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Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Australia's 'moment of truth' - remembering the '67 referendum

Australia's 'moment of truth' - remembering the '67 referendum

Indigenous Affairs
Tuesday, 28 May 2019

National Indigenous Australians Agency

Head and shoulders image of Dr Charles Perkins

It was a moment in history when Australia voted not for a Party, but for an idea that would set the nation on a new path.

Charles Perkins, Vice-President of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) would describe the 1967 referendum as 'the moment of truth whether the white people really are interested in our welfare or rights'.

The resounding answer on 27 May 1967, was ‘yes’ they did.

Voter turnout was high and about 90 per cent of respondents voted ‘yes’ to allowing the Constitution to be amended so the Commonwealth could make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census.

Dr Perkins was invited by the Prime Minister after the referendum to write a submission for a Federal bureau that would prioritise employment and education for Aboriginal people.

The vote paved the way for then-Prime Minister Harold Holt to establish the Council for Aboriginal Affairs.

Dr Perkins’ journey from professional athlete, to mature aged student, and then high-profile Indigenous advocate was well publicised.

He was part of the iconic 1965 ‘Freedom Ride’ a bus trip taken by a group of university students to small towns to highlight discrimination against Aboriginal people at swimming pools, cinemas, halls and hotels. The confrontations on the tour were covered by television cameras, bringing the issue to national attention.

Dr Perkins became a major voice in Australian life and later joined the Office of Aboriginal Affairs in 1969. In 1984 he was the Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs - the first Aboriginal person to hold the position of Department Secretary in Australia.

Prime Minister and Cabinet recently recognised the contribution of the late Dr Charles Nelson Perrurle Perkins AO by renaming the home of Indigenous Affairs in Canberra in his honour.

The Woden building formerly known as Centraplaza was renamed Charles Perkins House for his contributions to the Australian Public Service and the nation.

Read about the renaming of Centraplaza to Charles Perkins House.