bringing Aboriginal people within the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction. A previous proposal to amend this provision was also included in a 1944 constitutional referendum that sought to add to the powers of the federal Parliament; however, this referendum did not result in a majority “yes” vote.

Section 127 of the Constitution read as follows:

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.

Some have claimed this provision excluded indigenous people from being counted in the national census entirely. However, this is not accurate. A more probable explanation is that “it was intended that Aboriginal people have no role in Federal politics, and as the census was the basis of how many House or Representative seats were to be allocated to each state, it was decided not to count, for this purpose, the Aboriginal people. Moreover, states with few Indigenous people were keen that those states with more should not be able to claim more of any division of the new Commonwealth Government’s surplus finances.”

Following the “yes” vote to the question related to the two provisions, the Constitution was amended by the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) 1967, which received assent on August 10, 1967.

The Campaign to Change the Constitution

"Appeal" (poem by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, published in My People: A Kath Walker Collection (1970).)
“Appeal” (poem by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, published in My People: A Kath Walker Collection (1970).)

The successful 1967 referendum was the culmination of a decade of effort by campaigners. The first petition regarding changing the Constitution was drafted in 1956 by a prominent feminist and human rights activist, Jessie Street, with advice from lawyer Christian Jollie Smith (the second woman to be admitted as a solicitor in New South Wales) and Brian Fitzpatrick of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties. Lady Street was involved in the drafting of the Charter of the United Nations, had founded the United Associations of Women, been an executive member of the World Peace Council, and was also on the executive of the British Anti-Slavery Society. The latter asked her to report on the situation of Aboriginal Australians. She went on to visit numerous Aboriginal settlements, lobbied state governments, and published a number of papers regarding indigenous issues and rights.

Also in 1956, Lady Street had urged Pearl Gibbs to establish the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (AAF). The AAF was subsequently founded by Gibbs and Faith Bandler, who was also an associate of Lady Street. Another prominent supporter was activist Joyce Clague. In April 1957, the AAF adopted Lady Street’s petition for a constitutional referendum, launching it at a “huge meeting” at the Sydney Town Hall. The petition was presented to the House of Representatives by Labor Party member of Parliament Leslie Haylen in May 1957. Although there were several further political steps in the process leading up to the Parliament voting in favor of a constitutional referendum, it was Lady Street’s version of the changes that was eventually adopted.

Faith Bandler “worked for Aboriginal education and housing, was a founding member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby and the Australian Republican Movement, campaigned for the rights of South Sea Islanders and wrote six books, including Wacvie (1977), a biographical novel about her father.” She played a leading role in the campaign leading up to the 1967 referendum, and was perhaps best known for this work. In 2009, Bandler ”was appointed a Companion in the Order of Australia for advancing human rights and social justice, and raising public awareness and understanding of the heritage of South Sea Islanders and women’s issues.”

Pearl Gibbs was a life-long Aboriginal rights activist who became prominent in the movement in the 1930s. She had a central role in several organizations and was known for her public speaking and organizing skills. “Her sphere of contact included prime ministers, attorneys-general, numerous members of parliament in New South Wales, waterfront and other unions, feminist groups, women’s groups, and members of the media. She was the first Aboriginal woman to speak on Australian radio and the first to present a scripted radio show.” Bandler argued that it was Street and Gibbs who had “provided the impetus which lead [sic] to success in 1967.”

The referendum campaign came to be led by the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines, which in 1963 changed its name to the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). The Council was formed in 1958 at a meeting of delegates from all mainland states (including from organizations such as the AAF), with the meeting primarily planned by activist Shirley Andrews along with Jessie Street and others. Doris Blackburn, a former member of Parliament, became president of the organization in 1959.

In 1962, FCAATSI officially took up the campaign for a referendum started by the AAF in order to make it a coordinated national-level effort. This involved Aboriginal representatives from all states and territories, “among them Kath Walker [later Oodgeroo Noonuccal], a poet and activist who became the campaign national coordinator and undertook an Australian wide speaking tour.” By the end of 1963, the work of the Council saw a revised petition to change the Constitution gaining 100,000 signatures.

Between 1964 and 1966, the Parliament debated bills to amend or repeal the constitutional provisions related to Aboriginal people. Petitions for change were presented in Parliament multiple times during that period. Lorna Lippmann became the convener of the Legislative Reform Committee of FCAATSI in 1964 and wrote to all members of Parliament about the need to amend section 51(xxvi). Eventually, however, a bill to only repeal section 127 was passed by Parliament in November 1965, with the prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies, stating the reason for not including an amendment to section 51(xxvi) was that this section protected Aboriginal people from the possibility of discriminatory laws being introduced at the federal level. In any case, due to the retirement of Menzies and the 1966 election, the requirement to submit the proposal to the states was not met and the legislation lapsed. The following March, the new prime minister, Harold Holt, introduced the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) Bill 1967 containing proposals related to both provisions. This bill “passed the first, second and third reading stages in the one day.”

Also during this time, “[a] University of Sydney protest against racial segregation in the United States in 1964 led to the inception of the Student Action for Aborigines organisation (SAFA), and the planning of a fact-finding trip to western New South Wales towns so students could see the conditions of life for Aboriginal people for themselves.” This 1965 “Freedom Ride,” which lasted for two weeks, was covered by national and even international media, leading to greater public awareness of some of the issues and discrimination faced by Aboriginal people.

Following the passage of the 1967 bill in early March, and leading up to the May referendum, FCAATSI led a national campaign for the “yes” vote on the two proposals, and the government also produced supportive information. The usual practice of also having a campaign for the “no” vote was not followed because no member of Parliament would support it.

In addition to the women referred to above, there were of course many other women and men involved in the successful decade-long campaign for changes to the Constitution. Following the referendum, these and many others continued to push for reforms and the advancement of Aboriginal rights over the decades, up to the present day.

Consideration of Constitutional Changes to Recognize Aboriginal People

In more recent years, there have been calls for changes to be made to the Australian Constitution to specifically recognize Aboriginal people as the indigenous people of Australia and remove any remaining discriminatory vestiges in the text. An Expert Panel to examine options for constitutional change was set up by the government in December 2010 and published its report in January 2012. Following the passage of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013 (Cth), the federal Parliament established the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in December 2013 to conduct an inquiry “into steps that can be taken to progress towards a successful referendum on Indigenous Constitutional Recognition.” The Committee presented its final report in June 2015, recommending that a referendum be held on constitutional changes “at a time when it has the highest chance of success.”

The prime minister and leader of the opposition subsequently appointed a Referendum Council in December 2015 to “consult widely throughout Australia and move towards achieving constitutional recognition of First Australians.” The Council has released a discussion paper and set up a website for digital consultation, as well as holding a series of meetings with indigenous people in different parts of the country. In addition, the government has provided funding for a campaign, led by RECOGNISE (part of Reconciliation Australia), to build support for changing the Constitution.

Additional resources

The Library of Congress holds multiple books related to the 1967 referendum, including items about (or by) those involved, and the impacts of the referendum and the resulting constitutional changes. These include:

Recent books about the push for a referendum on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal people are also held by the Library:

Aboriginal rights charter - Kath Walker
“Aboriginal Charter of Rights” – presented to the 5th Annual General Meeting of the Federal Council of Aboriginal Advancement, Adelaide, Easter 1962 (poem by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, published in My People: A Kath Walker Collection (1970).)

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