The Significance of the 1967 Referendum

For this post we would first like to start with an acknowledgement. We at Yarn, acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on we work the Yuggera and Turrbal peoples. We pay our respects to all Elders, past, present and emerging. 

Today is the beginning of National Reconciliation week, a significant time for all Australians to come together and take brave action so that we can continue strengthening relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Today May 27th marks an important day, the 1967 Referendum, a significant event that marked the beginning of real change within Australia’s society. It was a moment in history that also reminds us of the long battle that the fight for Indigenous rights and equality has been. A battle that is in no way finished.

Protests Leading up to the vote. Courtesy of Bendigo Advertiser, 2017.

The 1967 Referendum was the most decisive referendum victory in Australian history with more than 90% of voters voting ‘yes.’ They were voting yes in favour of removing two discriminatory references to First Nations people in the constitution. These included Section 51 which stated the federal parliament could make laws with respect to the:

"… people of any race, other than the Aboriginal race in any state, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws."

The second, Section 127 stated:

"… reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a state or other part of the Commonwealth, Aboriginal natives shall not be counted."

These parts of the constitution didn’t prevent Indigenous people from exercising the same legal rights as other Australians nevertheless they were incredibly discriminatory. By 1967 all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults already held the right to vote in federal, state and territory elections. The ‘yes’ vote was a predominantly symbolic event, however this did not make it any less important. It showed that all Australians recognised Indigenous peoples as a valuable part of this nation. It brought everyone together and was the beginning of our nation's reconciliation journey (McGregor, 2017).

Campaigned for the ‘yes’ vote. Courtesy of From the Heart, 2020.

The ‘yes’ campaign was huge. The campaigners ambitions went beyond legal equality, they were fighting for Indigenous peoples to be included as respected members of the national community. They built momentum and brought on board the support of the government as well. What made this event so impactful was the landslide victory, the first moment that we saw the majority of Australians all rallying together for the rights, respect and social inclusion of First Nations peoples (McGregor, 2017).

It is however important to remember this was only the start of change. A new wave of activism emerged in the 1970s which included the modern land rights movement. Today we continue fighting for an equitable nation (Australians Together, 2020). This year, as reflected through the National Reconciliation Week theme we take bold action so that future generations can grow up knowing equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

You can read more about National Reconciliation Week and how to get involved here.