The 1967 referendum on Aboriginal rights in Australia was a significant milestone in the country's history, reflecting a national desire for change and recognition of the rights of Aboriginal people. The referendum sought to amend two sections of the Australian Constitution that directly impacted Indigenous Australians: sections 51(xxvi) and 127. They read as follows;
Section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution gave the Australian government the power to make laws for specific racial groups, including Indigenous Australians. However, it excluded Aboriginal people from being counted in the national census, which effectively rendered them invisible in the constitutional framework.
Section 127, on the other hand, stated that "in reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, Aboriginal natives shall not be counted." This section was a discriminatory provision that denied the recognition and inclusion of Aboriginal people as part of the Australian population.
The campaign leading up to the referendum was marked by widespread support from various sectors of Australian society, including Indigenous activists, non-Indigenous allies, religious organizations, unions, and political parties. The referendum aimed to remove these discriminatory provisions and grant the Australian government the authority to legislate specifically for Aboriginal people.
On May 27, 1967, the referendum took place, and the result was an overwhelming majority in favor of change. Approximately 90.77% of voters supported the proposed amendments, making it the most successful referendum in Australian history. Every Australian state and territory recorded a majority "Yes" vote, reflecting a strong consensus across the nation.
The successful outcome of the referendum had several significant implications. First and foremost, it removed the discriminatory provisions from the Constitution, thus recognizing Aboriginal people as part of the Australian population and affirming their rights as citizens. This was a critical step towards dismantling legal and structural barriers that had long marginalized Indigenous Australians.
The referendum also empowered the Australian government to make laws specifically for Aboriginal people, allowing for targeted policies and initiatives aimed at addressing historical injustices, promoting Indigenous rights, and improving social and economic outcomes for Aboriginal communities. It provided a legal framework for the implementation of subsequent policies and programs focused on land rights, self-determination, health, education, and other key areas.
However, it is essential to note that the referendum itself did not directly lead to immediate changes in policies or conditions for Aboriginal people. It was a catalyst for broader social and political transformations, setting the stage for subsequent advancements in Indigenous rights and the recognition of land rights.
While progress has been made since the 1967 referendum, challenges and disparities still persist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. The ongoing work of reconciliation, addressing historical injustices, and achieving equitable outcomes remains a priority for the nation as it strives to build a more inclusive and just society.