The 1967 Referendum

What rights did Aboriginal people have between 1901–1967?

At the time of Federation, Aborigines were excluded from the rights of Australian citizenship, including the right to vote, the right to be counted in a census and the right to be counted as part of an electorate. In addition, they were not subject to Commonwealth laws and benefits in relation to wages and social security benefits such as maternity allowances and old age pensions.

Control over all matters relating to Aborigines remained in the hands of State governments (except in the case of Northern Territory which was under the Commonwealth Government). The result was that specific conditions and regulations varied from State to State, although the overall position and status of Aboriginal people remained relatively similar across the country.

Between 1900 and the 1960s there was some progress in the campaign for Aboriginal citizenship rights, but the gains were usually subject to strict conditions. In 1949 the Commonwealth granted voting rights to Aboriginal ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen.

It is often stated that the 1967 referendum granted citizenship and the right to vote to Aboriginal people, for the first time. This is not strictly true. In 1962, the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended so that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could vote. Unlike the situation for other Australians, voting was not compulsory. The 1967 referendum is significant in that two specific changes were made to the Australian constitution.

The sections of the Australian Constitution under consideration were:
Section 21: 'The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:
… (xxvi) The people of any race, other than the aboriginal people in any state, for whom it is necessary to make special laws.'
Section 127: 'In reckoning the numbers of people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted.' (italics added)

The result of changing these two sections of the Constitution was to give the Commonwealth power to make laws for Aboriginal people (which until this time resided with the States) and to make it possible to include Aboriginal people in the census, which in effect, made them count as Australian citizens for the first time. (Under Section 127, this was not possible.)

  • Outline the significant restrictions on civil rights of Aboriginal people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? What main reason does Hirst offer for these restrictions? Can you suggest other possible reasons?
  • In discussions of the issue of the removal of part-Aboriginal children from their families it is often argued that governments were simply reflecting the values of the time. To what extent do you think that this is true?
  • Explain the impact of World War II and the actions of the Nazis on the shaping of government attitudes to Aborigines in the 1950s.
  • Can you suggest why some Aboriginal people did not welcome these changes in policy?

Construct a timeline

Construct a decade by decade timeline showing changes in Aboriginal civil rights and liberties from the colonial period (up to 1900) to the 1960s.

Introduction | What rights did Aboriginal people have between 1901–1967? | Why did Australian attitudes towards Aborigines change? | What were the consequences of the referendum? | Assessment tasks and Additional resources