Reconciliation 50 years on

Categories: Events,Principles

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National Reconciliation Week runs annually from 27 May – 3 June. These dates mark two milestones in Australia’s reconciliation journey: The 1967 referendum and the historic Mabo decision, respectively.

In 2017, we reflect on two significant anniversaries in Australia’s reconciliation journey – 50 years since the 1967 referendum, and 25 years since the historic Mabo decision. Below is a recent article on the significance of the 1967 referendum.


EUREKA STREET: Vol 27 No 10/Still fighting for our rights 50 years after the referendum

Still fighting for our rights 50 years after the referendum

Dani Larkin |  21 May 2017


This month, we commemorate a significant political event in Australian history. The 1967 Constitutional Referendum represented a time at which all Australians recognised Aboriginal peoples as people.

The Australian Constitution racially discriminated against, and politically excluded, Aboriginal peoples across Australia, post-colonisation. The referendum was significant not only because it showed a level of political and cultural progression among a non-indigenous majority community, but also because it exhibited federal legislative change within a legal instrument that is notoriously difficult to change.

The practical effects of the referendum on Aboriginal rights included a complete repeal of section 127 of the Constitution, which prohibited Aboriginals from being counted as people within the Australian census. It also amended the wording contained within section 51 (xxix), which gave the Australian parliament power to make special laws for people of any race — except for Aboriginals.

An interesting aspect of that political event was the shift in the mindset and understanding regarding Aboriginal rights among non-indigenous Australians. To note the way in which one dominating western culture moved toward recognising the rights of another culture that was (and continues to be today) oppressed is quite remarkable.

We should consider those aspects of the mentality shift (from both cultures and their understanding of what the 1967 referendum meant) if we are ever to revisit that type of federal movement again.

The Grayden Report in 1957 had exposed the harsh and inexcusable living conditions Aboriginal peoples were being subjected to prior to the referendum. It was the first time the broader non-indigenous community saw exactly how high the levels of malnutrition, blindness and disease being suffered among Aboriginal peoples actually were.

The report influenced a positive shift in the mentality of non-indigenous Australians to the extent that they developed a whole new level of empathy. Many non-indigenous Australians affiliated themselves with Aboriginal action groups like the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, and joined the fight for constitutional reform. After a decade of continuous advocacy, a referendum was agreed to.

There were, however, many misconceptions among the Aboriginal community as to what the practical effects of the referendum would be. The issues being grappled with by the broader Aboriginal community were that they were being disadvantaged politically, and that their human rights went unrecognised.

Aboriginal peoples are reclaiming political space by advocating for continued improvements to their full citizenship rights and respect for their cultural identity.

Most Aboriginals thought the referendum would grant them voting rights, citizenship rights and equal rights more generally, which was not in fact the case. Legislative and policy restrictions to their citizenship rights, particularly with regard to their rights to education and political inclusion, meant most Aboriginal peoples lacked an adequate level of understanding of what exactly the referendum entailed.

On the education front, for example, Aboriginal children in NSW were only allowed to attend separate Aboriginal schools, which had been established in 1901 and employed less than ideal teaching methods. Quite often only manual activities were taught, by an untrained wife of a reserve manager.

It wasn’t until 1943 that Aboriginal parents were given the opportunity to completely reject their cultural identity to receive an ‘Exemption Certificate’ (otherwise referred to as a ‘dog tag’) to allow them to send their children to school. So Aboriginal peoples were at a major disadvantage when it came to knowledge of laws and a political system that had sought to oppress them.

From a political participation perspective, Aboriginal peoples’ level of understanding and their contributions to the 1967 referendum were also inadequate. Aboriginal peoples were completely under-represented within the Australian political system and federal decision-making processes during that era.

This is exemplified through voter exclusions that existed within state and territory jurisdictions, which excluded Aboriginals from voting unless legislation was enacted that permitted otherwise. In fact, it wasn’t until 1962 (just five years before the referendum) that Aboriginal peoples became enfranchised with amendments made to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902 that acknowledged Aboriginals should vote at federal elections.

With the slow progression of both those two elements of Aboriginal citizenship rights, and in balancing our understanding of the positive shift in mentality among non-indigenous peoples against the lack of inclusion we saw among Aboriginal peoples, it is no wonder there remain mixed feelings among all Australians in acknowledging this event.

For Aboriginal peoples, feelings of happiness were prevalent (and still are), given federal progress had finally been made to acknowledging them as people. Yet on the other hand, many Aboriginal peoples still feel a level of disappointment given not enough was truly achieved to impact positively on their broader citizenship rights.

Since then, we have seen a significant increase of political involvement among Aboriginals across Australia, with advocacy work consistently on the rise. Aboriginal peoples are reclaiming political space by advocating for continued improvements to their full citizenship rights and respect for their cultural identity.

The Recognise movement exhibits a modern day equivalent to what we saw with the work undertaken by the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement. This is a positive step for all Australians. For that reason we ought to not only acknowledge the 1967 referendum for representing cultural progression, but also celebrate the increased Aboriginal advocacy efforts that fight for respect to cultural identity, inclusion and diversity within our political system.


Dani Larkin is a Bunjalung woman who grew up on the Aboriginal community Baryulgil. She is an admitted lawyer and has practiced in a variety of areas of law. Dani is studying her PhD in law at Bond University with her thesis topic on ‘The Law and Policy of Indigenous Cultural Identity and Political Participation: A Comparative Analysis between Australia, Canada and New Zealand’.

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