About this record
This is a black and white photograph that shows members of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) with Prime Minister Harold Holt and two other federal politicians.
FCAATSI was an organisation formed in the late 1950s to campaign for changes to improve the lives of First Australians. The group had involvement from many influential First Nations activists, including Douglas Nicholls (4th from left in the photograph). Also pictured in this record is FCAATSI member Faith Bandler (2nd from left) an activist of South-Sea Islander heritage who campaigned tirelessly for the rights of First Australians as well as South-Sea Islanders.
A key goal of FCAATSI was to change the Australian Constitution so the Australian Parliament could make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In 1962, they undertook a nationwide petition campaign, collecting 100,000 signatures in favour of constitutional change.
This photograph was taken at Old Parliament House in Canberra in February, 1967. The FCAATSI delegation pictured travelled to Canberra to seek bipartisan support for a referendum to remove words discriminating against First Australians from the Constitution. This included the removal of words from s51 (xxvi) that prevented the Australian Parliament from making laws for First Australians, and the repeal of s127, which stated that Aboriginal people weren’t to be counted as part of the population.
Later that month, the Australian Parliament passed the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) Act 1967. This act sought to make the changes to the Constitution that FCAATSI were campaigning for. All members of the Australian Parliament voted in favour of it.
After a law to change the Constitution is passed by Parliament, the proposed change must be put to the Australian people in a vote called a referendum. FCAATSI lead a 'vote yes' campaign to encourage Australians to vote for the proposed changes.
On 27 May 1967, an extraordinary 90.77% of voters voted 'Yes.' It was the largest majority for any referendum in Australian history. The successful outcome of the referendum meant that First Nations people would now be counted as part of the Australian population, and the Australian Parliament could now make laws for First Nations peoples.
Five months after the referendum result, prime minister Harold Holt (3rd from left in the picture) set up an Office for Aboriginal Affairs within his own department. It was going to receive advice on issues impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from a council made up of three white men.
Holt did not live to see this new office become a reality. In December 1967, Holt disappeared while swimming in heavy seas and was pronounced dead. The planned new Office for Aboriginal Affairs continued under Holt’s successor, John Gorton.
A separate department for Aboriginal Affairs was not established in Australia until 1972. In 2019, Kenneth George Wyatt AM became the first Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Australians.
The current Minister for Indigenous Australians is the Hon Linda Burney MP. Linda Burney is a proud member of the Wiradjuri Nation and the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives in Australia.
Food for thought
Why is it important for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person to hold the role of Minister for Indigenous Australians? Why might it have taken until 2019 for this to be the case?