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A decade of activism succeeds

1967: Indigenous referendum

Bauer Media Pty Limited / The Australian Women's Weekly June 1967
1900 2000

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Take a look at the Defining Moment: 1967 Referendum live-sketch animation.

 

Defining Moment: 1967 Referendum

 

(a) Does the animation support what you’ve found out about the Indigenous referendum?

(b) Was there any extra information that you found interesting? If so, what was it?

(c) In the video Charmaine Armstrong says that the Indigenous referendum was, ‘…the first time the nation came together to show overwhelming support for Indigenous people’. Why do you think this is? Do you agree?

2. Some people have argued that, although the referendum meant that the Constitution recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as equals, they still continue to suffer from discrimination. Do you think discrimination and disadvantage can still happen, even when laws say that all people are equal?

3. In 2017, in the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people argued that they should have greater constitutional recognition and a say in how Australia is governed. Do you think Indigenous people should have a greater say in how Australia is governed? Give reasons for your answer.

 

Uluru Statement from the Heart

 

4. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the Indigenous referendum is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>‘YES’ for Aborigines pamphlet, 1967. Donated by Janelle Marshall, the child pictured on the pamphlet</p>
National Museum of Australia

In a snapshot

In May 1967, after 10 years of campaigning, a referendum on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution was held. The vote focused public attention on the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were treated as second-class citizens. Nearly 91 per cent of Australians voted to amend the Constitution. This change publicly recognised Aboriginal people as full Australian citizens.

‘YES’ for Aborigines pamphlet, 1967. Donated by Janelle Marshall, the child pictured on the pamphlet

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What happened to Aboriginal people after 1788 and how did the Australian Constitution reflect this?

2. What were the goals of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement?

3. What happened on 27 May 1967?

How were Aboriginal people excluded from Australian law?

From 1788 Aboriginal people had their land and many of their human rights taken away from them by British colonists. By the end of the 1800s, when the colonies were federating, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were excluded from almost all aspects of white society.

The creators of the Australian Constitution paid little attention to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Constitution contained only two important references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Section 51 meant that the Australian Government had no power to make laws that specifically applied to Aboriginal people. Section 127 excluded Aboriginal people from being counted in the census.

After Federation the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 specifically excluded most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from voting.

Section 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 Constitution of Australia

What triggered the movement for change?

Australians became more aware of the poor treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 1956. A group of Yarnangu people were found sick and malnourished in the Warburton Ranges area of the Central Desert. Their health, homelands and traditional lifestyles had suffered from nuclear testing conducted by the British and Australian governments. The Australian public was outraged when they found out.

Research task

 

Do some research to find out what a petition is and how it can be used to create political change.

Portrait of Faith Bandler, by Alexander Asovtseff.

Aboriginal organisations took this opportunity to begin pressing the government for change. This led to the formation of the first national Indigenous pressure group, the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA), in 1958. The FCAA had two main goals:

1. Remove all legislation which discriminated against Aboriginal people; and

2. Change the constitution to give the Australian Government the power to make laws for Aboriginal people.

In 1964 the FCAA recognised Torres Strait Islander people as a distinct group, and became the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). Faith Bandler was an important organiser for FCAATSI and became a leading activist for constitutional change.

Section 127. In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.

The Constitution of Australia
<p>Activists at a demonstration supporting the 1967 Referendum, Parliament House</p>

Courtesy of AIATSIS, Chicka Dixon Collection, item Dixon.C01.DF-D00000181

<p>Activists at a demonstration supporting the 1967 Referendum, Parliament House</p>

Why was the campaigning a success?

Any change to the Constitution of Australia must be approved by the Australian people through a referendum. So activists had to convince both politicians and the general public to support change.

Across the 1950s and 1960s activists organised petitions to gain public support for constitutional change. In February 1967 Attorney-General Nigel Bowen recommended that a referendum be held. Parliament agreed and a date was set: 27 May 1967.

FCAATSI took on the responsibility of campaigning for the ‘yes’ vote with support from unions, churches and the Labor Party.

On 27 May 1967 nearly 91 per cent of Australians voted ‘yes’ to change the Constitution. This was the most successful referendum campaign in Australia’s history. The Constitution was formally changed on 10 August that year.

Research task

 

Do some research to find out how nuclear testing affected Aboriginal people in the 1950s. Do you think this was an important factor that encouraged people to vote for constitutional change?

Constitutional recognition today

Although the 1967 referendum was an important victory, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to struggle for their position in Australian society. 

In recent years activists have called for the Australian Constitution to further recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s rights. In May 2017 a gathering of 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders approved the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This document proposes a permanent ‘First Nations Voice’ to parliament and a ‘Makarrata Commission’ to engage in ‘agreement-making between governments and First Nations’ and ‘truth-telling’ about the past.

So far the Australian government has refused a referendum to make these changes in the constitution.

 

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What happened to Aboriginal people after 1788, and how did the Australian Constitution reflect this?

2. What were the goals of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement?

3. What happened on 27 May 1967?