Australia marks 50 years since pivotal 1967 referendum

File photo of Aboriginal Rights referendum on May 29, 1967 Source: AAP

On May 27 2017, Australia marked 50 years since the 1967 referendum. It was the pivotal vote on the day the country overwhelmingly said "yes" to change its racist laws regarding Indigenous people. So what was the referendum about? 

It was 1967, and Australia was in the mood for change.

A referendum was imminent, and Indigenous rights advocate Faith Bandler appeared on the Channel Seven television network to implore people to vote yes.

"I don't think we should take it for granted that there will be a 'yes' vote. The time has come when Australia can no longer tolerate legal racial discrimination against its Indigenous people."

The 1967 referendum went on to become what is still Australia's most successful public vote in history.

More than 90 per cent of Australians voted "yes" to change the constitution, the country's founding document, and grant more rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Section 127 of the constitution, which said Aboriginal people should not be counted in the census, was removed completely.

And a reference to Aboriginal people was removed from section 51, which had prevented the government from making laws to specifically benefit Indigenous people.

Indigenous woman Shirley Peisley travelled to Canberra in 1967 to campaign for the yes vote.

"We were just doing a lot of ... on the day, handing out a lot of how-to-vote cards. And they had this big 'Vote yes for Aborigines' made out of cardboard, and that's what I was able to hold up in front of the politicians."

She says the mood for change in the nation's capital was undeniable.

"We got to Canberra, and ... well, I was amazed at just the numbers of people that were there. They were talking about what it was like coming from country, rural areas and coming into the city looking for housing, looking for employment, opportunity for training. They were talking about the need for children to go to school. I think we were realising that it was significant and an important time."

University of New South Wales constitutional expert Professor George Williams says the 1967 referendum is fondly remembered but, he says, often misunderstood.

"Many people have some myths and misconceptions about what this referendum actually did. It didn't give Aboriginal people citizenship. It didn't give them the vote. In fact, what it did do was change the Australian Constitution, which is the rulebook for the nation."

Indigenous people had already been given the right to vote in 1962 and were already technically considered Australian citizens by 1967, although they still faced discrimination.

Professor Williams says changing the law in 1967 did allow the government to make laws specifically benefiting Indigenous people after section 51 was altered.

"That was something that Gough Whitlam took up with gusto in 1972. It's what led to laws around sacred sites, native title and the like. And so that referendum has been what enabled broad and important laws to be made for Aboriginal people nationally."

Fifty years after that referendum, a new one looms for Australia.

The Federal Government has established a referendum council and an official campaign to change the constitution again.

This time, it is to rewrite the constitution to officially acknowledge or recognise Indigenous people as Australia's first inhabitants.

Ngarrindjeri man Luke Taylor works for the Recognise campaign and says he is inspired by the 1967 campaigners.

"They took some risks stepping out like they did. Like, it wasn't normal for Indigenous people to be doing that back then. Like, Indigenous people were still, a couple of years before, signing exemption certificates* and everything like that. And then we had this group of people going out and saying, 'Vote yes for Aborigines.' Wow, like, that's a big step!"

To commemorate the 50th anniversary and adopt a formal position on a recognition referendum, hundreds of Indigenous people will be meeting in Uluru the week of the anniversary.



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