The 1967 referendum regarding Aboriginal rights has long been regarded as pivotal, but myths about it continue.
By
Ron Sutton

Source:
10 Mar 2014 - 6:44 PM  UPDATED 11 Mar 2014 - 1:43 PM

(Transcript from World News Radio)

The 1967 referendum regarding Aboriginal rights has long been regarded as a pivotal point in modern Aboriginal history in Australia.

But exactly what pivoted on that day?

For 47 years, and even just recently, that has been the source of considerable misunderstanding, both within Aboriginal communities and without.

Ron Sutton steps back and takes a deeper look into the issues.

(Click on audio tab above to listen to this item)

"Vote yes for Aborigines. They want to be Australians, too. Vote yes to give them ... (fades under)

Call it, perhaps, the misunderstanding Australia had to have.

It was May 1967, the days leading up to a national vote on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal People), more commonly known today as simply the '67 referendum.

At the time, Australian voters had backed only four of 24 constitutional referendums in all the years since Federation in 1901.

And the jingle distributed for radio by the Aboriginal Rights "Vote Yes" Committee was part of a campaign suggesting Aboriginal voting rights and citizenship were at stake.

"I think it suited some people to push that agenda because it (left) a whole lot of fair-minded Australians thinking, 'Well, that's just not correct, especially to men and women who served Australia in the world wars and in Vietnam.' The notion that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had the capacity to enlist and fight for Australia and didn't have the capacity to vote in the federal election was something that mainstream Australia didn't like."

The speaker is Peter Buckskin, Dean of Indigenous Scholarship, Engagement and Research at the University of South Australia.

The fact he is alluding to is that Indigenous people in Australia actually already had the right to the vote, and they had citizenship.

Professor Buckskin, chairman of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium, says perhaps portraying it otherwise was the price of passage.

But, he says, it also may be a key reason why today, almost half a century later, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia widely misunderstand the referendum's place in history.

Four key misunderstandings persist about modern Indigenous history and the referendum, which, indeed, passed with more than 90 per cent approval:

1) whether it gave Indigenous people the right to vote in federal elections

2) whether it gave Indigenous people the right to Australian citizenship

3) whether it gave Indigenous people the right to be included in the census, and

4) whether, up until the referendum, Indigenous people were classed as fauna.

The answer, to each, is no, although Peter Buckskin says he fully understands the confusion -- and even beyond the campaign of the time.

"Until that referendum, you weren't entitled, in a sense, to some benefits that all other Australians had entitlements to, and so changing that gave the opportunity for people to receive benefits, to ensure that they had those entitlements that all Australians were entitled to, and I think that gave the perception that it made us citizens."

A one-time researcher for the former State History Centre in South Australia, Pat Stretton, takes those perceptions even a step further.

"Lots and lots of Aborigines celebrate 1967 as the year they got the vote, and it doesn't matter if you say, 'No, no, you had the vote before then,' they'll still give you a fish eye* and say, 'We got the vote in 1967.' And they're much more correct than I am, because that's when they felt they were recognised by society and recognised as proper people with proper rights. So, you can say all you like -- 'Oh, I can show you, you had the right to vote ... whenever' -- and, if you didn't know you did, and if, in every other way, you were treated as if you didn't count, then why would you think you had the right to vote?"

Professor Buckskin points to Indigenous entitlement to social-security benefits, war pensions, child endowments and children's pensions as very real outcomes of the referendum.

That is because the referendum was actually aimed at addressing two parts of the constitution that had actively discriminated against Indigenous people.

It removed Section 127, which said Aboriginal natives shall not be counted in "reckoning the numbers" of people in the Commonwealth, that is, in the population Census.

And it amended Section 51, which prohibited the federal government from specifically making laws for the Indigenous people of any state.

The Aboriginal right to vote in most Australian states actually dated back legally to the 1850s, long before Federation.

Pat Stretton points out every state but Queensland and Western Australia allowed all male British subjects to vote.

That included Aboriginal men, and, in 1895, when South Australia gave women the right to vote, Aboriginal women shared that right.

Few Aboriginal people knew of their voting rights, though, and, after Federation, the 1902 Franchise Act allowed only those who had already been state voters to vote federally.

Even when the Chifley Government passed an Act in 1949 that anyone eligible to vote in state elections could now vote federally, many Aboriginal people still believed they could not.

Finally, in 1962, legislation extended the vote in federal elections to all Aboriginal people of voting age, but, even then, it remained voluntary and not well known.

That is why, even after Western Australia finally allowed the vote in state elections in 1962 and Queensland followed in '65, the '67 referendum appeared to many to open the door.

Pat Stretton says those circumstances, then, give the referendum a rightful place alongside other historic moments such as Kevin Rudd's apology for the Stolen Generations.

"So I think 1967 is a watershed. It's a watershed in people's minds in the same way that the apology is a watershed. It mightn't actually make all that much difference in reality and on paper maybe, but it does if you feel differently."

Hence, Peter Buckskin's perspective on the citizenship issue.

But while the 1967 referendum felt like the beginning of being an Australian citizen for many, that had come almost two decades earlier.

The Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 gave automatic citizenship to all Australians previously deemed British subjects, which, again, included Indigenous people.

Yet, says long-time Aboriginal activist Sol Bellear, many people who were Indigenous still pretended not to be, right up until the referendum

"A lot of Aboriginal people didn't see themselves as citizens and that they had the right and whatever, and that's why a lot of Aboriginal people back then passed themselves off as Hawaiians and Maoris and Indians, et cetera."

In recent days, when the West Australian government tabled a draft bill recognising the Noongar people as traditional owners of large areas of land, the misunderstanding arose yet again.

The head of the state's South-West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, Glen Kelly, feeling the deep emotion of the Noongar elders, remarked:

"Those fellas there, for half of their lives, they weren't citizens. They were at the mercy of the Commissioner for Native Welfare. They were pushed onto missions and reserves. It wasn't until after the 1967 referendum that they were actually able to become citizens."

Not so...on paper.

The third point, the census issue, is a little murkier, since including Aboriginal people in "reckoning the numbers" was an aim of the referendum.

Up until 1967, the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics indeed interpreted Section 127 to mean it could count Aboriginal people but not in the official population.

A race question in the census was used to assess the number of what it termed "full-blood" Aboriginal people -- anybody of over 50 per cent Aboriginal ancestry.

That number was then subtracted from the population count.

As well, only rough estimates of remote Aboriginal populations were done, and, again, because society viewed Aboriginality as a disadvantage, many people did not reveal theirs.

The shortcomings showed starkly after the referendum: from 1966, the year before it, to 1971, the Aboriginal count increased by almost 45 per cent.

Over the next five-year period, it increased again by almost 40 per cent.

So it was a landmark time for many.

Pat Stretton says, back at Federation in 1901, South Australia had wanted Aboriginal people included in the census but dropped the idea under pressure.

"Each colony had a capitation fee -- I think it was a pound a head, but it was a certain sum for every person -- to get the Commonwealth going, because they didn't have any money until they could start raising taxes. And, at Federation, South Australia included the Northern Territory. So, if you said, 'We will add the Aboriginal population to the white population,' that was going to hit South Australia in the hip pocket** big-time, and, I'm sorry to say, that was the end of that conversation."

In 1947, Queensland did finally convince the Commonwealth to count Torres Strait Islanders, although they were first classified as Polynesians, then as Pacific Islanders.

Not being counted properly in the census all those years has fed into the misunderstanding that Aboriginal people were classified as fauna until the '67 referendum.

In recent years, an Aboriginal politician even referred to growing up under a state Flora and Fauna Act.

Several states did, indeed, often manage Aboriginal affairs through departments that also handled flora, fauna and wildlife.

But there is nothing to show Aboriginal people were ever classed as one and the same, despite the fact they were not being counted in the official human population.

Sol Bellear, now chairman of the Aboriginal Medical Service, says the animal counts in those years were actually far more accurate than the Aboriginal counts.

"In actual fact, back then, they knew how many sheep and cattle and dogs, et cetera, were in Australia (better than) they knew how many Aboriginal people existed here."

Mr Bellear says officials had a sense of the animal numbers because they fit into the important calculations of the time but the Aboriginal numbers did not.

"They had an idea (on the animals) so that there wasn't any overgrazing and that sort of thing. I think what would now be called the Farmers' Federation, whatever it was back then, did a rough count on animals and whatnot. Each farmer would know how many sheep he could graze, how many cattle they could graze, on whatever acreage they had, et cetera, et cetera, so they didn't overgraze their land."

The right to vote, citizenship, counting in the census, no longer counting as fauna ... Peter Buckskin says they are, indeed, the key areas of misunderstanding about the 1967 referendum.

But the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium head says the list of misunderstandings about the years leading up to it needs one addition.

Long before Aboriginal people were accepted as a real part of Australia, he says -- be it 1967 or whenever -- many made a very real, often ignored contribution on the battlefield.

"I think it's really important that people understand how men and women enlisted in the armed forces to fight for Australia, even in the Boer War, all the way through to the situation, you know, prior to the '67 referendum, where some people kind of had to deny their Aboriginality to ensure they could be enlisted."