A screenshot of one of the Facebook posts.
Facebook posts claim the 1967 referendum removed race from the constitution - it didn't. Image by Facebook

Voice naysayers race to rewrite 1967 referendum’s history

Kate Atkinson June 15, 2023
WHAT WAS CLAIMED

The 1967 referendum removed race from the constitution.

OUR VERDICT

False. References to race remain in the constitution.

Opponents of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice to parliament say it will erase the results of the 1967 referendum, claiming Australians voted to remove race from the constitution.

This is false. Experts told AAP FactCheck multiple references to race remain in the constitution.

The 1967 referendum amended the constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Indigenous people and include them in official figures collected for the census.

The claim has been shared widely on Facebook, as seen here, here, here, here, here and here.

“1967 referendum – over 90 per cent of Australians agreed with Aboriginals & voted to remove RACE from our Constitution & become ONE PEOPLE !,” one Facebook post (archived here) states.

Another post (archived here) states: “On 27th May 1967, under the Howard Holt Liberal Government 90.77 per cent of Australians voted ‘YES’ in a referendum to remove ‘RACE’ from the constitution and give the Aboriginal Australians the same rights as the rest of the population.”

A screenshot of one of the Facebook posts.
 There are many versions of the false claim about the 1967 referendum. 

Experts told AAP FactCheck the 1967 referendum wasn’t about removing race from the constitution.

Jon Piccini, a senior lecturer in history at Australian Catholic University, said voters endorsed two constitutional amendments.

“One removed Section 127, whereby ‘Aboriginal natives’ were not counted when ‘reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth’,” Dr Piccini said.

“The second altered Section 51 (xxvi) – the race power – to allow the Commonwealth to make ‘special laws’ concerning Aboriginal people.”

The removal of Section 127 ensured Indigenous people would be included in population estimates.

Previously, the Commonwealth could not make laws for Indigenous people (except in the territories) because they were governed by state laws.

The alteration of Section 51 (xxvi) to remove the words “other than the aboriginal race in any State”, allowed the federal parliament to make laws with respect to Indigenous people wherever they lived in Australia.

Scienta Professor George Williams, a constitutional law expert at UNSW Sydney, also told AAP FactCheck the referendum did not remove references to race.

He pointed to the current version of Section 51 (xxvi), often referred to as the race power, which gives parliament the power to make laws for “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

Constitutional law expert Professor George Williams (file image)
 Constitutional law expert George Williams says the referendum did not remove references to race. 

For example, Dr Piccini said this power allowed the Commonwealth to make laws such as the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901, which resulted in the deportation of Pacific Islander farm workers recruited under the ‘blackbirding‘ trade, which enslaved people using deception or force.

Prof Williams said the referendum also did not affect Section 25 of the constitution, which is titled ‘Provisions as to races disqualified from voting’.

“Section 25 continues to contemplate that the states will disenfranchise people from voting in their elections on the basis of their race,” he said.

“The bottom line is: the 1967 referendum did not remove references to race from the constitution. They persist in the document to the current day.”

RMIT FactLab debunked the same claim here.

AAP FactCheck has previously addressed claims race is never mentioned in the constitution here.

The Verdict

Claims the 1967 referendum removed race from the constitution are false.

The referendum amended the constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as they had previously been governed by state laws.

It also removed a section of the constitution to allow Indigenous people to be counted in population estimates. Experts told AAP FactCheck race remains in the constitution – in Section 51 (xxvi) and Section 25.

False ÔÇô The claim is inaccurate.

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