'Equal rights for Aborigines': Indigenous activism and constitutional reform

Friday, 29 May 2020

This year’s National Reconciliation Week theme is ‘in this together’. And one of the most important milestones marked by Reconciliation Week is the referendum of 27 May 1967, when Australians came together and voted to change our constitution.

The changes removed certain discriminatory words from the constitution, allowing the Federal Government to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and include them in the national census.

The 1967 referendum – in which over 90% of voters agreed that First Australians deserved equal constitutional rights – remains the most successful referendum in Australian history.

But this achievement, framed by campaigners at the time as ‘equal rights for Aborigines’, did not occur in isolation or without a long history of agitation, action and appeal.

From Federation to the Day of Mourning

Federation in 1901 was no cause for celebration for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who had already been dispossessed of their land and forcibly removed from country onto missions and reserves.

The only recognition of First Australians in the new constitution was discriminatory. Federal laws could not be made for them, they were not counted in the census and most could not vote. The authors of the constitution believed that Indigenous Australians would die out and so didn’t require recognition or special laws.

International advocacy groups made early efforts for constitutional recognition. In 1900, the Aborigines Protection Society (a humanitarian movement founded in Britain) suggested that Federation offered a chance for Australia to adopt a ‘comprehensive and uniform native policy’ to benefit Aboriginal people across the country. Their appeals were ignored by the new Federal Government.

But demand for change grew. From the whispers of that early advocacy, the voices of Indigenous Australians and their supporters grew louder.

On 26 January 1938, 150 years after the arrival of the First Fleet, a march in Sydney led by Jack Patten and William Ferguson of the Aborigines Progressive Association marked a ‘Day of Mourning’. Day of Mourning protests have been held on Australia Day ever since.

The tide turns in Australia

After World War II, indigenous peoples across the world sought recognition as first peoples with rights.

In 1962, after lobbying from the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people won the right to vote in federal elections. States and territories followed the Federal Government’s lead, passing legislation that allowed First Australians to vote at a state level.

Buoyed by this success, Indigenous rights groups reorganised, growing in strength and giving voice to emerging leaders.

Activists kept fighting for improved health and education, land rights and an end to the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families. Underpinning all of these goals was constitutional reform, which led to the referendum of 1967.

The overwhelming ‘yes’ vote did not grant any new rights or recognitions. But its symbolic value cannot be understated.  

The 1967 referendum was a major milestone in the long journey to equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – a step towards Australia becoming a more just and equitable society, where all Australians are in this together.

What next for our constitution?

Many voices went into the making of our constitution. But the people from every Australian colony who gathered to draft it in the 1890s resolved their differences cooperatively and peacefully.

They were careful to leave us with a framework within which the constitution can be interpreted or altered as needed. As a result, we can keep testing and changing our constitution to reflect Australians’ shared values and aspirations.

First Australians weren’t heeded during the drafting of the constitution, but their voices have never gone away. At Uluru in 2017 they declared:

In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.