Myths about the 1967 referendum on Aboriginals should be discarded

Myths about the 1967 referendum on Aboriginals should be discarded, by Anne Twomey, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney.

The 1967 referendum is shrouded in myth and symbolism. The symbolism has proved valuable, as the referendum result exposed overwhelming public support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

But the myths continue to be destructive and need to be removed. A decade or so ago, the prevalent myth was that the 1967 referendum gave Aboriginal people the right to vote and citizenship. While most now accept this was wrong, as such rights were already held by Aboriginal people, other myths have supplanted it.

The most common is that the 1967 referendum allowed Aboriginal people to be counted in the census for the first time due to the repeal of section 127 of the Constitution. It is exacerbated by the further myth that before 1967 Aboriginal people were treated as fauna under the flora and fauna act. No such act existed.

The source of this myth appears to be an aside made at a conference to the effect that if Aboriginal people were not counted as human beings in the census, they must have been regarded as flora or fauna. It did not take much for this remark to be treated as fact and start appearing in school books and parliamentary speeches. ..

The effect of section 127 of the Constitution was to exclude Aboriginal people from being counted in the reckoning of the population for constitutional purposes, being the allocation of federal seats among the states and apportioning the deduction of commonwealth expenditure before tax revenue was returned to the states in the first 10 years of federation.

This did not prevent them from being counted for other purposes. Aboriginal people were in fact counted from the very first commonwealth census in 1911, except in remote areas, but their numbers were removed from final population figures for constitutional purposes. …

The more contentious issue was whether there should be an amendment to the “race power” in the Constitution. It allowed the commonwealth parliament to make special laws for the people of any race where it was deemed necessary to do so. It expressly excluded Aboriginal people from such laws. Removing this exclusion would permit the commonwealth to make special laws deemed necessary for indigenous Australians. It would also, however, remove any mention of them from the Constitution. The Holt government eventually agreed to put this change to referendum in 1967 in addition to repealing section 127 of the Constitution.

Despite the best efforts of the myth-makers [the 1967 referendum] had nothing to do with flora, fauna, rights, voting or citizenship.

Bill Wentworth, after whom this blog is partly named, was Australia’s first minister for aboriginal affairs, after the 1967 referendum gave the Australian government the right to make race based legislation for aboriginals (the “races power”):

Wentworth’s other long-term interest was in Aboriginal affairs. In 1959, he put forth a proposal to Cabinet for the establishment of an Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, arguing for a more comprehensive approach by the government to recording Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures. The institute was established by an Act of Parliament in 1964 and is now known as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

He was one of the Liberal backbenchers who supported a constitutional referendum to give the Commonwealth the power to legislate specifically for the benefit of indigenous Australians, something which was finally achieved under Menzies’ successor Harold Holt in 1967. When Wentworth’s friend John Gorton succeeded Holt, he made Wentworth Minister for Social Services and Minister in Charge of Aboriginal Affairs, the first minister to hold this office.

hat-tip Stephen Neil