Friends or foes?
Regrets and floggings
Very odd laws
Myall Creek Massacre
How to use history?
Dying for liberty
Rasputin meets Ned Kelly
Mary Anne Bugg
Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered
Not a good fence builder
1967 Referendum on Australian Egalitarianism
To avoid educating the population about the details of the policy and the logical argument about what the policy hopes to achieve, politicians generally try to sell policy with emotive and moralistic arguments. As the 1967 referendum giving the Federal government the power to make laws targeted at Aborigines demonstrates, this method of selling can lead to a lot of misconceptions about what the policy is about and a lack of scrutiny about whether the policy would work. For example, director Phillip Noyce, who received federal funding to make a movie about Aboriginal rights, believed the 1967 referendum was about giving Aborigines the vote and citizenship. Specifically, in his web diary for the movie he wrote:
“Until 1967, Australian Aborigines couldn’t vote and were not counted as citizens.” (1)
Itiel Bereson, a historian who has written textbooks for Australian school children, also believed that the referendum was about giving Aborigines voting rights. In his textbooks, Bereson wrote:
" the referendum...gave Aboriginals the right to vote in Federal elections.” (2)
Art historians, Jenny Arland and May Darby, were a bit more vague and seemed to think that the referendum was some kind of government insurance policy that guaranteed Aboriginal welfare and inclusion from that date on. In their own words:
"At the referendum, Australians overwhelmingly vote in favour of the government ensuring justice and social acceptance for Aborigines and Torres Straight Islanders." (3)
Contrary to such myths, the referendum had nothing to do with the vote nor did it ensure social justice for Aborigines. When the various colonies federated into one nation in 1901, Aborigines were not given the federal vote; however, they did retain their state voting rights and these state voting rights gave them federal voting rights. Legally, Aborigines in NSW, Tasmania, Victoria, and South Australia have been allowed to vote in all federal elections. The federal vote was officially given to all Aborigines in 1962. The states of Queensland and WA gave Aborigines the state vote around the same time.
In regards to citizenship, Aborigines in eastern Australia attained British citizenship in 1772 when Captain James Cook claimed eastern Australia for Britain. Australian citizenship did not exist until 1948 and Aborigines attained it at the same time as every other Australian.
Rather than being about the vote or citizenship, the referendum was about extending the power of Federal government to make laws targeted at any race so that it could also target Aborigines for policy and count Aborigines in the federal census. The actual question that Australians saw in the voting room was:
"Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled 'An Act to alter the Constitution' so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population?"
Although it was not explicitly stated, this question referred to 51(xxvi) of the constitution, which stated the federal parliament could make laws targeted at "The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws". The section was originally created because Australia's first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, argued it was needed to regulate the affairs of coloured migrants in Australia so that they would not compete with white migrants or the Australian born. In the 1967 referendum, the federal government wanted to delete the words "other than Aboriginal people" so that it could extend its power to target all races.
In addition changing section 51, the question was intended to change section 127, which stated:
"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. "
The reasons for not counting Aborigines in the federal census have been debated. Some have argued that it was intended to reduce the influence of Queensland and Western Australia by not counting their significant Aboriginal populations. Historian Keith Windschuttle took a different view and argued that it was intended to pressure Queensland and Western Australia into giving Aborigines the vote. Windschuttle explained that Section 25 of the Constitution stated:
"For the purposes of the last section, if by the law of any State, all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of the race resident in that state shall not be counted."
According to Windschuttle, because NSW, Vic, SA and Tas gave people of Aboriginal descent the state vote, the states gained greater representation in parliament. They wanted to use this power to pressure Queensland and WA to give Aborigines the vote in the hope that there would be universal franchise laws.
While a cynic may still argue that the politicians in NSW, Vic, Tas, and SA were more concerned about their own power than Aboriginal welfare, it can’t be denied that they supported a system was created that would have given WA and Queensland more power if they chose to give their Aboriginal members the vote.
Despite wanting to extend the reach of a racist law, the Federal government was able to portray itself as being on the side of social justice because it wanted to use the power to discriminate to the advantage of Aborigines. Consequently, it sold the referendum as a form of egalitarianism, which naturally made people think it had something to do with the vote or citizenship. The egalitarian sales pitch resonated with Australian values and almost 90% of the voting population said yes.
If the Federal government had been more open about what it wanted, then instead of voters supporting the extension of race powers, many voters may have argued that a more egalitarian future could be achieved by removing the Federal government's power to target a specific race. Additionally, many voters may have questioned whether Federal governments could do a better job than state governments, which had been using their powers to discriminate to the Aborigines' "advantage", yet only achieving negative outcomes. To be more precise, state governments had passed laws that included banning Aborigines from marrying without permission, banning non-Aborigines from having sex with Aborigines, banning Aborigines from owning land, banning the supply of alcohol to Aborigines and banning Aborigines from moving around the state. These policies were designed to help Aborigines but led to criminality, family breakdown and alcoholism. If voters had been informed of these issues and subsequently argued about the details of the referendum, perhaps politicians felt the referendum would not be passed.
Governments are generally reluctant to give policy details because they believe that the important issues have already been debated by cabinet and there is no value in triggering even more debate in the public domain. The problem with such attitudes is that cabinet’s priority is to get elected and the public service’s priority is to keep cabinet supplied with reports that justify policy. Although opening up debate to a wider variety of opinions and knowledge bases makes it harder to reach consensus, it does lead to more holistic considerations of issues in ways that increase the probability of problems being identified.
Almost 40 years after the referendum, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd conceded that almost all previous Federal governments had failed to achieve what they had set out to achieve. Rudd's view was supported by government reports that showed Aboriginal welfare had gone backwards, with many of the regulatory policies having a counterproductive effect, as state government policies had done previously. In that regard, history showed that the politicians and public service between 1967 and 2007 were not as intellectually enlightened as they believed themselves to be.
After Rudd was removed from office, the Gillard government commissioned a report into further constitution change, and shortly produced a report that advocated removing the power to target a specific race while not removing the power to discriminate to a race's advantage if need be. This seemed to be a concession that previous governments had failed, without removing the opportunity for present governments to do a better job or at the least, have a referendum about doing a better job.
In its success, the method of selling the 1967 referendum illuminated the reasons why other referendums have failed. On one hand, the sales pitch showed the power of emotion and morality as a persuasion technique when used effectively, which other referendums just hadn't been able to do. On the flip side, the referendum also showed that politicians intentionally deceive and perhaps the more cynical members of the population are quite right to be suspicious of politicians who deliverately set out to deceive. Other referendums have failed, not because they didn’t advocate good policies, but because so many Australians just can’t trust politicians because politicians don't have enough faith in the average voter to be honest with policy detail.
1) Rabbit-Proof Fence: Phillip Noyce's Diary http://www.landmarktheatres.com/Stories/rabbit_frame.html
2) Bereson, Itiel, (2000) Australia in the 1960s, Echidna Books
3)Arland, Jenny and Darby, May
White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese
What to celebrate?
Science and survival
The father of the blitzkrieg
He died so others may live
Desert Rats defy Hitler
The White Mouse
Never giving up
Which side would Convicts choose?
A history of "no"
Skeletons in the closet
Australia's engagement with Asia