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Learn English: Understanding the 1967 referendum in Australia

The Aboriginal flag
The Aboriginal flag in Australia.

Flickr CC: Michael Coghlan

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2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum in Australia - a significant event in the movement for the recognition of Indigenous rights in Australia. For National Reconciliation Week, we look at quotes from a digibook on the 1967 referendum. Learn more about this pivotal point in Australian history as we explore words like 'referendum', 'Indigenous rights', 'constitution' and 'census'.

Referendum

A referendum is a type of vote in Australia. At a referendum, a question is put to voters and they must respond with either a 'yes' or 'no' on their ballot paper.

More than 50 per cent of voters need to vote 'yes' in order for a referendum to pass. In Australia, there have been 44 referendums so far and 8 of these have been passed.

"The referendum on 27 May 1967 marked a significant step for Indigenous rights in this country."

The 1967 referendum

The 1967 referendum asked voters to give the Federal government power to make laws for Indigenous Australians.

Voters were also asked to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the census.

"In the 1967 referendum, more than 90% of voters voted 'yes' to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the census."

Census

The census is a series of questions that are asked to Australian households, every five years, which is used to understand the Australian population and determine the allocation of resources - including government spending.

Excluding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from the census was significant because this meant that they were not recognised as people and they were also not recognised as part of the Australian population.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were not included in the census until 1971."

Indigenous Australians and Indigenous rights

In Australia, Indigenous persons include Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have lived in Australia for 40 000 to 60 000 years.

When British colonisers arrived in 1788, they took possession of Australia without recognising Indigenous Australians as owners and inhabitants of the land.

Indigenous rights refers to the need to recognise Indigenous Australians as the original owners and inhabitants of the land, and realise that there are particular rights that come out of that history - including the right to land, the right to maintain their cultural practices and the right to have control of their own lives.

The Australian Constitution

Changes to the Australian constitution have to be decided by a referendum.

The Australian constitution is a written document which rules how Australia is governed. In particular, it determines the powers of the Federal government.

"After the 1967 referendum, the Australian constitution had to be changed."

Federal and state governments

There are a number of levels of government in Australia - including the Federal government (which covers all of Australia) and state and territory governments. There are six states and two territories in Australia.

Prior to the 1967 referendum, state governments had different laws that controlled what Indigenous Australians could and could not do in their states. Examples of these laws covered their access to property and their right to move at different times of the day.

After the 1967 referendum, the Federal government was able to make laws for Indigenous Australians - regardless of which state or territory they were in.

You can learn more about the 1967 Referendum at this ABC website, Right Wrongs.

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