Inside Story

The 1967 referendum: inspiration or burden?

The overwhelming Yes vote still grips our imagination

Tim Rowse 27 May 2021 3829 words

“A young Aboriginal girl hands a how-to-vote card to a voter at polling booth at Sydney Town Hall during the 1967 referendum,” reads the Sydney Morning Herald’s caption. “A sweeping majority of Australians, more than 10–1, voted in favour of the referendum on Aborigines — the biggest ‘yes’ vote in the history of Commonwealth referenda.” George Lipman/SMH

What did Australian voters do on 27 May 1967? The memorial to the constitutional referendum in Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle puts it like this:

According to the 1901 Australian Constitution, s51(26) “the Parliament of Australia may make laws for the people of any race, other than the aboriginal people of any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws,” s127 “In 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.” On the 27th May 1967, 90.7% of Australian voters said yes to two questions in a referendum to change the Constitution: 1. Should the Commonwealth Government be allowed jurisdiction over aboriginal people, a right hitherto given to States? And 2. Should people of Aboriginal descent be counted in the national census? The petition to conduct the Referendum was officially launched in 1957 in the Sydney Town Hall by Pearl Gibbs and Jessie Street. The campaign took ten years and was itself the result of a long struggle by many people, black and white, to have basic human rights recognised for Indigenous people.

The inscription is inaccurate in three ways. First, it misquotes the Australian Constitution, which refers to “the aboriginal race of any State.” Second, it implies that Aboriginal people had not been under Commonwealth jurisdiction before the 1967 referendum, despite the fact that the 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Act determined whether an Aboriginal person was allowed to vote in federal elections. Third, it implies that section 127 of the Constitution had excluded Aboriginal people from the national census. In fact, Aboriginal people had been enumerated (incompletely) or estimated in every census since the Commonwealth began in 1901; what the repeal of section 127 enabled the Commonwealth to do was to take “Aboriginal” population data into account when apportioning federal electoral districts.

That an official memorial could mislead in these ways is symptomatic of the referendum’s mythical resonance. That’s not to say that “myth” is equivalent to “error”: we mythologise history because myths are good to think with. In arguing that the story of the 1967 referendum has become a potent national “myth,” I want to go beyond pointing out errors and examine how some of the myths of 1967 influence our discussion of constitutional recognition. I am more interested in myth-as-meaning than in myth-as-error.

Constitutions are necessarily esoteric, technical documents, but they are also — at times — objects of intense popular concern. Since the publication in January 2012 of the report of the expert panel on recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution, Australia’s debate about constitutional recognition has been animated by an assumption that a constitution should capture a nation’s collective self-understanding, its “narrative” and its values. As June Oscar, chief executive of the Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre, told a parliamentary inquiry in 2014, “For our assertions in the present to have lasting social impacts we have to be recognised and our past and present voices have to be woven into the overarching Australian narrative enshrined within the Constitution.” Two years earlier, prime minister Julia Gillard had referred to the Constitution as “our nation’s founding contract” (adding that “our people rightly guard it with care”), a “contract” among the peoples who comprise the nation.

In this way, the Constitution has significance beyond what it says, and such misunderstandings can be as meaningful to the voting public as understandings that are technically correct. Independently of constitutional reality, public references endow the 1967 referendum with implications for the conduct of government and citizens. As Labor MP Shayne Neumann remarked in 2014, the referendum “had an impact way beyond the wording that was changed.” The constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey has said something similar: “The constitutional amendments made in 1967 of themselves were not terribly significant. What was significant was the vote of the Australian people in terms of their recognition of Aboriginal people through that vote. Psychologically and historically the power of that vote was really significant.” For legal academic Rosalind Dixon, “the changes that were introduced in 1967 were practically largely insignificant” but “the symbolism of that referendum was overwhelmingly positive.”

The 1967 referendum changes had to mean something to those who voted. The campaign for a Yes vote had assiduously promoted such meanings as would make it attractive to delete certain words. For example, the official Yes pamphlet explained the deletion of words from section 51(26) as doing two things:

First it will remove words from our constitution that many people think are discriminatory against her Aboriginal people. Second, it will make it possible for the Commonwealth Parliament to make special laws for the people of the Aboriginal race wherever they may live, if the Parliament considers it necessary. [My emphasis]

According to the same pamphlet, removing section 127 was possible because of the increased administrative capacity of the Commonwealth to enumerate Aboriginal people, and desirable because “Our personal sense of justice, our commonsense, and our international reputation in a world in which racial issues are being highlighted every day, require that we get rid of this outmoded provision.”

As ways of making the two constitutional amendments meaningful and appealing, such arguments obviously worked. There was no official No pamphlet in 1967 because parliament had unanimously endorsed the bill to hold a referendum. Had there been a No case I would be able to quote alternative meanings: words designed to make the amendments unattractive to the voting public.

The Yes pamphlet illustrates an important point. In the course of popular engagement through referendums, constitutions must become meaningful — that is, they must gather implications and possibilities. They may become allegories of changes desired or feared. We will not understand the Australian Constitution if we confine our knowledge to what constitutional experts say about it; we must also attend to what Neumann referred to as “hearts and minds.” Such overbearing of fact by imagination is only what we should expect.

To be successful, a referendum to change the Constitution must be supported by a majority of all voters as well as a majority of voters in a majority of states. As long as the “four states” test is met, then a successful referendum requires an overall vote falling within the range of 50 per cent plus one to 100 per cent. Fifty per cent plus one of all voters is just as “successful” as 99 per cent, as long as supporters of the change are in the majority in four of the six states. But when they recall the 1967 referendum the protagonists of the constitutional recognition debate treat the size of the national majority vote as a measure of success.

With 90.7 per cent of the total vote, the Yes vote in 1967 was “the most successful referendum in Australian constitutional history,” according to George Brandis, speaking as attorney-general in 2013. What made it the “most successful,” according to Ken Wyatt in 2014, was that “Australia was strongly unified in making the change.” In many references to this “most successful” referendum, speakers have implied that a referendum would be a failure to the extent that its support fell short of 90 per cent. In February 2013, Greens senator Christine Milne supported deferring a referendum until after the next federal election because “we do not want to see it fail. We must build a consensus so that people get behind the next referendum as they got behind the 1967 referendum. We must make sure that the next referendum succeeds, and that is a challenge to everyone.” Speaking in the same parliamentary debate, Brandis hoped for a referendum “as successful as the 1967 referendum.”

Among those evoking the 1967 referendum as “the most successful” were Les Malezer (Aboriginal leader), Ken Wyatt (Liberal MP), Matt Thistlethwaite (Labor MP), Patrick Dodson (Labor senator) and Mohammad Al-Khafaji (then director of strategy and engagement, Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia). In 2015, Labor senator Nova Peris implied that the next referendum would be judged against the 1967 majority, as “a high-water mark in recognition of the first owners of the land.” “Our aim must be… to crown that success of half a century ago,” she added. In 2017, Labor’s Linda Burney saw “genius” in the campaign that produced the 1967 referendum’s high majority:

Whilst the questions that were put into the referendum did not, in many ways, seem ground-breaking, the campaigners were able to turn it into a decision for the Australian people about rights for first peoples and the unacceptable position that first peoples were in. That was the genius of the 1967 referendum.

Behind the assumption that a very high national vote was necessary for “success” was an appeal to “national unity.” Liberal MP Alan Tudge, like Christine Milne, used the word “consensus”:

We should seek a unanimous consensus but at least our aim should be something in the vicinity of what was achieved in 1967, when 90 per cent of the Australian public voted for change to the Constitution — a change that had such great moral significance.

Shortly after the expert panel released its report in 2012, opposition leader Tony Abbott urged: “What we have to try to do is recreate the fervour and the sense of unity that were captured in the 1967 constitutional change.” Gillard said that the referendum of 1967 “was a time of healing, uniting our nation in empathy and accord as never before.” She continued: “I want this constitutional amendment to be equally unifying, so I am determined that the referendum will be held only when the nation is ready. As the nation’s leaders and representatives, it is our job to do all we can to bring that unifying moment closer.”

For Liberal MP Kevin Andrews “the primary objective of a constitutional referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is to achieve a unifying moment for our nation, a moment similar to that of the 1967 referendum.” His party colleague Marise Payne hoped “to experience again the unity of 1967.” Bronwyn Bishop speculated that “a referendum recognising Aboriginal people as the first Australians could be a unifying and liberating moment for the nation, even surpassing the 1967 change or the national apology.” According to Labor’s Brian Mitchell, “the real import of the referendum in 1967 was… a universal acknowledgement that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were no longer ‘them,’ to be counted separately, but ‘us.’ We are one people.” A positive result, asserted Labor senator Claire Moore, “has to be across the whole nation. It cannot just be the majority of states.”

In other words, the phrase “most successful referendum” created meaning from a fact (that the Yes vote in 1967 was uniquely high): to be “successful,” the chosen form of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians must enable “national unity.”

Endorsing the May 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, Labor’s Anthony Albanese said, “We recognised the rights of Indigenous Australians to be citizens in the famous referendum in 1967, but we need to take the next step — it’s absolutely critical.” So, as well as being a “high-water mark,” a “landmark,” a “milestone” of national unity and a “turning point,” the 1967 referendum was also imagined as a “step” on what Tony Abbott in February 2013 called the nation’s “journey.”

George Brandis judged the 1967 referendum to be “the greatest single step ever taken towards the goal of achieving equal rights and status for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.” It is a popular expectation, according to Marise Payne, that a nation concerned with its Indigenous minority will take “steps” forward in its dealings with them. She reported that young Australians were looking back to the 1967 referendum and asking: “How is it possible that we are at this point and this next step has not been taken?” The independent MP Rob Oakeshott said in 2013 that “as hard and as challenging as constitutional recognition will be, it is from my perspective really just another important step. As 1967 was and as the ‘sorry’ speech was, this has the potential to be another step forward.”

In using the term “step,” it has been open to each speaker to name previous milestones. Some saw two. Abbott invited the acknowledgement “that there have already been two big milestones on our national journey to healing: the 1967 referendum and the national apology…” In February 2013, Nigel Scullion, later Indigenous affairs minister, saw agreement on what to ask at the next referendum as “the third step in our becoming a united nation. That is extremely important. It will follow from the 1967 referendum, which was so significant, and the apology, which had complete bipartisan support.”

On a later occasion, Abbott identified more moments when the nation had enacted its best self. The Yirrkala Bark petition (1963), he said:

was the beginning of this parliament’s consciousness that there were and are in this country Indigenous cultures and Indigenous peoples whose traditions should be respected. Since then we have seen the 1967 referendum, land rights legislation, native title legislation and the national apology. And who knows? If we are our best selves we may soon see Indigenous recognition in the Constitution.

Wyatt delineated even more steps on the nation’s “journey.” Recalling that prime minister John Howard had proposed in 1999 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people be recognised in the Constitution, Wyatt continued:

It followed the journey of the 1967 referendum, which counted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the census. The next major event was the Paul Keating Redfern speech, in which he acknowledged the things of the past. Then we had Mabo and Wik. The next step in the journey was the apology from Kevin Rudd.

Would the next step also be the final step? Speaking in November 2013, Abbott thought that the next step, “within twelve months,” would be definitive. “Such an acknowledgement of Aboriginal people as the first Australians would complete our Constitution rather than change it.” When Abbott presented the next step as completion, he was echoing Gillard: “In 1967, the people of Australia sought restitution and repair, but their work was incomplete. Today a new generation dreams of finishing the job with the same idealism and the same means…”

Two Labor MPs presented the most elaborate version of this “step” account of the nation’s progress. Neumann called his steps “turning points,” starting with legislation “in the early sixties” that gave Aboriginal people the right to vote:

Then we had the 1967 referendum. The Commonwealth had the power to pass laws in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Then we had prime minister Keating’s Redfern speech, in which he acknowledged that we did the murders and brought the diseases. Remember that famous speech? Then we had the Mabo decision, native title, and the apology by Kevin Rudd. I think constitutional recognition can build on that; it is the next step.

Senator Malarndirri McCarthy listed the moments that, in her view, had led to the work she was doing as a member of a Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition:

The 1967 referendum, the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, Vincent Lingiari, the Racial Discrimination Act, the Barunga Statement, the Redfern Statement, Mabo, the Native Title Act, the Bringing Them Home report, the stolen generations and the Sorry Day marches, Closing the Gap and now constitutional recognition and the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

But it was also possible that a nation’s “steps” weren’t forward. Some feared that a referendum on recognition, if not well judged, would be a “setback,” reversing past advances. “We have certainly had advances over the past century, haven’t we,” said Peter Arndt, executive officer of the Brisbane Archdiocese Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, “with the 1967 referendum, the movement for reconciliation, the Mabo decision and the subsequent legislation in the parliament around native title.” So a defeated referendum “would be not only an enormous hurdle for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people but a great setback for them in their hopes for achieving a place in the Australian community.” In similar vein, Wyatt reported in 2014 that “elders” had told Gillard’s expert panel in 2011:

that if the question is going to fail, do not put it, because we do not want failure in a referendum. They have a view that if we fail in this referendum then it will undo the importance of the 1967 referendum, it will undo the importance of all those other things that happened — the Keating Redfern speech, Mabo, Wik, the apology and reconciliation. They were saying that they would rather keep those as gains, and the way in which they walk with Australians now, as opposed to being set back. That is one of the messages that was very clear to us.

If memories of the 1967 referendum had expanded the meaning of “failure” to include a less than overwhelming “Yes” vote, then the referendum now being contemplated was imaginable as a risk, a misstep on the road to national unity.

What had happened in 1967 that made it a “step” in the right direction? One of the most frequent evocations of the 1967 referendum made use of the verb “count.” The Uluru Statement includes the words: “In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard.” This is true if “counted” refers to one consequence of deleting section 127 from the Constitution: it removed a restriction on how Aboriginal population data could be used in making population-based administrative decisions, such as in the apportioning of federal electorates. But the phrase “in 1967 we were counted” is not true if it is taken to refer to the census itself, for the deletion of section 127 did not initiate the counting of Indigenous Australians in the census; their enumeration simply continued (though in the next census, in 1971, the “race” question no longer referred to fractions of descent, for reasons that had nothing to do with the repeal of section 127).

Thus the following statements about the 1967 referendum are factually incorrect:

[T]he section that stipulated that Indigenous Australians should not be counted in any census was removed… (Alan Tudge, Liberal)

[The referendum] gave the Commonwealth power to make laws for Aboriginal people resident in the states and to include all Aboriginal people in the national census. (Michael McCormack, National)

That referendum updated the Constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census. (Trish Crossin, Labor)

[The referendum] enabled Aboriginal people to be counted in the population, in the census of Australia. (Ken Wyatt)

To identify such statements as mere errors is to miss their mythical significance, which rests on the word “count.” To “count” is not only to “enumerate”; it is also to be treated as significant by an enumerator. In the Uluru Statement the word “count” is poetic: it nourishes the myth of 1967 that Indigenous Australians began to matter, to be worth counting. And once people matter, there are many ways they can then “count.” As Labor MP Sharon Claydon explained in 2017, the 1967 referendum was when:

our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia were finally granted the right not simply to be counted in our census but also to be counted in our history books and in the narrative of our nation and to get a say in contesting the space of colonial history that Australia was, for a long time, steeped in.

In the myth of 1967, “the census” is more; it is a metonym for the settler colonial nation-state and its mentalities. The 1967 referendum is thus remembered as the moment when the unrecognised were recognised. To “count” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people meant that Australia was enlarging its vision, including those previously not recognised. For Linda Burney, the 1967 referendum “felt like citizenship. If you were denied the right to be counted in the census, then it felt like you did not really count anyhow, and that is very much the way in which it was seen.” The remembered pleasure of being recognised is a strong theme in Indigenous memories of that event.

Some witnesses appearing before recent parliamentary committees have used an allegory of humanisation to convey the transition from non-recognition to recognition. “I go back to 1967 when we were still classed as flora and fauna,” Bobby Nicholls, co-convenor of the Shepparton Region Reconciliation Group, told one committee. “I was seven years old in 1967,” said John Baxter, a council member of Reconciliation Victoria. “With the change to the referendum, I was no longer part of the fauna and flora; I was considered to be a human being.” June Oscar told the committee that in 1967 “discriminatory clauses were removed from the Australian Constitution which defined Indigenous people as flora and fauna.”

In a speech to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum, Malcolm Turnbull honoured this Aboriginal memory of 1967 by these words: “As Indigenous rights campaigner, the late Chicka Dixon, told his daughter Rhonda, who is here today: ‘The government counted everything. They counted the cattle, the cars, the TVs, but they didn’t count us. It’s like we were invisible.’” Turnbull’s shout-out to the Dixon family is probably better seen as a respectful gesture than as his lapsing into a factual “mistake” about section 127: he chose to deploy the allegorical equation of census enumeration with “recognition” of Aboriginal humanity. Turnbull honoured Dixon as one of those whom Harold Ludwick, on another occasion, described as “the movers and shakers that changed the past in 1967” — elders who “were not counted as part of the community before the 1967 referendum, but now they have a voice and they want to be heard.”

Since Julia Gillard appointed the expert panel in December 2010, Australians have been debating whether and how to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution. The public has been invited by figures from across the political spectrum to imagine the Constitution as a statement of national ethos. In such imagining, the 1967 referendum has been an emblematic event, recalled by some as the moment when the dehumanised were recognised as human, for at last they (were) counted. The high Yes vote in the 1967 referendum has been made to signify that this act of recognition was performed by the entire nation, an affirmation of national unity. The next referendum is evoked as a “step” on a progressive journey — perhaps the final step in reconciliation — but only if it is again an act of national unity. Referendum “success” has thus been exorbitantly redefined as “consensus.”

The aspiration to replicate the “consensus” of 1967 has become a caution against accepting the Uluru Statement’s demand for a referendum to oblige the Commonwealth to create a Voice to Parliament. “There is still no clear consensus proposal at this stage which would suggest mainstream support in the Indigenous community or elsewhere,” was prime minister Scott Morrison’s justification on 18 March this year for his refusal to commit to a referendum on the Voice. That was “a fair enough call,” Noel Pearson commented a few days later. “An appropriate question needs to be settled by consensus and put to the quiet Australians to decide at a referendum.”

Words like those make the push for a Voice hostage to the myth of the 1967 referendum. In that way, the memory of 1967 as a moment of national unity that must be replicated burdens the debate about the Voice to Parliament, to the benefit of those arguing for something less. •