A 'just' request: Aboriginal representation in parliament

Pastor Doug Nicholls, Secretary of the Australian Aborigines League, wrote to Prime Minister Ben Chifley and party leaders Robert Menzies (Liberal) and Arthur Fadden (Australian Country Party) on 1 July 1949 seeking representation of Aboriginal people in the federal parliament.

Nicholls – later to become Sir Douglas Nicholls, Governor of South Australia – proposed that this representation be based on the establishment of an Aboriginal electorate that crossed state boundaries. He called on all political parties to consider this as a matter of urgency.

However, there was still ‘a constitutional barrier’ to Nicholls’ request. Under s. 51(xxvi) of the Australian Constitution, the federal government was not able to make laws for people of the Aboriginal race. In a letter to Prime Minister Chifley, Kim Beazley MP (senior) described Nicholls’ request for Aboriginal representation as ‘just’ and recommended amending the Constitution by referendum.

Federal representation for Aboriginal people was not a new issue.

The Australian Aborigines League (AAL) had been campaigning and planning action on behalf of Aboriginal people since 1934.

In 1937, William Cooper, Nicholls’ great-uncle and Secretary of the AAL, gathered 1814 signatures for a petition to King George V seeking representation in parliament, enfranchisement and land rights for Aboriginal people. In 1938, the Australian Government declined to forward the petition or to amend the Constitution.

A referendum including Commonwealth power to legislate for people of the Aboriginal race was defeated in 1944.

But lobbying for change continued, through the efforts of people like Pastor Doug Nicholls and organisations like the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).

Eventually the discriminatory phrase in the Australian Constitution was removed after the 1967 referendum, with the overwhelming support of more than 90% of Australians.

  • read caption below
    Letter from Doug Nicholls, 1949
  • read caption below
    Letter from Kim Beazley senior, 1949
  • read caption below
    FCAATSI members with Harold Holt, 1967
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017