On May 27, 1967, campaigners for Aboriginal rights and status won the most-decisive referendum victory in Australian history.
The referendum attracted more than 90% of voters in favour of deleting the two references to Aborigines in Australia’s Constitution. Campaigners for a “Yes” vote successfully argued those references were discriminatory and debarred Aboriginal people from citizenship.
Ever since, and as we approach the 1967 referendum’s 50th anniversary, it has been popularly remembered as the moment when Aboriginal people won equal rights – even the right to vote. In fact, the referendum did not secure those outcomes.
By 1967, all Aboriginal adults already held the right to vote in federal, state and territory elections. Racial discriminations had been removed from the statute books at the federal level and in all states and territories except Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. And even those three laggards were moving toward legal equality.
So what was achieved?
The former section specified the federal parliament could make laws with respect to the:
… people of any race, other than the Aboriginal race in any state, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.
The words “other than the Aboriginal race in any state” were deleted.
— Muckraker.com.au (@muckrakersaus) April 16, 2017
The latter section stipulated that 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.
Neither section prevented Aboriginal people from exercising the same legal rights as other Australians. The rights of Aborigines were abridged not by the Constitution, but by laws enacted by federal and state parliaments.