Anniversary of the Referendum to grant citizen rights to Indigenous Australians (1967)

By Rachel Curtis

Monday the 27th of May 2019, marks 52 years since the referendum of the Australian Constitution.
The amendment of Section 51(xxvi) and Section 127 was a landmark achievement for Indigenous Australians and our domestic equality of humanity.

Over 90% of all eligible Australians voted in favor of this referendum, removing section 127 in its entirety which initially discounted Indigenous people in the census, and amending section 51(xxvi); allowing federal parliament to legislate in respect to people of any race. Prior to this, this power rested with the states which saw great disparity between the legal rights of indigenous people depending on their location.

In 2008, the Australian Government introduced the ‘closing the gap’ policy which recognized the disadvantages and challenges which indigenous people still face today; higher rates of infant mortality, shorter life expectancy, lower levels of education and employment and greater incarceration rates, are notable indicators of this. However, despite the social-economic and legislative strides that remains to be made to truly reach equality – today we celebrate and recognize the symbolic turning point which the 1967 referendum created. On Monday the 27th of May, we reflect on the impacts of this change, and why they were momentously significant to Indigenous people and a better Australia:

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The referendum formally recognized and highlighted to our domestic and global community the inequalities imbedded in the Constitution, and the Australian Governments power to create positive and necessary change alongside its citizens.

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The referendum directly discounted remarks of incorrect and destructive nature - including the claim that ‘there is no significant evidence that (Aboriginals) are human beings at all’; made by a Tasmanian member of Parliament. Other comments included that of political historian Scott Bennett who noted that the Constitution was a result of a ‘wide-spread belief’ indigenous people were not intellectually worthy of a political standing and were simply a ‘dying out’ demographic.

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It signaled a political shift towards ‘closing the gap’ and reconciliation policies, and redirected the manner in which government approached Indigenous issues. After the referendum was implemented, the Council for Aboriginal Affairs was established, being one of the first acts under its new power.

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Highlighted the need re-defining ‘Aboriginality’ through self-identification and community, rather than one’s DNA or genetics.

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The land rights of Indigenous people and Native Title has continually been addressed, including through the enactment of Aboriginal Land Rights (northern Territory) Act 1976 and Native Title Act 1993.

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Ensured that Indigenous Australians and their ability to own property, marry and move freely was unanimous across the nation.

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The Australian majority vote has sparked a number of ‘positive discrimination’ parliamentary action through anti-discrimination laws which address Indigenous people.

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Altered the legal boundaries so special laws for the detriment of Australian people, as expressed by the High Court, can be enacted through the Constitutional power of Federal Government.

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Paved the way for the Royal Commission into land rights for Aboriginal people under the Whitlam Government in the Northern Territory.

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Allowed the Whitlam government to overrule discriminatory Queensland legislation which disabled to Indigenous people to drink alcohol and undertake cultural practises on their reserves.

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Wide-spread recognition of the challenges faced by Aboriginal people led to increased funding for the Aboriginal Legal Service - this has since seen 25 offices to be implemented.

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The power for Federal government to legislate in relation to any race through the amended section 51, enabled Aboriginal artefacts of Aboriginal Settlement to be preserved in the Gordon River Catchment.

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The removal of the prohibition of counting Indigenous Australians in our census and other population statistics.

The 1967 referendum provides the Aboriginal people a key symbol of their political and moral rights. It was been utilised through activist groups to accelerate change and lasting consequences of what has been described as a ‘historical shorthand’. The 27th May has been a significant date in demands for land rights by the Gurindji, the end of segregation in New South Wales and demands for equal pay for Indigenous workers. On this day, we reflect on the undeniable power of unity as it drives towards better tomorrow.