The 1967 Constitutional referendum

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the biggest ever yes vote in an Australian Constitutional referendum. But what exactly were people voting for? One interesting argument of two recent books, a revised edition of The 1967 Referendum: Race, Power and the Australian Constitution by Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus, and Divided Nation? Indigenous Affairs and the Imagined Public by Murray Goot and Tim Rowse, is that confusion was as common then as it is now.

In the 1960s, many people argued that Constitutional change was necessary to give Aboriginal Australians citizenship, and that’s the interpretation still being put on it today. On ABC TV’s Insiders this morning we were told:

As hard as it is to believe in retrospect, just four decades ago, Aborigines were not counted as citizens.

Hard to believe, indeed, as all Aborigines had been citizens since 1948, and many (the ‘half-castes’) much earlier. Yet the citizenship claim was also made in the opening few minutes of tonight’s SBS documentary Vote Yes for Aborigines (though contradicted later in the programme). The common belief that Aborigines were given the vote in the referendum isn’t right either, and even the idea that they weren’t counted in the census isn’t strictly correct – the Bureau of Statistics did count them, but the number was ignored for certain purposes.
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