Facing the facts: what the 1967 Referendum didn’t achieve

Facing the facts: what the 1967 Referendum didn’t achieve


Larissa Behrendt

While we celebrate the achievement of the Referendum campaigners we must also face the facts today. The hopes for social justice that inspired them, and united such a large proportion of the Australian electorate in 1967, did not translate into federal action to create the necessary mechanisms.

Views about the place and role of Aboriginal people in the national consciousness are not just philosophical or psychological – they translate into differences in legal status and resource allocation. The nature of native title and the way in which it has been demonised and weakened since it was first recognised in the Mabo case highlights how so-called ‘special laws’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can actually provide lesser protection. It seems Indigenous conceptions of rights and political aspirations are tolerated only until they look like upsetting power structures within the legal system.

The reason Aboriginal people and our rights are so vulnerable to whims of the legislature stems from assumptions within our founding legal document, the Australian Constitution, drafted in the Australian colonies and enacted by Queen Victoria in 1900.

2007 is the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum that amended the Constitution. It is a moment to celebrate that this country, sceptical of constitutional change and founded on institutional racism, voted by an overwhelming majority to include Aboriginal people in the census and to empower the federal government to make laws on their behalf. It is a moment to celebrate the people’s movement that built over decades to make that historic change.

But it is also time for deep reflection. Forty years later, despite that grass roots call for equality, we still see Aboriginal communities living in conditions far below those of other Australians. We must ask ourselves: why hasn’t the Constitutional change and the resources and attention provided since, brought equality to Indigenous people?

One of the defining characteristics of our legal system – as Aboriginal people know all too well – is that its faith in the benevolence of government. The founding fathers of our Constitution agreed that the decision-making about rights protections – which ones we recognise and the extent to which we protect them – were matters for the Parliament. They discussed including these rights in the Constitution, but rejected the idea and our founding document is still silent on human rights.

This document was framed within prejudices like white racial superiority and the subordination of women. A non-discrimination clause prohibiting the state from depriving anyone of ‘life, liberty, or property without due process of law’ and denying ‘any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws’ was proposed by Tasmania. It was rejected by the other colonies on the basis that constitutional rights protection was unnecessary as Parliament could be entrusted to make laws for rights if necessary. This meant of course that Parliament could also make discriminatory laws – and it has used this power from the start.

When we look at the intentions and attitudes of the men who drafted our Constitution, it’s no surprise that it offers no protection against racial discrimination today. But the key problem is what is missing from the Constitution, more than any legacy of prejudice embedded in its seemingly neutral text. Our founding document leaves Indigenous people vulnerable by relegating the most fundamental human question of how we value and protect rights to the legislature.

Though people often think the 1967 Referendum gave Aboriginal people citizenship rights, or the right to vote, it didn’t. We already had those. The 1967 Referendum did two things:

•             It enabled Indigenous people to be included in the census, and

•             It enabled federal parliament the power to make laws in relation to Indigenous people.

In her biography of Faith Bandler, Marilyn Lake explains something of the aims of the campaigners for this Constitutional change. Supporters saw including Indigenous people in the census not just as a body-counting exercise, but as a nation-building exercise. Their vision was of a symbolic coming together into an imagined inclusive community that could transcend an ‘us and them’ mentality.

Their arguments for giving the Federal government power to make laws in relation to Aboriginal people, rather than leaving it to each state, reveal a belief that the Commonwealth would use the power to protect Indigenous people. This has not been the case. Look at policies like taking Aboriginal children from their families, or removing heritage protections to preserve Aboriginal culture, or extinguishing native title. Or how a law recognising a right is followed by another that closes the door again. Look, for instance, at how the Native Title Amendment Act 1998 (Cth) prevented the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) from applying to certain sections of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth).

The failure to protect rights and the false reliance on government benevolence has a heavier impact on Aboriginal people. In 1997 the High Court considered for the first time the legality of the policy of child removal in the case of Kruger v The Commonwealth. The plaintiffs’ case argued that the effect of the relevant Northern Territory Ordinance violated human rights, including the implied rights to due process before the law, equality before the law, freedom of movement and the express right to freedom of religion contained in S.116 of the Constitution.

That they lost on each count was a dramatic demonstration of Australians’ lack of rights protection and of the disproportionate impact on Indigenous people.

But the Kruger case does serve to show how the harms of child removal, as a particularly Indigenous experience and a particularly Indigenous legal issue, connect to what we hold as fundamental – the right to due process before the law, equality before the law, freedom of movement and freedom of religion. It is a chilling demonstration of how few of the rights we assume as inherent, are actually guaranteed us. It spotlights the intended silences in our Constitution about rights and reveals the rights violations that can result.

While we celebrate the achievement of the Referendum campaigners we must also face the facts today. The hopes for social justice that inspired them, and united such a large proportion of the Australian electorate in 1967, did not translate into federal action to create the necessary mechanisms. Neither has the added federal government power always been used to benefit Indigenous people. No more has inclusion in the census count overcome divisive ‘us and them’ thinking on Indigenous issues.

Indeed, the Federal government power has itself been employed as a barrier to effective policy-making, with key areas of government responsibility shared with the states and the now self-governing Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. Instead of cooperating for success, the two levels of government more often blame each other for failure. A recent example was the response prompted by negative media coverage of findings of high incidence of sexual assault in some communities and gang violence in others.

Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Mal Brough blamed the Northern Territory Government for not putting police into communities where violence was endemic. While he was absolutely correct that any community of 2500 people with no police force would have law and order issues, it was a simplistic response focused only on blame (and cost) shifting. Many other factors contribute to the cyclical poverty and despondency within some Aboriginal communities that create, over decades, the environment in which the social fabric unravels and violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse and other anti-social behaviour is rife. Just as unhelpful was the response of Northern Territory Chief Minister Claire Martin in asserting that the problem was the Federal government’s failure to provide adequate housing and health and education services.

Both were of course correct. Governments, federal, state, and territory all continue to underfund the most basic Aboriginal community needs like health services, educational facilities and adequate housing services. Forty years ago it was precisely the same unjust conditions that made Australian voters direct the Commonwealth to take responsibility for the good government of Indigenous people, just like all other Australians.

The 40th anniversary of this historic referendum is a time to reflect on what it really achieved and how much further we still have to go to achieve social justice for Aboriginal people, otherwise we fail to learn the lessons of that extraordinary campaign. Facing the facts so we can meet our own challenges today is the way we can truly honour those ordinary, everyday Australians all around the country who changed our Constitution in 1967.

This essay is an edited extract from Larissa Behrendt’s 2006 Rick Farley Lecture

Source: http://australiansall.com.au/archive/post/facing-the-facts-what-the-1967-referendum-didn-t-achieve/

The 1967 Referendum: Important Facts and Interesting Pieces of Information

Referendum Fact Sheet (Hinchinbrook Libraries)

The Government

At the time of the referendum in 1967, Harold Holt was the Prime Minister and a Liberal Country Party Coalition Government was in power. The Constitutional review process was commenced by Robert Menzies who retired in January 1966. The original question (as proposed by Menzies) only included changes to s127. Holt decided to delay the referendum until after the Federal election in November 1966 and added the s51 change to the question.1

‘The Aboriginal Question’

The referendum did not – give Indigenous people the right to vote – give Indigenous people citizenship rights – give Indigenous people the right to be counted in the census

1 MacKerras, M. ‘One of our most important days ever’, produced as part of Reconciliation Australia’s program to mark the 40th anniversary of the referendum, available 20/02/07 atwww.reconciliationaustralia.org

2 RA’s 1967 Fact Sheet Final sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Informing a Nation: The Evolution of the Australian Bureau of Statistics 1905-2005. 2005..

The real purpose of the referendum was to make two changes to the Australian Constitution. These changes enabled the Commonwealth Government to:

a) make laws for all of the Australian people by amending s51of the Constitution, (previously people of ‘the Aboriginal race in any State’ were excluded), and;

b) take account of Aboriginal people in determining the population of Australia by repealing s127 of the Constitution (formerly, Indigenous people had been haphazardly included in the census but not counted for the purposes of Commonwealth funding grants to the states or territories. From 1967, Indigenous people were counted in the census and included in base figures for Commonwealth funding granted to the states and territories on a per capita basis).2

The effect of the referendum on the national census

Prior to 1967, there was a race question included in the census to establish the number of ‘full-blood’ Aborigines. The term ‘full-blood’ referred to people with an Aboriginal blood quantum of over 50%. This number was then subtracted from the national population count. Remote rural areas that were uninhabited by non-Aborigines were not enumerated although rough estimates were often made. This means that the quality of the early Aboriginal counts is questionable. Society viewed Aboriginality as a disadvantage and many people did not report their origins or changed it from one census to the next. After the 1967 referendum, the wording of the census question used ‘race’ but did not ask for blood fractions of race. There were greater efforts to obtain a complete coverage of the Indigenous population, including remote areas. “Between 1966 and 1971 the count increased by 44.6% and between 1971 and 1976 it increased by 38.8%.” All censuses since 1981 have used the same question to determine Indigenous status: ‘Is the person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin?’3

Source: http://treatyrepublic.net/content/1967-referendum-important-facts-and-interesting-pieces-information

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A little about page admin Kaiyu Moura (Bayles)

Now living in QLD raising her children on their traditional country, gathering food, learning the old art of building shelters, dance and the local language. For the past 20 years with her late Grandmother Maureen Watson and a dance group with 6 of her sisters Kaiyu travelled schools, festivals, events etc sharing the beauty of First Nations Culture through song and dance, stories, art, theatre, nursery rhymes, poetry etc and engaging all ages in different projects that inspire positive change. Also a poet, documentary maker, songwriter, artist, event organiser, media consultant, testing the waters of micro social enterprise by starting her own tshirt and sublimation printing business and with her own label, Kaiyu creates what she calls Freedom Threads.

After building their own home on Tribal Sovereign land, Kaiyu is now homeschooling and teaching the kids about making our own tinctures, learning about bushtucker and mushrooms, growing food, building with aircrete, setting up wind turbines, composting toilets and ram water pumps... Really learning what it truly means to thrive. This is our Group where we share alot of what we do

Kaiyu and the Tribe
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