A claim circulating on social media states that Australian aborigines were once classified as animals under a Flora and Fauna Act. Is this true or not?
It Appears to be a Widespread Urban Myth.
In researching the available information, this claim appears to be a pervasive and long-standing urban myth.
First let’s take a look at the claim and picture circulating on social media, which reads “Australia, until 60s, Aborigines came under the Flora And Fauna Act, classified them as animals, not human beings.” Included with the claim is an antique photograph of several Australian aborigines in chains with a Caucasian man standing behind them.
Evidence for Myth
The oft repeated urban legend claims that indigenous peoples were categorized as animals under a “Flora & Fauna Act” which was overturned by a 1967 referendum to amend the Australian constitution. There was a 1967 Referendum that is seen as a landmark in the struggle for the equal rights of Aborigines. Most notably, this referendum began counting Aboriginal natives in the national population census, and produced privileges such social security benefits, child endowments, and certain government pensions. However, a number of misconceptions about the referendum seem to remain.
In March 2014, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), an Australian public broadcaster, published an article addressing a number of myths about the 1967 referendum. According to the column, one of these misinterpretations is that Aborigines were considered fauna prior to 1967. The write-up states that this statement is untrue. Below is a quote from the article:
Not being counted properly in the census all those years has fed into the misunderstanding that Aboriginal people were classified as fauna until the ’67 referendum.
In recent years, an Aboriginal politician even referred to growing up under a state Flora and Fauna Act.
Several states did, indeed, often manage Aboriginal affairs through departments that also handled flora, fauna and wildlife.
But there is nothing to show Aboriginal people were ever classed as one and the same, despite the fact they were not being counted in the official human population.
Additionally, it appears that an Australian legislative document called the “Flora and Fauna Act” may never have existed. Similarly-named Acts have existed through the years, but do not appear relevant to the claims above. If any of our readers has credible evidence that such an Act ever existed, please leave a comment below.
Some have suggested that the claim that indigenous Australians were considered animals is symbolic, since they were not counted as people in the census. This, however, does not mean that a “Flora and Fauna Act” existed or that Aboriginal people were viewed as fauna.
Sources Repeating the Claim
As with many enduring urban myths, the exact origins of this claim are difficult to establish. Much of the confusion regarding this allegation seems to have been ingrained prior to the 1967 referendum. Below are a collection of sources that have repeated the claim:
- Sydney Morning Herald (May 23, 2007) – Linda Burney, an Aboriginal politician, repeats the claim during an interview with the Sydney Morning Herland. In the article she is quoted as saying, “It still staggers me that for the first 10 years of my life, I existed under the Flora and Fauna Act of NSW.” The SBS quote in the section above seems to be referring to this quote.
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation (May 25, 2007) – Two days after Linda Burney’s interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, the claim was repeated in a radio broadcast which commemorated the anniversary of the 1967 referendum. In a transcript of the broadcast, host Mark Colvin opens the piece with the following statement, “If you weren’t around for the 1967 referendum on Aborigines, or you can’t remember why it mattered, think about this. Before that vote, Aboriginal people weren’t counted as people, they came under the Flora and Fauna Act.”
- Equal Opportunity Commission (October 20, 2011) – The Equal Opportunity Commission is a government affiliated commission in Western Australia. On their website is a piece written by Chris Graham entitled “Aboriginality: an identity draped in heritage”. In the piece of writing, the following quote can be found, “Aboriginal people were part of the Flora and Fauna Act until the late 1960s.”
Perhaps the best explanation for why this myth persists is similar to what the SBS article claims, “Not being counted properly in the census all those years has fed into the misunderstanding that Aboriginal people were classified as fauna until the ’67 referendum.”As the picture of Aborigines in chains demonstrates, they were certainly treated inhumanely, and the struggle for equality has been lengthy, yet there does not seem to be evidence for a specific piece of Australian legislation known as the “Flora and Fauna Act” which considered aborigines as beasts. Nevertheless, they were arguably often treated as such.
- Were Indigenous (Aboriginal) Australians regulated by the Flora & Fauna Act? (David Walker, Club Troppo: June 3, 2013)
Revised June 1, 2016
Originally published December 2014