Aboriginal representation in federal parliament – a 'just' request

This letter dated 14 September 1949, from Labor Member of Parliament Kim E Beazley Senior to Prime Minister Ben Chifley, discusses whether it would be possible to legislate for Aboriginal representation in federal parliament, and if it would be possible to hold a referendum to give the Commonwealth power over Aboriginal affairs. The handwritten annotation on the letter is a request for comment made by Jack H Garrett, Chifley's private secretary, to Herbert Victor Johnson, Minister for the Interior, who had responsibility for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Educational value

  • Separate and direct representation of Aboriginal people in the Australian Parliament, which Kim E Beazley (1917–2007) described in his letter as 'completely just', has been a long-standing Aboriginal request. It was raised by Aboriginal activist Fred Maynard (1879–1946) in the 1920s and in the 1930s by Yorta Yorta leader William Cooper (1861-1941), who believed that an Aboriginal representative in the federal parliament was vital. These leaders pointed out that state government administration of Aboriginal affairs had led to ever-worsening conditions.
  • Separate representation for Aboriginal people in the Australian Parliament has never been achieved and is not provided for in the Australian Constitution. As Beazley indicated, the major barrier to Commonwealth responsibility for Aboriginal affairs was section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution which stated that the Australian Parliament did not have the power to make laws in relation to Aboriginal peoples. The only Aboriginal people covered by federal laws were those in the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and the external territories where the Australian Government had constitutional powers of legislation and administration.
  • Aboriginal people had long believed that section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution should be repealed. In Beazley's period in parliament the only time the question was put to the Australian people was on 19 August 1944 as part of a referendum that was known as the 'Fourteen Powers' or 'Fourteen Points' referendum. The Commonwealth's ability to make laws for Aboriginal people was one of 14 separate matters, all combined in one question. Several of the points, unrelated to the ability to legislate for Aboriginal people, had previously been put to referendums and failed. It was not surprising that the 1944 referendum failed. The change was eventually achieved at the 1967 referendum with the highest recorded 'yes' vote in any federal referendum.
  • Beazley's requests had been instigated by a letter circulated by Pastor Doug Nicholls (1906–88), a prominent Aboriginal activist, of the Yorta Yorta people. Born in New South Wales, Nicholls was the founding pastor of the Church of Christ Aborigines' Mission in Fitzroy, Melbourne, and a key player in various organisations including the Aboriginal Advancement League, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement. He was also well-known as a former Australian Rules footballer.
  • In spite of comments in the letter that seem to indicate that Ben Chifley (1885–1951) had some interest in Aboriginal affairs, in reality it was a not a high priority at the time. The sole achievement of the Chifley years in this area was the extension of the right to vote in federal elections to Aboriginal Australians already on state electoral rolls or in the defence services. No action was taken on Beazley's requests.
  • Beazley retained a commitment to Aboriginal affairs throughout his time in the Australian Parliament from 1945 to 1977. As the member for Fremantle, he ensured the inclusion of Aboriginal land rights in the Labor Party platform in 1951, and in 1952 gave one of the few speeches in the parliament on Aboriginal rights since Coolgardie member - Hugh Mahon (1857-1931) in 1901. In 1963 Beazley and fellow parliamentarian Gordon Bryant (1914-1991) prepared a report into the bauxite mining proposal at Yirrkala and both were prominent in the decade of campaigning for the 1967 referendum.