The Constitution of Australia officially came into effect on January 1st, 1901 and it establishes Australia as a federation under the monarchy.
It is extremely difficult, but not impossible, to change the Constitution and requires a referendum to do so.
When the Constitution was first written only two sections (sections 51 and 127) referred to Aboriginal and Torres Strait People. These sections stated that the commonwealth could not make laws concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and that we weren’t to be counted on the census.
This meant that our people were not recognised as part of the Australian population and that the states were in charge of policy making for our community.
“Blackfellas jokingly say that we weren't considered people so we must be part of the flora and fauna act, but that's not even true. The fact is that we didn't exist at all." – Uncle Vernon Ah Kee
Image: Vincent Lingiari, addressing the media (National Museum Australia)
Fighting for change
As the commonwealth government could not make laws for our people or count them on the census that left us in the control of the states. Assimilation policies were passed that authorised the removal of children from their families.
Our people also continued to face issues regarding our rights such as health and land rights. This led to many protests and rallies led by community such as the Freedom Ride or the Gurindji Strike. As we continued to fight for our rights, we began to gain an increase in support from non-Indigenous Australians.
During this time organisations like the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) and the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) were being established by community and ran campaigns calling for equality and land rights.
FCAATSI organized a petition calling for a referendum on sections 51 and 127 of the Constitution. In response to this petition the Holt Government introduced the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) Bill 1967 to the Parliament. The legislation was passed unanimously and finally a referendum was announced.
"We're not fighting to take over the country, we're fighting to be equal." Aunty Lorraine Brown
Image: 'Yes' Campaign Poster (AIATSIS)
The petition called for changes to sections 51 and 127.
The change to section 51 would result in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being counted in the official figures collected in the census. This means we would be recognised as part of the Australian population.
The changes to section 127 would place responsibility for creating policy and laws regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with the Federal Government. This means the states would no longer create individual laws for mob but instead the federal government would and the laws regarding our people would be the same across the country.
After the 1967 Referendum was announced, community organisations ran many campaigns to help promote the YES vote. The government also ran a campaign and as none of the parliamentarians voted against the legislation the government only prepared a YES campaign.
At this time Australian territories were seen as colonies dependent on the commonwealth and so they could not vote in the referendum. There were protests held to try and change this, but they were ultimately unsuccessful, and no territory citizen was allowed to vote in the 1967 referendum.
On the 27th May 1967, the people of Australia cast their votes for the referendum.
The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of changing the constitution with 90.77 per cent of voters responding with a YES. Each state also had a majority YES vote as well and this led to it being one of the most successful national campaigns in Australia’s history.
This was a huge victory which showed the changing mindset of non-Indigenous Australia.
Image: Aboriginal Rights Referendum Rally in Wynyard Park, 1967 - FL16761035 (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy SEARCH Foundation)
The success of the referendum opened up many opportunities for mob and our agency and self-determination. We continued to fight for change after the referendum but we had more supporters who aided us in many different ways.
The referendum helped give our people a level of recognition we hadn’t previously had and it raised the expectations regarding our rights and welfare.
Some people believe that the referendum gave our people the right to vote but we actually didn’t receive full voting rights until 1984 when it became compulsory for our people.
"The victory of the 1967 referendum was not a change of white attitudes. The real victory was the spirit of hope and optimism which affected blacks all over Australia. We had won something … we were visible, hopeful and vocal." – Aunty Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker)