Constitution a barrier to Aboriginal electorate

Media release: Thursday, 3 July 2008

A proposal to establish a federal Aboriginal electorate that crossed state boundaries, came up against 'a constitutional barrier' in 1949.

Pastor Doug Nicholls, as secretary of the Australian Aborigines League, wrote to Prime Minister Ben Chifley and party leaders Robert Menzies (Liberal) and Arthur Fadden (Australian Country Party) in July 1949, seeking representation of Aboriginal people in the federal parliament.

The National Archives of Australia has selected his letter and other documents regarding the proposal as its July Find of the Month.

Pastor Nicholls, later Sir Douglas, Governor of South Australia, called on the political parties to consider the proposal as a matter of urgency.

'He said the proposal did not envisage giving electoral rights to “Aborigines still living in the tribal state” but that the request was “for a spokesman for my people in the National parliament of their own native land”,' said Jane Ellis, researcher with the National Archives.

In support of Pastor Nicholls' proposal, Kim Beazley MP (senior) wrote to Prime Minister Chifley, pointing out that Aboriginal representation was 'a just request'. He added 'the problem of justice for people of Aboriginal race transcends State borders and should be a national question'. He suggested a referendum to change the Constitution on the matter.

'At the time, section 51(xxvi) of the Australian Constitution prevented the federal government from making laws for “the people of Aboriginal race”', said Jane Ellis. 'This was finally changed by referendum in 1967.'

'The Australian Aborigines Leagues (AAL) had been campaigning for federal representation for Aboriginal people since 1934. In 1937, Nicholls' great-uncle William Cooper had gathered 1814 signatures for a petition to King George V, seeking representation in parliament. The Australian Government had declined to forward the petition.'

Following a further letter from Doug Nicholls, Prime Minister Ben Chifley replied that the Constitution did not provide for a 'representative solely in respect of a particular class of inhabitant'. He added that Aboriginal people were entitled to stand for nomination as senators or members of the House of Representatives, since changes to the Electoral Act the year before.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0427 853 664 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017