May 25

Fortieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum

 Listening to an ABC current affairs programme recently, the interviewer made the common error of saying that the referendum held on 27 May 2007 approved the grant of citizenship to the Aboriginal people. But the Aboriginal people were already citizens. The referendum was principally to grant to the Federal Parliament the power to legislate with respect to the Aboriginal people. It also removed the proscription on counting Aboriginal people in determining electorates and other Commonwealth matters. The relevant sections of the Constitution prior to the amendment read: 51. 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. 127. In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted. The words ‘… other than the aboriginal people in any State…’ in section 51(xxvi) and the whole of section 127 were removed by this amendment. Unusually, no argument against the proposal was distributed, such was the parliamentary support for the change. It was approved by 90.77 per cent of the voters, a record.
I was told by one closely involved at the time that the former Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, did not believe the Federal Parliament should have the power to legislate with respect to the Aboriginal people in the States. Under the proposals to federate, this was seen as an exclusively State matter. But in his view, the Federal government could do all it wanted to do to help the Aboriginal people through conditional grants to the States. He said that if the parliament received this power, it would only lead to the creation of some bureaucratic monster. His successor Harold Holt thought differently.
I wrote on 16 April 2007 to the ABC about this error which, although common, should not be repeated on the national broadcaster. I said: “In two references to the 1967 referendum, it was said that this resulted in the granting of citizenship to the indigenous population. This is a common belief, but it is completely wrong. They were already citizens. The referendum was principally about granting the Commonwealth parliament power to legislate with respect to the Aboriginal people, something which Menzies had opposed. He thought everything which shoud or could be done could be achieved by conditional grants to the States. He feared that empoering the Federal Parliament in this area to legislate directly would result in the creation of a centralised bureaucratic monstrosity. Holt wanted the referendum for cosmetic purposes, and got his way when he became PM.”
I am pleased that the ABC not only acknowledges this, but is taking steps to see it is not repeated. I have received this reply:
“Dear David Flint,
Thank you for your email.
You are correct to draw our attention to the inaccuracy in this story and we apologise for the error.
The transcript of the story will be amended were necessary and an editor’s note added, clarifying the nature of the 1967 referendum.
In addition, reporters and producers will be reminded not to contribute to the commonly held inaccuracy by repeating it.
Yours sincerely, Kate Edwards Audience Liaison Officer ABC News and Current Affairs”

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