Dispelling myths

The 1967 Referendum took place in an era of change and activism as communities stood up to a history of discrimination.

The ‘Yes’ campaign was driven by a shared vision that constitutional change would lead to a better future.

Australians were encouraged to vote ‘Yes’ for Aboriginal rights and equality, so Australia could become the fair and just society they believed it to be.

The active campaigning for equality has led to certain misunderstandings about what people voted for. Despite this it is important to recognise that the 90% ‘Yes’ vote carried with it a message that was as important as practical changes.

I was a schoolboy at Monivae College in Victoria when the 1967 Referendum was passed overwhelmingly by the people of Australia. I remember feeling this was a moment when the “dying race” myth was gone forever; when our people were at last recognised as part of the Australian people. It was a time of turbulence, and our voices were now being heard.
Senator Patrick Dodson, 2017
I do think that the Referendum created progress for Aboriginal rights that enabled many Aboriginal people to eventually build successful lives based on independence and autonomy. It certainly led to me eventually having the same opportunities as many other Australians with regard to education, housing and medical treatment. I think that there are a few misconceptions about the Referendum but I think the community would mostly believe that it afforded Aboriginal people some additional rights. Aboriginal man Shane Hayden, 2017

The Right to Vote

The most common misconception of the 1967 Referendum is that it gave Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the right to vote. By 1967, Aboriginal people were able to vote in all States and in Commonwealth elections.

Western Australia had granted voting rights in 1962, and Queensland was the last state to do so, in 1965.

By 1949, Aboriginal people could vote in Commonwealth elections if they were entitled to enrol for state elections or if they had served in the Australian defence forces. In 1962, amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 meant that all Aboriginal people were entitled to vote in Commonwealth elections. Until 1984 it was not compulsory for Aboriginal people to enrol or vote and many Aboriginal people felt like they were not able to vote.

My grandfather was a Stolen Generation Aboriginal but lived as per Citizenship rules as a white man, our extended family was not allowed to discuss being of Aboriginal Heritage for fear of our family being taken away from our Grandfather, so my family did not vote in the Referendum. Jedda Carter, 2017

Citizenship rights

The 1967 Referendum did not grant citizenship rights. The National and Citizenship Act 1948 had given citizenship to all Australians previously deemed British subjects, including Aboriginal people. In Western Australia, citizenship had been given through the Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944.

However, Aboriginal people still had to apply for citizenship and meet certain criteria. Meeting this criteria meant removing themselves from their community and culture.This Act was not repealed until 1971.

Flora and Fauna

It is sometimes stated that the 1967 Referendum overturned a ‘Flora and Fauna Act’. This supposed act classed Aboriginal people alongside native Australian flora and fauna.

While no such act ever existed, the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 may have encouraged this belief. This Act gave the NSW government control over Aboriginal heritage and landscape.

In addition, some states did manage Aboriginal affairs through departments that also looked after flora and fauna.

In Western Australia the Department of Aborigines and Fisheries was created in 1909. These were originally two separate departments that were amalgamated. In 1920, the Department of the North West was created, taking control of Aboriginal matters for the area above 25 degrees latitude, while the Department of Fisheries had control of Aboriginal matters for the area below latitude 25 degrees south. In 1926 a department that only managed Aboriginal affairs was created.

Some people have argued that as Aboriginal people were not included in the census, they were therefore not seen as people. At the time there was a better understanding of the number of sheep and cattle than the Aboriginal population.

I was born at a time when the Australian Government knew how many sheep there were but not how many Aboriginal people.
I was 10 years old before the 1967 referendum fixed that Wiradjuri woman Hon Linda Burney, MP 2016

There was equal support on both sides of politics

Parliamentary rules mean that during a referendum voters should receive a pamphlet that states the argument for and against the proposal. There was no preparation for a ‘No’ case for the 1967 Referendum. Some people argue this shows that there was widespread support for a 'Yes' vote across all political parties. In reality it was more complex.

When Prime Minister Robert Menzies began the constitutional review process, his original referendum proposal did not include changes to section 51. He believed there was a need to separate political and administrative power between the Commonwealth and state governments.

Menzies retired in January 1966 and was replaced by Harold Holt, who deferred the Referendum until after the Federal election in November 1966. On 1 March 1967, Holt introduced legislation to amend both section 51 and 127 of the Constitution through a referendum.

By May 1967, both leaders of the two main parties expressed support for the two constitutional changes. However, public discussion continued, particularly around changing section 51.

The West Australian newspaper argued that legislative power should remain with the states, and be better supported through the grants power of section 98, and there were concerns that Commonwealth powers may be used to discriminate against Aboriginal people. 

The grant of power to the Commonwealth in relation to Aborigines which follows from the vote will enable it to play a useful part in ensuring justice and social acceptance for people of the Aboriginal race. Hon. Harold Holt, Prime Minister of Australia
The West Australian, 29 May 1967
I can assure honourable members and all our fellow citizens that my party ... will support this Bill and the referendum without reservation, equivocation or qualification. Gough Whitlam, Leader of the Opposition
1 March 1967

The 1967 Referendum meant that Aboriginal people would be included in the official population and could be governed by the Commonwealth, in the same way as any other Australian.

My pride stopped me from applying for citizenship when I became 21. I had already had two children, the Commissioner of Native Welfare was their guardian. Pat Kopusar
Yes Aborigines do count! 1967-1992, Wangka Maya, Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre, May 1992
The Referendum certainly was seen by many years as an issue of admitting Aboriginal people to full citizenship. The Aboriginal campaigners campaigned cleverly on the emotion around the idea of equality. Fred Chaney, living in Claremont in 1967

In 1949 this meant New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia or Tasmania

This included the ‘custody, care and protection of Aboriginal children’.