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Some material may contain terms that reflect authors’ views, or those of the period in which the item was written or recorded, but may not be considered appropriate today. These views are not necessarily the views of AIATSIS. While the information may not reflect current understanding, it is provided in an historical context.


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Changing the Australian Constitution

"Not many people–black or white–were prepared to fight for Aborigines in those days, it was very uplifting to meet people from different backgrounds who were."John Moriarty, Aboriginal campaigner for the 1967 Referendum.

The Australian Constitution can only be changed with the approval of the Australian people. A proposed change must be approved by the Parliament and then be put to Australian voters in a referendum.

All Australian citizens on the electoral roll vote 'yes' or 'no' to proposed change or changes. A referendum is only passed if it is approved by a majority of voters in a majority of states, and by a majority of voters across the nation. This is known as a double majority. Territory voters are only counted in the national majority.

Since 1901, 19 referendums have proposed 44 changes to the Constitution; only eight changes have been agreed to.

As the nation discusses recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution, it is important to understand what led to the first referendum that changed how Indigenous Australians were referred to in the Constitution.

The ten year campaign prior to the 1967 referendum, as well as changing attitudes across the world especially the United States of America, focused public attention on the dispossession, appalling treatment of, the poverty and racism toward Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Ongoing public debate stirred by events such as the Day of Mourning in 1938, the Warburton Ranges controversy, Yirrkala bark petitions, protests for equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers, 1965 Freedom Ride and the Wave Hill walk-off, helped Australians recognise that a change was needed. This broader struggle, the state and federal discriminatory policies targeting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Referendum campaign are outlined in this exhibition.

Throughout the exhibition, you will also be introduced to some of the people who influenced the referendum campaign, whether through involvement in organisations such as the Australian Aborigines League or Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, or in federal politics.


AIATSIS acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community.

We pay our respects to elders past and present.