The need for change
The story of the 1967 Referendum begins with the Australian Constitution, which came into effect on 1 January 1901, establishing the Commonwealth of Australia. It is an important living document that continues to shape the Australian nation.
The Constitution and the Commonwealth of Australia were drawn up at a time when Aboriginal people had no political power and most of the new settlers presumed they were a ‘dying race.’ There were only two references to Aboriginal people in the Constitution, which excluded them from federal governance.
Firstly, section 51 of the Constitution outlined the law-making powers of the Commonwealth of Australia. Section 51 (xxvi) gave the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to ‘people of any race, other than the Aboriginal race in any state, for whom it was deemed necessary to make special laws.’
Secondly, section 127 of the Constitution provided that ‘in reckoning the numbers of people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted’.
As colonies of the British Empire, the States were responsible for the welfare of the ‘natives’. Under the new Australian Constitution of 1901, the States retained this power.
The impetus for change began with the Australian Constitution in 1901, followed by State government legislation and policies sanctioned by the Commonwealth, which excluded and marginalized Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and activism by a diversity of people for equality and shared citizenship rights.
In the late 1950s, many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people across the nation, concerned about the poor treatment of Aboriginal people by the states, the gross injustices, the dispossession from their lands and more, felt it was time to ‘right the wrongs’ and came together to campaign for a change in the Constitution; to remove the reference to ‘aboriginal race’ from section 51 (xxvi) and to remove section 127.
The Referendum Australia had to have required social and political change and the will of a nation.