Yes: the Ongoing Story of the 1967 Referendum
Today the museum marks the 50th anniversary of Australia’s most successful referendum result by opening a new, collaborative exhibition titled Yes: the Ongoing Story of the 1967 Referendum. The 1967 referendum on Indigenous rights passed by a massive 90.3 per cent, a result not achieved at any other time since Federation. There was a ten-year long campaign leading to the referendum, which proposed constitutional changes to allow Aboriginal people to be included in the census, and for the federal government to make special laws in respect to Aboriginal people. The campaign was a bipartisan one, and only a Yes campaign was mounted. It joined black and white Australians together in demonstrations, speeches and debates, with the success of the campaign dependent on persistence and strong relationships between campaigners and politicians.
Parliament House was a focal point of the referendum campaign. In the House of Representatives members of parliament pledged their support for a referendum in powerful and memorable speeches. Prime Minister Harold Holt, when speaking on the proposed repeal of Section 127 of the Constitution – which prevented Aboriginal people being counted in the census – said in March 1967 ‘The simple truth is that Section 127 is completely out of harmony with our national attitudes and modern thinking. It has no place in our Constitution in this age.’ And of the proposed amendment to Section 51 (xxvi) – to allow the federal government to make special laws in respect to Aboriginal people – Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam stated ‘The fact is that with the excision of the words from paragraph (xxvi) of Section 51 the members of this Parliament will be able for the first time to do something for Aboriginals … it will be possible for the Commonwealth to provide the Aboriginals with some of that social capital with which most other Australians are already endowed.’
Much has been said and written over the past 50 years about what the 1967 referendum did, or did not, achieve for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We decided to reach out to a number of prominent Australians and ask them, with the benefit of hindsight, how they felt about the referendum now, and what more there is still to do. We received insightful comments from a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and some of them are highlighted below. The full set of comments can be viewed in the exhibition or on the exhibition website.
Referendum activist Joyce Clague
We campaigned in support ... but it must be remembered that the majority of our people did not have a say in this vote about us.
Senator Malarndirri McCarthy
As our country reflects on how far we have come ... we also need to ask just how valued is the vote to Indigenous Australians today.
Senator Patrick Dodson
This was a moment when the ‘dying race’ myth was gone forever. It was a time of turbulence, when our voices were now being heard.
Justin Mohamed, CEO Reconciliation Australia
50 years ago, the majority ‘Yes’ vote demonstrated ... that we are stronger when we stand together.
Hugh Mackay, social researcher and writer
When we debate contemporary issuesinvolving the rights, needs and wellbeing of Indigenous people, we should remember this moment in our history.
Fred Chaney, former senator
1967 remains a wonderful reminder that we can, as Australians, be generous in undoing past wrongs and put aside partisan divisions.