[Letterhead in blue ink with the Australian coat of arms and the text ‘THE PARLIAMENT OF THE COMMONWEALTH’, ‘HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES’, ‘CANBERRA’.]
[Handwritten annotation in light blue ink:] For Mr. Johnson forward. [Illegible initials.]
14th September, 1949.
The Rt. Hon. J. B. Chifley, M.P.,
CANBERRA. A.C.T. [underlined]
Dear Mr. Chifley,
I have been approached by the Rev. Douglas Nicholls of the Churches of Christ Mission to the Aborigines, Fitzroy, Victoria, concerning the granting of representation to aborigines in the Federal Parliament.
He desires that provision be made for an aboriginal member of Parliament.
I have replied to him pointing out that by Section 51, sub-section 26 of the Constitution, the Commonwealth is forbidden to make laws for the people of aboriginal race, and have informed him that that may [underlined] constitute a constitutional barrier to what he desires, and that in any case the value to his people of an aboriginal representative in a Parliament forbidden to legislate for aborigines would be limited.
His request appears to me, however, to be completely just. As Commonwealth representatives abroad at International Conferences are constantly being held responsible for aboriginal policies pursued in Australia by State Governments it is desirable that the Commonwealth should assume responsibility for them. In any event the problem of justice for people of aboriginal race transcends State borders and should be a national question. Accordingly I ask: -
(1) If it would be possible to legislate to provide for aboriginal representation in the next Federal Parliament.
(2) If it would be possible to introduce legislation to hold a referendum to amend Section 51, sub-section 26, of the Constitution to eliminate the prohibition on the Commonwealth which forbids it to legislate for people of aboriginal race. If the time remaining in the life of this Parliament is not such as to allow of the referendum being held in conjunction with the general election, would you consider introducing legislation to enable a referendum to be held early next year, whatever the future political nature of the Commonwealth Government which will result from the Federal elections.
I know that the Commonwealth attempted to obtain power to legislate for aborigines in 1944, but that referendum was associated with 13 other points and was not treated on its merits. I also know that you attempted to persuade the State Premiers, at a Premier’s Conference, to refer power to the Commonwealth to legislate for aborigines, without success. This would be an appeal beyond the
States Governments, to the people. Whatever your views on the possibility of conducting a referendum to obtain general power to legislate for aborigines, I ask you to give earnest and sympathetic consideration to Mr. Nicholls’ request.
[Handwritten signature:] Kim E. Beazley
About this record
This is a letter from Labor Member of Parliament Kim E Beazley (Senior) to Prime Minister Ben Chifley.
It discusses whether it would be possible to:
- legislate for First Australian representation in federal parliament
- hold a referendum to give the Commonwealth power over First Australian affairs.
Justice for First Australians: a ‘national question’
Until 1967, Section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution stated that the Australian (federal) Government did not have the power to make laws in relation to First Australian people. The only First Australians covered by federal laws were those in the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and external territories. This meant that the Australian Parliament had no constitutional authority to pass legislation giving representation to First Australians living in the other states.
Aboriginal people had long believed that section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution should be repealed.
Although Beazley’s letter suggests that Prime Minister Ben Chifley had some interest in First Australian affairs, in reality the issue was not a high priority for the government at the time. The Chifley government took no action on Beazley’s requests.
Beazley retained a commitment to First Australian affairs throughout his time in the Australian Parliament (1945 to 1977). As the member for Fremantle, he ensured the inclusion of First Australian land rights in the Labor Party platform of 1951. In 1963, Beazley and fellow parliamentarian Gordon Bryant prepared a report into a bauxite mining proposal at Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land. Both were prominent in the decade of campaigning for the 1967 referendum.
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