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The 1967 Referendum

Category: Event
Date: 27 May 1967
Summary Information:

On 27 May 1967, Australians voted in a referendum to amend the Constitution.

The proposed law (the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) Bill 1967) sought to make it possible for all Aboriginal people to be included in national censuses, and to give the Commonwealth Parliament power to make laws for Aboriginal people nation-wide. 

The 1967 referendum is the most successful in Australian history, with a 95 per cent turnout rate and the return of a strong 'yes' vote. It gained a majority vote in all six states and an overall majority of 90.77 per cent (Thomas, 2017).

The impacts of the referendum were particularly significant to modern Indigenous land rights movements. However, the results did not necessarily improve the lives of Indigenous Australian people and have in some cases actively worked against Indigenous interests (Australians Together, 2020).

Detailed Information:


The 1967 referendum came following calls for greater Commonwealth involvement in Indigenous affairs, with the pressure for change growing rapidly throughout the 1960s. As Activists drew attention to racial discrimination and the denial of civil rights caused by ss 51 and 127 of the Constitution, Indigenous issues became more significant for the wider Australian population (Thomas, 2017).

In 1967, the Holt Coalition government introduced the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) Bill 1967 to Parliament in response to a Federal Council for the 'Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' petition calling for a referendum on ss 51 and 127. The Bill was passed unanimously (Thomas, 2017).

As no parliamentarian voted against the Bill, only a 'yes' case was prepared, and the 'Yes' campaign went on to gain widespread support from the Australian public (National Archives Australia, 2020).

Constitutional amendments

The amendment deleted part of s 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution and repealed s 127.

Previously, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were explicitly excluded from the race power in s 51(xxvi) which read:

The Parliament shall, subject to this constitution have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to: The people of any race, other than Aboriginal people in any state, for whom it is necessary to make special laws.

The referendum allowed for the deletion of 'other than Aboriginal people in any State' from this section.

Section 127, which was repealed in full, previously read:

In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted.


Many people regard the 1967 referendum as a symbolic turning point, revealing a widespread desire for Indigenous equality and rights (Gardiner-Garden, 2007). This turning point was a move away from assimilationist policies toward policies based on self-determination and reconciliation (Thomas, 2017).

The impacts of the referendum were not only symbolic. The referendum allowed the Federal Government to pass the (Northern Territory) Land Rights Act 1976, the first attempt by the Federal Government to legally recognise Aboriginal systems of land ownership, a fundamental social reform (Central Land Council, 2020).

However, the results of the referendum have not always been used for the advancement of Indigenous rights. For instance, the amendments allowed for the Intervention (the Northern Territory Emergency Response), which is widely regarded as having exacerbated existing issues in the area (Australians Together, 2020). The introduction of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Act 1997 (Cth), with its suspension of a cultural heritage act, is another case in point (see Kartinyeri v Commonwealth [1998] HCA 22).

Others feel the referendum was irrelevant to their lived experience of daily discrimination and racism (Australians Together, 2020). The referendum's failure to substantially improve conditions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia inspired a new wave of activism in the 1970's that led to modern land rights movements, such as the Tent Embassy in 1972.

Myths surrounding the 1967 referendum

There are many misconceptions surrounding what the 1967 referndum achieved for Indigenous people in Australia. Contrary to commonly held beliefs:

  • the right to vote was not part of the 1967 referendum, but was part of changes made to the Commonwealth Electoral Act in 1962 (Gardiner-Garden, 2007);
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people already had citizenship rights in 1967 (Australians Together, 2020);
  • the referendum revealed a desire for equal rights but did not guarantee equality; and
  • the referendum allowed the Federal government to make laws for Indigenous people, with no requirement that these laws be for the benefit of Indigenous people nor that they be non-discriminatory or promote equality (Gardiner-Garden, 2007).

Related Entries

  • Yirrkala Bark Petitions
  • The Pilbara Strike
  • Wave Hill Walk-off / Gurindji Strike
  • The Aboriginal Tent Embassy
  • National Reconciliation Week
  • Legislation
  • Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth)
  • Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth)
  • Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948
  • Australian Citizenship Act 2007

  • References

    General Reference
    Australians Together (17 November 2020) The 1967 Referendum: What was it and what did it achieve?
    National Archives Australia (2020) the 1967 Referendum
    Central Land Council (2020) The Aboriginal Land Rights Act
    Fact Sheet
    Matthew Thomas (25 May 2017) The 1967 Referendum
    Parliamentary Paper
    John Gardiner-Garden (2 May 2007) The 1967 Referendum - History and Myths

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