program notes

Week 1: 28th July 2023

What are these sessions about?

Two strands:

  • Exploring the context in which a referendum/this referendum takes place by visiting writings from First Nations authors
  • Examining the political ecosystem surrounding referendums in Australia – why they were held, what outcomes resulted from them, what contributed to those outcomes and specifically their implications for and impacts on First Nations peoples

Session 1

  • Reading from Vince Copley: The Wonder of Small Things
  • Experience from 1950s and early 1960s prior to the 1967 Referendum
  • The relationship between black and white Australians at both a personal level and a systemic level
Session 2

Teasing out aspects of the systemic relationship

  • Who is a citizen? Do all citizens have the right to vote? Do all citizens count?
  • Working it out – are we British? Australian?
  • The answers at the time of Federation – the Constitution
  • Status evolving through legislative changes
    • 1948 Citizenship
    • 1962/1965/1984 right to vote
    • 1967 Right to be counted
  • The first federal electoral Act, the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, granted men and women of all states the right to vote. Indigenous people were excluded from this right unless they already had the right to vote before 1901.
  • In the 1850s under the constitutions of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, Aboriginal men had the same right to vote as other male British subjects aged over 21.
  • However it wasn’t until 1896 that Tasmania granted Aboriginal men franchise.
  • In 1895 South Australia became the first electorate in the world to give equal political rights to both women and men. Aboriginal women shared these rights.
  • Laws specifically intended to deny the vote to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were enacted by Queensland (1885), Western Australia (1893) and the Northern Territory (1922).

25.  Provision as to races disqualified from voting.

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 people of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of that race resident in that State shall not be counted.

  • In March 1949 Prime Minister Ben Chifley introduced an amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. This extended the right to vote in federal elections to any Indigenous person who had been a member of the defence forces.
  • Voting rights for Indigenous people enacted
  • The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 received assent on 21 May 1962.
  • It granted all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the option to enrol and vote in federal elections.
  • Enrolment was not compulsory for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, unlike other Australians. Once enrolled, however, voting was compulsory.
  • Despite this, the right to vote was not extended to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Queensland until 1965.
  • The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 1983 made enrolling to vote at federal elections compulsory for Indigenous Australians and came into effect in 1984.


Vince Copley with Lea McInerney (2022) The Wonder of Little Things  ABC Books

The Wonder of Little Things is Vince Copley’s memoir as told to Lea McInerney. Born on a government mission in South Australia, by the time Vince was 15 five members of his immediate family including his mother had died prematurely. However, at a home for Aboriginal Boys he befriended future leaders including Charles Perkins, John Moriarty and Gordon Briscoe. His stories, told with humility and humour, give us some insights into an extraordinary life that goes from his time as a child on the mission to his involvement with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), Charles Perkins and others in the lead up to the 1967 Referendum and afterwards.

Week 2: 4th August 2023

Session 1

The Australian experience of achieving constitutional change through referendums

  • How are referendums decided?
  • What issues have been taken to a referendum?
  • What issues succeed and what fails?


How are referendums decided

  • Majority of voters; majority of States
  • Currently everyone over the age of 18; all States but not Territories
  • 1973 the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18
  • Prior to 1965 some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people not eligible to vote
  • Prior to 1977 all Territorians (ACT and NT) also excluded. Earlier attempt to change this in 1974 failed
  • The ACT and NT do not count in calculating the majority of States

The Referendum Record

  • Referendums have been held on 19 occasions, sometimes with multiple questions. Forty-four separate propositions have been put before the electorate. Some have been put more than once.
  • The norm is for a referendum to be conducted at the same time as an election but on 8 occasions referendums have been held separately from an election.
  • The most recent referendum was in 1999 and a Yes/No pamphlet was provided.

What has succeeded and what has failed?

  • In the early years of last century most referendum propositions were addressing the distribution of powers between the federal government and the States: finance, trade, industrial relations
  • Propositions which have succeeded have related to principles governing elections and voting rights, financial arrangements between the States and the federal government regarding debts and social services, and the retiring age of judges.
  • Attempts to change the arrangements governing the timing of elections and the number and allocation of seats in the house and the senate have consistently failed.
  • Attempts to give the federal government greater control of matters such as trade, rents and prices, and to change funding arrangements, have also consistently met with failure

Walter Arthur’s Petition to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, 17 February 1846

  • An extract from Joel Stephen Birnie: My People’s Songs: How an indigenous family survived colonial Tasmania

Session 2

How have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people been dealt with in our Constitution?

  • Status in the initial constitution
  • 1944 Post War Reconstruction – Failed
  • 1967 – removing restrictions from the Constitution – Succeeded
  • 1999 – to insert a preamble – Failed


Status in the initial constitution

Two clauses:

25.  Provision as to races disqualified from voting.

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 people of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of that race resident in that State shall not be counted

    127.  Aborigines not to be counted in reckoning population.

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.

1944 Post war reconstruction

“to give the Commonwealth power, for a period of five years, to legislate on 14 specific matters, including the rehabilitation of ex-servicemen, national health, family allowances and ‘the people of the Aboriginal race’

Failed (45.99%, supported in WA and SA)

1967 Removing restrictions from the Constitution

“to enable the Commonwealth to enact laws for Aboriginal people

  A limited attempt to introduce this right previously failed in 1944

“to remove the prohibition against counting Aboriginal people in population counts in the Commonwealth or a State.

Succeeded (90.77%, supported in all States)

1999  To address the Constitution’s failure to acknowledge Indigenous Australians

“to alter the Constitution to insert a preamble

  • enable the Australian people to highlight the values and aspirations which unite us in support of our Constitution;
  • contribute to the process of national reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians; and
  • recognise at the end of our first century of federation the enduring priorities and influences that uniquely shape Australia’s sense of nationhood.”

Failed (39.34%, not supported in any State)


Joel Stephen Birnie (2022) My People’s Songs: How an Indigenous family survived colonial Tasmania  Monash

Joel Stephen Birnie is a descendent of Tasmanian Aborigine, Tarenootairer, a compatriot of Truganini. In My People’s Songs, Birnie has scoured the historical records to reconstruct the lives of his ancestors from the establishment of the first penal colony at Hobart through to their internment on Flinders Island and Oyster Cove. His narrative reveals their extraordinary struggle for survival.

Megan Davis and George Williams (2021) Everything You Need to Know about the Uluru Statement From the Heart  UNSW Press

Megan Davis is a Cobble Cobble woman from south-west Queensland, Director of the Indigenous Law Centre and Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of New South Wales. She served on the Prime Minister’s Referendum Council and the Prime Minister’s Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognnition. With Pat Anderson, she chaired the Uluru Constutitional Convention which culminated in the declaration of Uluru Statement from the Heart. George Williams is also a distinguished constitutional lawyer and Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of New South Wales. In Everything You Need to Know about the Uluru Statement From the Heart, Davis and WIlliamsprovide useful background on the ways in which Australia’s foundational document, the Constitution, has addressed and failed to address the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. In particular, it documents the extensive work undertaken under successive Federal Governments to arrive at an appropriate form of constitutional recognition.  

Megan Davis (2023). Voice of Reason: On recognition and renewal. Quarterly Essay 90

In this Quarterly Essay, Davis explores why a First Nations Voice to Parliament is a “constitutional moment” that offers a new vision of Australia: “When people say this is about changing Australian identity, it’s not. It’s about location; we are located here together, we are born here, we arrive here, we die here and we must coexist in a peaceful way. The fundamental message that many elders planted in the Uluru Statement is that . . . the country needs peace, and the country cannot be at peace until we meet; the Uluru Statement is the beginning of that.”