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Indigenous citizenship rights 50 years after the referendum

Dani Larkin |  22 March 2017


In the face of historically low levels of Indigenous representation within Australian parliaments, the Indigenous caucus between Commonwealth, State and Territory Labor representatives points to some progress.

Front page of Abo Call newspaperWhat it identifies is an essential aspect of citizenship rights that sits parallel to principles like democracy and diversity, which are fundamental to our political system. Political participation, particularly with regard to Indigenous peoples, ought to be fully protected and upheld by all levels of government.

Our country's political system arose, in the wake of colonisation, out of a racist mentality that leaned towards establishing boundaries among its citizens according to their ethnicity and cultural identity. Those boundaries have bred racial inequality and discrimination into the minds of many Australians but also, more importantly, into the structures of governance themselves.

Thus, we see a lack of laws and processes that might include Indigenous Australians fairly and equally into Australia's Westminster-style political system, that would afford Indigenous Australians a say about laws and policies that affect their affairs.

So where do we go from here? The Labor caucus is aimed at increasing Indigenous voter engagement figures, increasing Indigenous Labor candidacy, and developing strategic plans that encourage Indigenous students to become young leaders in Parliament. Those are all necessary and noteworthy causes.

But I look also at what laws are in existence, particularly with regard to our constitution as it still stands, and question how far we have really come.

For instance, section 25 of the Australian Constitution conflicts with the Labor caucus' aim to drive Indigenous voter engagement. It gives a State and Territory government power to disqualify persons from voting at elections, according to their race. The term 'race' has been predominantly applied only to Indigenous peoples, usually to our detriment, so that our citizenship rights are limited.

It is nothing new. My great grandfather Jack Patten recognised the different standards the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments applied when making laws and policies that targeted Indigenous peoples' citizenship rights versus those of non-Indigenous Australians.


"Our government needs to pick up where it left off in 1967 and recognise the importance of protecting the full citizenship rights of its Indigenous peoples."


Patten was the president of the Aborigines Progressive Association, with Bill Ferguson as secretary. They, along with many other strong Indigenous leaders and activists in the 1930s civil rights movement, fought long and hard prior to the 1967 referendum for racial and social equality in Australia. Their aim was to stop the continuation of colonisation by establishing Australia's first Aboriginal Day of Mourning on Australia Day in 1938, and enacting a ten-point policy (the 'long range policy plan') published in the Abo Call the same year.

The policy plan expanded upon a range of factors that underpin full citizenship rights of Indigenous peoples. It extended far beyond political participation and included housing, access to education and equal distribution of wages, to name a few. This was the first policy endorsed by Indigenous peoples at the time, and gave them a political voice to protect their rights and affairs.

Taking today's Labor caucus discussions alongside the Aborigines Progressive Association policy plan, it seems to me that the fundamental consideration is citizenship rights. Political participation can be loosely defined as citizen activities affecting politics. You cannot have one without the other if you're advocating for true racial equality of Indigenous peoples.

Our political system has struggled to overcome legislative and political flaws from its past connected to racial inequality and discrimination. This is why progress with citizenship rights and political participation has been flawed and limited. Although our governance structure is built on concepts like democracy and equality before the law, the longer those Indigenous rights continue to go unrecognised, the more those concepts are called into question. Distrust is formed between Indigenous citizens and the government, which widens the cultural divide between both 'races'.

It is for this reason that we need continued movement towards federal change, promoting legislative and political racial equality. Our government needs to pick up where it left off in 1967 and recognise the importance of protecting the full citizenship rights of its Indigenous peoples. Internationally recognised legal concepts like 'self-determination' should guide Australian governments towards political and federal legislative reform. That theory aims to empower indigenous peoples from colonised states to self-govern and self-administer on their own cultural affairs. It is driven by political and cultural equality and respect of colonised indigenous peoples. Increasing the Indigenous political voice at decision-making level will enhance our ability to protect the full citizenship rights to which we are entitled.

So, in looking at our past, and in recognising discussions among our political representatives that affect our future, now is the time for all Australians to reclaim that political movement and reconnect with the idea of further reform as represented in the 1967 Referendum. When that happens we can continue our political progression as a nation and recognise the full citizenship rights of all Australians.


Dani LarkinDani Larkin is a Bunjalung woman who grew up on the Aboriginal community Baryulgil. She is an admitted lawyer and has practiced in a variety of areas of law. Dani is studying her PhD in law at Bond University with her thesis topic on 'The Law and Policy of Indigenous Cultural Identity and Political Participation: A Comparative Analysis between Australia, Canada and New Zealand'.

27 May 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum.

Correction: The title of this article originally read '40 years after the referendum'. This was a typo that can be blamed entirely on the editors. It has been amended to '50 years'.



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Submitted comments

Great article, there is devil in the detail - 'self-determination', 'self-administer on their own cultural affairs' - but the vision and voice I resonate with. What a man Jack Patten must have been.

Steve Sinn 24 March 2017

I would hope that any laws based on race and ethnicity can be avoided in Australia, except those that guarantee their civic rights and full participation in this multi-cultural community.

Eugene 24 March 2017

Hi Dani, I grew up as a white person in the Moree district and was taught that the only good aborigine is a dead one. That image still exists in some quarters. Lets stamp it out

John Campbell 24 March 2017

When the referendum was proposed in 1967 I had never met an Aboriginal person. I was astounded to learn that our first people were not full citizens and had no hesitation in voting for the change. Since then I have had the pleasure of working with a number of Aboriginal people and have always enjoyed the experience. It really is time proper recognition was given to the place they hold and the skills and ideas they bring to our common good.

Margaret McDonald 24 March 2017

We do not fully realise the effects our own heritage, traditions and bonding have on our mind-set and way of looking at things. We do not and probably never will know how those of the indigenous peoples are affected by their thousands of years of isolation and two hundred years of dispossession and alienation, unless we sit down and talk with them, work with them and agree on how to move forward. Even then it will be just one small step on the long road ahead. But at least it will be a start.

Robert Liddy 24 March 2017

Thank you for this informative article. I will read your other writings. Please keep writing.

Jenny cameron 24 March 2017

Thank you Dani Larkin for this thoughtful and thought provoking article: I am in touch with many people and I often notice a complete lack of historical knowledge about how Australia was colonised and how the consequences of the premises of the time are still palying out, even in the constirution. It is therefore most important to circulate the historical underpinning of today's decisions at social and political level. I am posting this in my social media I wish you the very best for your continued studies and look forward to more of your writing. Thank you Antonina

antonina bivona 24 March 2017

Thanks to the editors for correction of '40 years after the referendum' to '50 years'. I am a Torres Strait Islander and it is very important to convey the correct information to the Australian public for such an event of significance. Thank you. Peter Sabatino

Peter Sabatino 30 March 2017

Thanks Dani and Eureka Street, "Our government needs to pick up where it left off in 1967 and recognise the importance of protecting the full citizenship rights of its Indigenous peoples." I’m thinking that the date of the 1967 referendum (May 27th) and the practical universality of its acceptance (90.8%), makes it the most significant date since ‘invasion day’, when a handful of seaborne Britons assumed possession of ‘Terra [Nullia] Australis’. The successful campaign, that was so magnificently supported the by enfranchised non-aboriginal citizenry, was conducted by the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Wasn’t that something ‘we~all’ deserve a pat on the back for. I am therefore proposing that that is the unifying date for Australia’s National Day. Is there a Seconder for that? The 50th anniversary of the referendum result is a good time to start such a campaign. If that was to come to pass, the anniversary of that momentous moment, would be a timely nub for activists and pundits to inject into the public discourse the unfinished business of the Advancement movement.

Brian McLure 30 March 2017

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