The 1967 referendum on Aborigines: influence of the Irish troika

The referendum of 27 May 1967 approved two amendments to the Australian constitution relating to Indigenous Australians. Endorsed by 90.77% of the votes cast and a majority of votes in all six states, the amendments empowered the federal parliament to legislate for the Aboriginal race in the states and included Aboriginal Australians in determinations of the population.

A little known fact about the amendment extending federal power is that it had been put forward in parliament 66 years before by Hugh Mahon, the Irish-born Labor member for the Western Australian seat of Coolgardie.

Mahon, a Catholic from County Offaly, was one of three Irishmen from diverse backgrounds who at the time vigorously advocated Aboriginal rights. The other two were Walter Malcolmson, a native of Belfast, who had lived and worked four years in north-west Western Australia, and Presbyterian minister Rev J Laurence Rentoul, a native of County Derry.

On 26 July 1901 Mahon moved for the appointment of a royal commission into the treatment of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Western Australia with a view to determine the expediency of a change to the Constitution to permit the Commonwealth to pass laws in relation to Aborigines living in any of the Australian states. The government of the day did not support Mahon’s proposal and his motion lapsed.

However, Mahon continued to campaign for Aboriginal rights. In 1902 he developed the case for constitutional reform, arguing:

Those who desire that the national Government shall care for the native race are impelled by the strong conviction that some of the States have failed in their duty, and cannot be trusted to deal mercifully with the aborigines in future.

To the question as to why the national government would be more lenient and more just than the state governments, he answered:

[T]he national executive is not amenable to the influence of those who profit by the serfdom of the natives. … No local interest is strong enough to intimidate it from a policy dictated by humanity, and which will redeem the good name of Australia.

Conceding that no government can prevent isolated acts of cruelty, however vigorous and complete may be its supervision, Mahon countered, “But outrages committed under the form and with the sanction of law can and should be repressed”.

Despite the best efforts of the Irish troika of Mahon, Malcolmson and Rentoul, Aboriginal welfare outside the federal territories remained exclusively a state concern until 1967 when the Australian people overwhelmingly endorsed what Mahon had proposed in 1901.

Paradoxically, while Mahon was an advocate of Aboriginal rights, he was a hardline supporter of the “white Australia policy”. To read more about Hugh Mahon’s attitude to Indigenous Australians and the race issue generally follow this link.

Related posts: