The Myth of Aboriginal Voting Rights


On 27 May 1967, campaigners for the rights and status of Indigenous Australians won the most decisive referendum victory in Australian history.

Over 90 per cent of Australian voters endorsed the constitutional amendments proposed. In no electorate was the affirmative vote less than 70 per cent; in some it exceeded 95 per cent. This was as close to consensus as can be expected in a democratic contest.

The extraordinarily high affirmative vote, however, has promoted exaggerated assessments of the referendum’s consequences.

The 1967 referendum has been popularly memorialised as a turning point for Aboriginal rights: the moment when they won the vote, became citizens, gained legal equality and when Aboriginal affairs came under federal control.

Exemplifying the most prominent of these myths, the Australian National Rugby League billed its Inaugural Reconciliation Cup, held on 25 May 2007, as a celebration of "the 40th anniversary of indigenous Australians’ right to vote".

A few weeks later, two Queensland delegates to the National Sorry Day Committee wrote a letter to the Courier Mail which referred to "the 40th anniversary of the referendum on voting rights".

In fact the 1967 referendum did not secure the right to vote or any other legal rights for Aborigines.

What it did was amend two sections of the Australian Constitution, neither of which was particularly significant for Aboriginal rights. Amendment of section 51(xxvi) empowered the Commonwealth Government (concurrently with the states) to enact "special laws" in respect to Aborigines, as it already could in respect to any other race, but did not require the Commonwealth to exercise those powers.

As well, deletion of section 127 mandated the inclusion of Aborigines in official census counts.

Several historians and political scientists have recently explained that these constitutional changes did not, and could not, have the consequences for Aboriginal rights commonly attributed to them – indeed, several commentators made this point at the time of the referendum. Among the wider public, however, the myth of the referendum as a turning point for Aboriginal rights remains entrenched.

Although the extravagantly memorialised referendum was not a turning point, it was a crucial moment in Australian history for its public affirmation of the principle of national inclusiveness. Between affirmation of that principle and the achievement of real change, there was – and remains – a wide gulf, which in the case of the 1967 referendum has been bridged in popular memory by construing a symbolic victory as a legal breakthrough.

Around the time of the referendum, Aborigines were already being granted many of the civil rights from which they had hitherto been excluded, including the right to vote, awarded federally in 1962 and in all states and territories by 1965.

By 1967 New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania had cleared the statute books of discriminatory provisions other than a few trivial remnants; in Western Australia and the Northern Territory the same process was well advanced, though not quite so far; but in Queensland a vast array of laws and regulations still placed Aborigines in an inferior legal position, denying, among other things, their freedom of movement and employment and control over their own incomes.

Part of the reason the referendum is remembered as the moment Aborigines got the vote can be traced to the way supporters of the Yes campaign, led by the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) promoted the cause.

The one principle that was articulated clearly and consistently was that Aborigines must be included in the Australian nation. On how that principle might be translated into practice – on exactly what it meant for Aborigines and how it would benefit them – the Yes campaign was alternately inexplicit and inconsistent.

They did, however, persistently maintain that the civil and human rights of Aborigines were at stake. One of their most commonly displayed posters bore the bald injunction "Vote Yes for Aboriginal Rights", as if there were a direct connection between the referendum outcome and the legal rights of Aborigines. Many other campaign slogans carried the same implication, including the front cover of the May 1967 issue of the Aborigines Advancement League’s journal, Smoke Signals, which stated simply: "End Discrimination – Vote ‘Yes’ on May 27".

Also – unusually for a referendum – there was no opposition campaign promoting a "No" vote. As a result there was no strong obligation placed upon the Yes campaign to precisely clarify the aims or significance of the vote. The resulting vagueness of the message getting to the public left many people to interpret for themselves what they thought they were doing by voting Yes.

An editorial in The Age two days before the referendum expressed misgivings about the paucity of concrete aims and profusion of vague promises. "It will be an empty victory", The Age warned, "if a Yes majority in the referendum benefits Aborigines only to the extent of acknowledging, in token fashion, their right to be called Australians".

The editorial was prescient. The principle of national inclusion was overwhelmingly endorsed, but little changed. Henceforward, Aborigines were included in official census counts but they continued to be insulted by popular derogatory stereotypes. Henceforward, the Commonwealth possessed the power to make "special laws" for Aborigines, but the government sat on its hands.

With its new powers, the federal government of the time made no policy innovations, no more effort than previously to coordinate the states into a national strategy in Aboriginal affairs, and few administrative innovations beyond establishing a purely advisory Council for Aboriginal Affairs.

Reforms were so meagre that in 1971 FCAATSI sent a memorandum to the United Nations complaining that "racial discrimination" remained entrenched in Australia and that "very little has been done, or even attempted, since the Federal Referendum of 1967".

When the reformist Whitlam Labor Government came to power in 1972 it invoked the moral mandate of 1967 to justify its interventions in Aboriginal affairs, but it relied very little on the powers conferred by the referendum. Perhaps the Whitlam Government’s most consequential item of legislation for the rights of Aborigines was the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975. Its passage owed nothing to the constitutional amendments of 1967 but depended on the external affairs powers under section 51(xxix) which the Commonwealth had possessed all along.

The 1975 Act had far greater legal importance than the referendum eight years earlier because the Act incorporated into Australian law the United Nations’ International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, thereby guaranteeing the recognition of human rights for all Australians regardless of race.

However, the Act has never been popularly memorialised as the 1967 referendum has, because an Act is a mere fiat of government whereas a referendum articulates the will of the people.

Why, then, has the 1967 referendum been popularly memorialised as a turning point for Aboriginal rights? An event in which the people themselves, rather than the government, had so resoundingly affirmed the high-minded principle of national inclusiveness could not fail to attract popular memorialisation.

But what was to be memorialised? Surely not the abstractions of principle or the nebulous notion of social esteem; nor could the Yes campaigners’ advocacy of rights, shifting uncertainly between ending discrimination and inaugurating positive discrimination (in the form of land rights for example), provide any firm foundations for remembering this as a significant moment in the nation’s history. Public memorialisation demands concrete actualisation of what is being memorialised.

Thus the 1967 referendum came to be imagined as the moment when Aborigines actually gained the rights of citizenship, instantiated in the most salient of those rights: the right to vote.

This popular misunderstanding of the referendum has the effect of misrepresenting its consequences. An event that did signify, by public plebiscite, the principle of acceptance of Aborigines as citizens of the nation was transformed into an event that gave Aborigines the rights of the citizen.

As well, the memorialisation of the 1967 referendum as the moment of civil rights for Aborigines implies that Aborigines were granted rights because the people had spoken; that the legislature acted only after the Australian people had directed them to do so. In fact, the Commonwealth and state governments (with the significant exception of Queensland) had granted Aborigines most civil rights before the referendum, in response not to popular insistence but to a range of political pressures, domestic and international.

The growth of more positive popular attitudes toward Aborigines in the post-war era cannot be discounted as a factor behind legislative change, but it was not the decisive factor implied by the referendum myth. By rearranging the sequence of events concerning the civil rights of Aborigines, public memorialisation of the referendum as the moment of Aboriginal rights carries a self-congratulatory message for the Australian nation. It was we – "the Australian people" – the myth maintains, who secured rights and equality for Aborigines.

Yet Indigenous Australians have been as fervently attached to the referendum myth as their non-Indigenous counterparts, despite having good reason for being less tender towards the self-image of their fellow Australians. For Indigenous Australians too, the notion of a "turning point" is appealing because they can also be included among the people who secured the great referendum victory. Indigenous Australians played a prominent role in campaigning for a Yes vote, and in the 10-year campaign preceding the referendum.

Consequently, the massive Yes vote can be seen as a victory both for and by Aborigines. They have as much reason as non-Indigenous Australians to inflate the symbolism of acceptance into the reality of rights.

The 1967 referendum was a rare moment of near consensus in Australian political history, on the superficially improbable issue of Indigenous affairs. Near consensus was achieved because the Yes campaigners, unencumbered by an organised opposition, could represent a positive outcome as a means of redeeming the national reputation and rectifying Indigenous disadvantage, without much attentiveness to – or consistency on – the messy details of how these noble ideals could be given practical effect. The referendum was thus a product of its time, when Indigenous affairs were a relatively recent addition to the agenda of items of national significance.

That time has passed, and the purveyors of new "turning points" in Indigenous affairs in the early 21st century are forced to articulate a coherent program of action to complement their symbolic pronouncements. Prime Minister Rudd’s apology to Indigenous Australians, enunciated in February 2008, combines symbolism with pragmatic prescriptions – how effectively, we have yet to see.

This is an edited extract from Russell McGregor’s chapter, titled "The 1967 Referendum: An uncertain consensus", from the bookTurning Points in Australian History, 2008, edited by Martin Crotty and David Andrew Roberts, published by UNSW Press.

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