February 17

The Aboriginal referendum

One of the most misunderstood constitutional changes in Australia has been  the 1967 Aboriginal referendum, introduced by the Holt Liberal-Country Party government and supported by all parties, including the Labor Party and the Democratic Labor Party.

I reflected on this on the recent launch of an important new study on housing in the remote Aboriginal communities by a former Keating Government Minister, the Hon. Dr Gary Johns.

It is provocatively called “ No Job No House,” and it is in the tradition of a growing critique of federal Aboriginal policy.

That policy was based on the results of the much misinterpreted Aboriginal referendum.

In an opinion piece some years ago in the Sydney Morning Herald a university professor referred to the referendum as giving Aborigines the right to vote and making them citizens.

It was neither. The Aboriginal population always had the same status as British subjects as the rest of the population. When separate Australian citizenship was established in 1948, they were included.  

Aborigines had the right to vote in four states at the time of Federation.  This was whittled away federally, but restored and made universal well before the 1967 referendum.

The referendum did two things. Most importantly it granted to the federal Parliament a power to legislate with respect to the Aboriginal race. It also allowed the counting of Aboriginal people for technical purposes not associated with their welfare.

Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, this did not relate to the census.  The proscription against counting “Aboriginal natives” had been introduced to limit the size of the population of Western Australia and therefore the number of its seats in the House of Representatives and of its financial grants.

Sir Robert Menzies had proposed a referendum, but only related to the question of counting Aboriginal people.  A cabinet member at the time tells me that Sir Robert argued that the Federal government could always help the Aboriginal people through conditional grants to the States.

He warned that if the Federal Parliament had the legislative power the result would be that an enormous bureaucratic monstrosity would be created which would do little to improve the lives of the Aboriginal people.

Sir Robert was one of our greatest Prime Ministers; this anecdote is surely further evidence of this.  When Sir Robert retired his successor proceeded  with the referendum. But now it included the power to legislate with respect to the Aboriginal race. 


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