Many campaigners for a Yes vote in the forthcoming referendum on the Voice to Parliament have taken heart from the overwhelming majority won by Yes advocates in the previous referendum on constitutional change to benefit Indigenous Australians, held fifty-six years ago on 27 May 1967. This was the proposal to amend Section 51 of the Constitution to enable the federal parliament to make ‘special laws’ regarding Aboriginal people by removing the words ‘other than the Aboriginal race’, and to delete Section 127, which stipulated that Aboriginal people were not to be counted in the census.
In the 1967 referendum, 90.77 per cent of formal votes cast supported the Yes case. In New South Wales, the Yes vote reached 91.46 per cent, in Victoria 94.68 per cent. It was a triumph led by a coalition of Indigenous and non-Indigenous campaigners, black and white, Liberal and Labor, young and old, many of whom had been campaigning for the referendum since 1957 when the petition asking that the federal government hold a referendum was launched at a large public meeting organised by the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship at Sydney Town Hall.
The Yes vote in the 1967 referendum was widely cast as a vote against racial discrimination, a cause with which Faith Bandler, the charismatic Black campaign director of South Sea Island descent, passionately identified. Growing up in northern New South Wales, she knew her family’s history had been shaped by government legislation in 1901 aimed at expelling South Sea Islanders from Australia. Along with the Immigration Restriction Act, the Pacific Islands Labourers Act was foundational to White Australia.
Faith also remembered the racism she had experienced growing up in Tumbulgum, Murwillumbah and Tweed Heads, in schools, shops and cinemas. In the 1950s she became an active supporter of the civil rights protests in the United States—Paul Robeson was a family hero. She believed passionately in the justice of racial equality and that this might be achieved with the passage of the referendum in 1967. ‘Let’s tell the world there’s only one Australian’, she declared in an interview with the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1967, ‘and his colour doesn’t matter at all’. And again, the same year, in an article on ‘human dignity’ she explained, ‘All the Aborigines were seeking was to be made, legally and statistically, “one people” with white Australians’. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, Faith believed, along with hundreds of thousands of other Australians, should enjoy the same rights.
In fact, the implications of the overwhelming Yes vote went much further than ending discrimination and the enjoyment of equal rights. Aboriginal calls for recognition, representation and a voice were a logical consequence of campaigners’ triumph in 1967. If the federal government were to be granted the power to make ‘special laws’ for Aboriginal people, who should say what those laws should be? This question arose as a result of 1967, and is the key question informing the 2023 referendum proposal asking that First Nations peoples have a Voice.
In 1957 Faith Bandler and members of the newly formed Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (AAF) were persuaded of the necessity of constitutional change by the veteran feminist Jessie Street, who had been a delegate to the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. On the recommendation of her friend Mary Montgomerie Bennett, a leading Aboriginal rights activist since the 1930s and the author in 1930 of The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being, Street had been invited to join the Anti-Slavery Society in London to help prepare a case documenting Aborigines’ lack of human rights for the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities established by the United Nations in 1947.
Street concluded that it would be more appropriate, however, if an Australian body were to make such representations. As Aboriginal affairs in Australia then came under state jurisdiction, all reform organisations had been state-based. There was no federal body that could make representations to national or international organisations.
Clearly it was imperative that a federal organisation be established. Street proceeded to contact a wide range of activists and friends in state-based organisations to enlist their support for creating a federal organisation that could more effectively lobby for Aboriginal rights. This would occur in 1958, with the founding of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Rights, later the Federal Council for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).
Meanwhile, Street also worked with the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship in New South Wales to launch a petition calling for a referendum to change the Australian Constitution and enable the federal government to take responsibility for Aboriginal affairs. At the end of 1956, while staying with Mary Bennett in Kalgoorlie, she wrote to their mutual friend, the long-time activist Ada Bromham, advising her that she had discussed with Paul Hasluck, Minister for Territories, ‘the possibility of a referendum to amend the Constitution to vest powers over the Aborigines in the Commonwealth Parliament and to extend all legal rights as enjoyed by the white population to the Aborigines. He appeared to be quite favourably disposed to this suggestion’. However, Hasluck’s favourable response quickly changed to opposition when the full implications of the proposal—the potential for special laws for Aborigines—became clear.
In 1957 Bennett published Human Rights for Australian Aborigines, which drew on the UN Declaration of Human Rights to document the myriad ways in which Australian policy discriminated against Aboriginal people. Street began to draft the petition calling for a referendum, and in April 1957 thanked Brian Fitzpatrick of the Council for Civil Liberties for ‘putting the Petition in its proper form’. A copy of the first draft of the preamble to the petition, written in her hand, can be found in Street’s papers in the National Library of Australia. Its emphasis on abolishing discrimination reflects the values encoded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, in her capacity as vice-chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, she had helped draft. The preamble read, ‘Believing that many of the difficulties encountered by Aborigines arose from discrimination against them in two sections of the Commonwealth Constitution…’.
Street gave Faith Bandler a copy of the petition to take to the executive of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship to seek their endorsement and support in launching it at the Town Hall meeting planned for 29 April. Faith remembered Jessie saying to her, ‘Now look girl, we have to change the federal Constitution’. Jessie was then sixty-eight years old. Faith, thirty years younger, admired this older woman with her habit of command and wanted to please her: ‘My relationship with Jessie was as close as any I’ve had with any woman. She really was my mother’. Jessie also had high expectations of her younger ally. It took Faith a couple of weeks to take the petition to the AAF, however, because she was unsure what changing the Constitution had to do with improving the conditions of Aborigines. She then informed herself, read widely and spoke again to Street so that she could become a persuasive advocate.
The Town Hall meeting had been advertised as looking towards a ‘New Deal for Aborigines’ and offering an opportunity to ‘discuss ways and means of raising the living standards of Aborigines and their integration into the Australian community’. The term ‘integration’ had been carefully chosen to indicate a shift away from the official government policy of ‘assimilation’. The concept of ‘integration’ signalled an Aboriginal desire to retain a sense of group identity and maintain their Indigenous culture.
The public meeting was chaired by Doug Nicolls, who had flown up from Melbourne but had initially refused to share the stage with ‘that Communist Jessie Street’. Finally persuaded to take his seat, he was joined on stage by Bert Groves from the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, the renowned Aboriginal singers Harold Blair and Nancy Ellis, Victorian orator Bill Onus, the poet Dame Mary Gilmore, Don McLeod from Western Australia, and Les Haylen, the Labor member of the House of Representatives for Parkes, who presented the first petitions to parliament on 14 May 1957.
For ten years, FCAATSI and thousands of grass-roots supporters across the country, led by Oodgeroo Noonuccal (the poet Kath Walker), Joe McGinness and Labor man Gordon Bryant, lobbied federal politicians to hold a referendum on constitutional reform. Finally, in 1967, they were successful when Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt agreed to put the requested constitutional amendments to Sections 51 and 127 to a referendum on 27 May. The resounding Yes vote empowered the federal government to legislate for the improvement of Indigenous peoples’ lives. Henceforth the federal government could fund a range of services for Indigenous Australians, including educational, legal, medical and cultural programs. Increasingly, Indigenous activists also pursued rights specific to Indigenous Australians. By 1972 ‘land rights’ was defined as a major issue, and the Tent Embassy was erected on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra on Australia Day that year.
A reform aimed at securing equal rights for Aborigines facilitated and encouraged the demand for recognition and the pursuit of self-determination. After the 1967 referendum, activists such as Charles Perkins called for non-Aboriginal people to be removed from the administration and leadership of Aboriginal affairs. FCAATSI, as an organisation dominated by non-Aboriginal delegates, began to be discredited, and as a South Sea Islander, Faith Bandler began to feel increasingly out of place in the new Indigenous politics.
Charles Perkins called a meeting on 20 October 1967 for Aborigines only, with the purpose of forming a new organisation to be called the National Aboriginal Affairs Association. Non-Aboriginal activists were barred from entering. The new organisation, it was said, would allow Aboriginal people ‘national expression’. Such calls were supported by senior bureaucrat H. C. Coombes, who as chairman of the newly formed Council for Aboriginal Affairs (1967–76), argued that Aborigines should nominate their own representatives to negotiate with the federal government.
In September 1970, a National Tribal Council brought together by Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Doug Nicholls attracted sixty Indigenous representatives from around Australia and Thursday Island, and announced their main aim as ‘The promotion of the interests of the Aborigines and Islanders and the preservation of their cultures’. Young Aboriginal men including Denis Walker, Len Watson and Fred Gasha were appointed councillors.
In 1973, the Labor Whitlam government created the first elected Indigenous representative body, the 41-member National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC). It was replaced in 1977 by the Fraser Coalition government’s National Aboriginal Consultative Conference, which lasted until 1985. Like the NACC before it, the Conference was established administratively by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. In 1979 it proposed a treaty, or Makarrata, between the Aboriginal nation and the Australian government. In 1981 the Senate Standing on Constitutional and Legal Affairs began an investigation of its feasibility and delivered a report in 1983. In 1990 the Hawke government established perhaps the most significant representative body, the elected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which was abolished by the Howard government in 2005.
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples was established in 2010 as the national elected and representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Aiming to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), the National Congress, representing 180 Indigenous organisations, and with 10,000 individual members, affirmed the necessity of self-determination and the participation of Indigenous peoples in decision-making affecting their lives. Its work was wide-ranging and included political relations, cultural programs, treaty discussions, language revitalisation, economic empowerment, housing, family violence and the welfare of children. The National Congress saw itself as ‘the voice of Australia’s First Nations Peoples’, but the Abbott-led Coalition government withdrew its funding in 2013, and it went into voluntary administration in 2019 when the Morrison government refused to renew it. The ‘voice of First Nations Peoples’ was silenced.
Since 1967, when Australian voters overwhelmingly endorsed the idea that the federal government could make ‘special laws’ regarding Aboriginal peoples, a variety of answers have been provided to the question of who should say what laws and policies relating to Indigenous peoples should be enacted through the establishment of numerous advisory and policy bodies, created and then abolished by successive governments. All have proven to be temporary. Organisations created by one government have been abolished by succeeding governments elected by different political parties. Yet still the shameful conditions of First Nations peoples—their lower life expectancy than that of non-Indigenous Australians, their higher disease, domestic violence and imprisonment rates, their higher unemployment levels—still call for urgent action.
One of the main recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, drawn up by the National Constitutional Convention of 2017, was that a First Nations Voice be enshrined in the Australian Constitution to advise parliament and government on policies relating to their people. The outcome of the 1967 referendum begged the question: who should say what laws affecting Indigenous peoples should be passed? The proposed amendment to be put to the referendum in 2023 provides a viable answer to that question: an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to the Australian Parliament and Government—an independent representative body enshrined in the Australian Constitution, which will provide it with the authority, consistency and continuity needed to be effective. This is the unfinished business of 1967.