In modern-day parlance, the concept of truth is a contested space. As in – “you may have your truth, but I have my truth”. Nevertheless, the concept of fact is a stubborn phenomenon and, from time to time, can hold its own in the battle of ideas.

On Friday, January 27, ABC journalist Dan Bourchier chaired the nightly ABC TV’s The Drum. In the aftermath of Australia Day, discussion initially focused on the proposal that an Indigenous voice to parliament be included in the Constitution.

It was one of those oh-so-­familiar and somewhat dull debates on the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster where virtually everyone agrees with virtually everyone else.

However, my interest was sparked as Bourchier wound up the segment. He stated that Australians “don’t like changing the Constitution” and added “there have been 44 attempts, only eight successful”. Correct. And added: “Coincidentally, the most successful (referendum was) in ’67 to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as Australian ­citizens.”

This is wrong – and is one of the many myths of Australian history. Two referendum proposals were put to Australian electors by the Holt Coalition government in May 1967.

The first concerned the nexus between the number of parliamentarians in the House of Representatives compared with the Senate. The Holt government, with the support of the Labor Party, wanted to make it possible to increase the membership of the House without adding to the Senate. It failed – having attained the highest support in NSW and the lowest in Tasmania.

The second proposal sought to give the commonwealth parliament power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people wherever they lived in Australia. And also to make it possible to include Aboriginal people in the national census. This was a great success, with 91 per cent of Australians voting “yes” across the nation and obtaining majority support in all states – Victoria was the highest (95 per cent) and Western Australia the lowest (81 per cent).

The 1967 referendum had nothing to do with citizenship. All Indigenous Australians were classified as citizens – along with all other Australians – by no later than 1948 when Australian citizenship was introduced. Formerly, Australians were classified as British subjects.

In 1962, commonwealth legislation provided that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders could vote in federal elections. Before that, Indigenous Australians who had voting rights in some states were also able to vote at the federal level but their number was limited. Both changes were in place before the 1967 referendum.

Now, it’s easy to make mistakes – especially on live TV or radio. But Bourchier, who identifies as Indigenous, holds the ­position of the ABC’s voice/referendum correspondent. He should know better.

The responsibility here lies with ABC management. It’s not unreasonable to expect that the ABC would ensure its leading reporter on the voice, who co-hosts The Drum and appears on such programs as Insiders, has a widescale understanding of contemporary Australian history.

To be fair, Bourchier is not alone in his ignorance. Talented Indigenous singer and composer Deborah Cheetham appeared on ABC TV’s Q+A program on September 8, 2022. Stan Grant was in the presenter’s chair and Erin Vincent was executive producer.

Cheetham was not corrected by Grant when she told Q+A viewers the 1967 referendum turned on whether she, as an ­Indigenous Australian, would continue to be counted as “a human being and not a plant or an animal”.

This is the myth that, before 1967, Indigenous Australians were only counted as flora and fauna. This fiction had been raised previously on Q+A on February 19, 2018 by actor Shareena Clanton, who was not corrected by presenter Tony Jones. It was also made by singer Mitch Tambo on the program on May 27, 2021, when Hamish Macdonald was in the presenter’s chair. Again, there was no correction.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine challenged Clanton’s claim on Twitter. In time, the matter was investigated by the RMIT ABC Fact Check unit. It concurred with Mundine and, on March 20, 2018, issued this finding: “Ms Clanton’s claim is a myth. Aboriginal people in Australia have never been ­covered by a flora and fauna act, either under federal or state law.”

Clear enough? Apparently not. For fact-checker Sushi Das added: “Despite several attempts by various people to set the record straight, the myth continued to circulate, perhaps because as one academic told Fact Check, it embodies elements of a deeper truth about discrimination.”

How about that? The fauna and flora myth is not strictly true – but an anonymous academic ­believes it embodies “a deeper truth”. Well, the truth may be deep, it is not fact.

The problem is that the myth has been perpetrated by some high-profile and influential Indigenous Australians, including Stan Grant (in his January 2016 address to the Ethics Centre, which was a finalist in the United Nations Media Peace Awards) and Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney (in the House of Representatives on September 23 last year).

The plight of many Indigenous Australians has been grim enough over many years. But it makes no sense for Australians – Indigenous or not – to make claims about life before and after the 1967 referendum that are not supported by documented facts.

There are other previously held myths about Australia’s contemporary history, including the assertion by some on the left of politics that it was Gough Whitlam who abandoned the White Australia policy in the early 1970s.

In fact, what was called “the operation of immigration policy affecting non-Europeans” was effectively abandoned in a speech to parliament by the Coalition minister for immigration, Hubert ­Opperman, on March 9, 1966 – in the early days of Harold Holt’s prime ministership.

The Whitlam government merely finalised the process that had commenced almost a decade earlier.

In the lead-up to this year’s referendum on the voice it’s important that all participants stick to empirical facts and refrain from presenting their particular version of what they regard as the truth. Such an approach should benefit all sides of the argument.