Australian Dictionary of Biography

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1957 - Petition to Change the Australian Constitution
by Marilyn Lake

O n 29 April 1957 a large public meeting organised by the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, formed by Faith Bandler and Pearl Gibbs the year before, was held at the Sydney Town Hall to launch the petition calling for a referendum to change the Australian Constitution.

The Australia-wide campaign in support of the petition, led from 1958 by the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement—later the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders—took a full ten years of lobbying, media work, public speaking and community organising by thousands of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists until finally, in early 1967, the coalition government led by Prime Minister Harold Holt put forward a proposal to submit sections 51 (xxvi) and 127 of the Constitution to a referendum. The parliament passed the bill unanimously.

Petition Leaflet, 1957 (SLSA).
The idea for a referendum to achieve constitutional change was initially proposed by the veteran feminist leader Jessie Street, who had been working closely with the United Nations. At the end of 1956, while staying in Kalgoorlie with the long-term activist for Aboriginal rights and imperial radical Mary Montgomerie Bennett, Street wrote to their mutual friend and fellow activist Ada Bromham. She informed Bromham that she had discussed with Paul Hasluck, the minister for territories, ‘the possibility of a referendum to amend the Constitution to vest powers over the Aborigines in the Commonwealth Parliament and to extend all legal rights as enjoyed by the white population to the Aborigines.’ Hasluck’s favourable response changed quickly to opposition when the full implications of the proposal—the potential of special laws for Aborigines—became clear.

In March 1957 Street wrote to Thomas Fox-Pitt, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society in England, about her proposal for an amendment to the Constitution and, at much the same time, began to draft the first petition calling for a referendum. On 18 April she thanked Brian Fitzpatrick of the Council for Civil Liberties for ‘putting the Petition in its proper form.’ A copy of the first draft of the preamble to the petition, written in her hand, can be found in Street’s papers in the National Library of Australia. Its emphasis on abolishing discrimination reflects the values encoded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, in her capacity as vice-chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, she had helped draft. The preamble read: ‘Believing that many of the difficulties encountered by Aborigines arise from discrimination against them in two sections of the Commonwealth Constitution.’

Street tasked Faith Bandler, a descendant of South Sea Islanders, with securing the support of the executive of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship to formally launch the petition at the Sydney Town Hall meeting. ‘I remember her saying to me,’ Faith recalled: ‘Now look girl, we have to change the Constitution.’ Jessie was then sixty-eight; Faith was thirty years younger. ‘My relationship with Jessie was as close as any I’ve ever had with any woman. She really was my mother.’ The Town Hall meeting, attended by around 1,500 people, many flying in from interstate, was said to be the biggest held since the Day of Mourning in 1938.


left arrow 1946: The Pilbara Pastoral Workers’ Strike
1963: The Yirrkala Bark Petitions right arrow