Voting rights of Australian Aborigines

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search

The voting rights of Aboriginal Australians became an issue from the mid-19th century, when responsible government was being granted to Britain's Australian colonies, and suffrage qualifications were being debated. The resolution of universal rights progressed into the mid twentieth century. Aboriginal Australians have had full voting rights at all levels of government in Australia since the 1960s.

Aboriginal Australians had first begun to acquire voting rights along with other adults living in the Australian colonies from the late-19th century.[1] Other than in Queensland and Western Australia, Aboriginal men were not excluded from voting alongside their non-indigenous counterparts in the Australian colonies and in South Australia, Aboriginal women also acquired the vote from 1895 onward.

Following Australian Federation in 1901 however, the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 restricted Aboriginal voting rights in federal elections. For a time Aborigines could vote in some states and not in others, though from 1949, Aborigines could vote if they were or had been servicemen. In 1962, the Menzies Government (1949-1966) amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to enable all Aboriginal Australians to enroll to vote in Australian federal elections. In 1965, Queensland became the last state to remove restrictions on Aborigines voting in state elections. By 1967 Aborigines had equal rights in all states and territories.

Colonial aboriginal franchise

New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania

When the colonial constitutions were framed in the 1850s—New South Wales (1858), Victoria (1957), South Australia (1858) and Tasmania (1896)—voting rights were granted to all male British subjects over the age of 21. It was acknowledged that Indigenous people were British subjects under the English common law and were entitled to the rights of that status. Accordingly, Indigenous men were not specifically denied the right to vote. However, few Aboriginals were aware of their rights, were not encouraged to enrol to vote and very few participated in elections.[2]

Some Aboriginal people are known to have voted. For example, Point McLeay, a mission station near the mouth of the Murray River, in South Australia, got a polling station in the 1890s and Aboriginal men and women voted there in South Australian elections.


Queensland gained self-government in 1859, extending voting rights in 1872 to include all British male subjects over the age of 21. Aboriginals were excluded from voting in Queensland in 1885, and the disqualification was in place until 1965.[2]

Western Australia

Western Australia gained self-government in 1890. In 1893 voting rights were extended to include all British male subjects over the age of 21, with the exclusion of Aboriginal males. Aboriginals were disqualified for the vote in Western Australia until 1962.[2]

First Commonwealth election

Section 41 of the Australian Constitution on its face appears to give the right to vote in federal elections to those who have the right to vote in state elections. The first election for the Commonwealth Parliament in 1901 was based on the electoral laws at that time of the six colonies, so that those who had the right to vote and to stand for Parliament at state level had the same rights for that election. Aboriginal men had at least a theoretical vote for that election in all States except Queensland and Western Australia. Aboriginal women had the vote in South Australia.

Some Aboriginal people voted for the first Commonwealth Parliament; for example, the mission station of Point McLeay, in South Australia, had a polling station since the 1890s and Aboriginal men and women voted there in 1901.

Commonwealth aboriginal franchise

The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 withdrew any such Aboriginal voting rights for federal elections, providing that "No aboriginal native of Australia ... shall be entitled to have his name placed on an Electoral Roll unless so entitled under section forty-one of the Constitution".[3] Furthermore, Sir Robert Garran, the then Commonwealth Solicitor-General, interpreted section 41 of the Constitution to give Commonwealth voting rights only to those who were already enrolled in a state in 1902, limiting those rights to a theoretical maximum of only a few hundred Indigenous people.[citation needed]

Garran’s interpretation of section 41 was challenged in 1924 by Mitta Bullosh a Melbourne resident Indian who had been accepted as a voter by Victoria but rejected by the Commonwealth. He won his case in the District Court,[4] and the Commonwealth government later withdrew a High Court challenge to the judge's ruling.[5] The Electoral Act was subsequently amended. These developments were confined to British subjects of Asian origin resident in Australia. They had no effect on right to vote of Aboriginal people.[citation needed]

Expansion of Commonwealth aboriginal franchise

Campaigns for indigenous civil rights in Australia gathered momentum from the 1930s. In 1938, with the participation of leading Indigenous activists like Douglas Nicholls, the Australian Aborigines' League and the Aborigines Progressive Association organised a protest "Day of Mourning" to mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet of British settlers in Australia and launched a campaign for full civil rights for all Aborigines.[6] In the 1940s, the conditions of life for Aborigines could be very poor. A permit system restricted movement and work opportunities for many Aboriginal people.

In 1949, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1949 reversed Garran’s interpretation of section 41 and confirmed that all those who could vote in their states could vote in federal elections.[7] This gave the right to vote to Aboriginal people in all states except Queensland and Western Australia. Also, those who had served in the military were expressly entitled to vote. In the 1950s, the government pursued a policy of "assimilation" which sought to achieve full civil rights for Aborigines but also wanted them to adopt the mode of life of other Australians (which very often was assumed to require suppression of cultural identity).[8]

In the 1960s, influenced by the strong civil rights movements in the United States and South Africa, many changes in Aborigines’ rights and treatment followed, including removal of restrictions on voting rights. In 1962, the Menzies Government amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act to give Indigenous people the right to enrol and vote in Commonwealth elections irrespective of their voting rights at the state level. If they were enrolled, it was compulsory for them to vote. However, enrolment itself was not compulsory and it was illegal under Commonwealth legislation to encourage indigenous people to enrol to vote. Any person enrolled who failed to vote could be liable to prosecution and a fine, on the same basis as non-Indigenous citizens. Western Australia gave Indigenous citizens the vote in the State in the same year, and Queensland followed in 1965.

Until 1967, section 127 of the Australian Constitution prohibited Indigenous Australians from being counted in the population. With the repeal of the provision by a referendum in 1967, Indigenous Australians were counted in the population. This took place for the 1971 census, which subsequently affected the distribution of electoral seats, especially in Queensland and Western Australia.

In 1983, the Act was amended to remove optional enrolment for Indigenous citizens, and removing any differentiation or distinction based on race in the Australian electoral system.[9]

Aboriginal political participation

Indigenous Australians began to take up representation in Australian parliaments during the 1970s. In 1971 Neville Bonner of the Liberal Party was appointed by the Queensland Parliament to replace a retiring senator, becoming the first Aborigine in Federal Parliament. Bonner was returned as a Senator at the 1972 election and remained until 1983. Hyacinth Tungutalum of the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory and Eric Deeral of the National Party of Queensland, became the first Indigenous people elected to territory and state legislatures in 1974. In 1976, Sir Douglas Nicholls was appointed Governor of South Australia, becoming the first Aborigine to hold vice-regal office in Australia. Aden Ridgeway of the Australian Democrats served as a senator during the 1990s, but no indigenous person was elected to the House of Representatives, until West Australian Liberal Ken Wyatt, in August 2010.[10]

See also


  1. Australian Suffragettes
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 History of the Indigenous Vote (PDF), Australian Electoral Commission, retrieved 13 October 2011<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Documenting a Democracy, Museum of Australian Democracy, retrieved 13 October 2011<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "ENROLMENT OF ASIATICS". The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1956). Melbourne, Vic.: National Library of Australia. 4 September 1924. p. 9. Retrieved 13 October 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "INDIANS' RIGHT TO VOTE". The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1956). Melbourne, Vic.: National Library of Australia. 12 December 1924. p. 9. Retrieved 13 October 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Hinkson, Melinda; Harris, Alana (2001). Aboriginal Sydney: a guide to important places of the past and present. Aboriginal Studies Press. p. 22–24. ISBN 978-0-85575-370-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. s. 3(b) Commonwealth Electoral Act 1949
  8. The First Australians: A Fair Deal for a Dark Race par SBS TV 2008.
  9. COMMONWEALTH ELECTORAL LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 1983 EXPLANATORY MEMORANDUM (PDF), Australian Parliament, retrieved 14 October 2011<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Electoral Milestone / Timetable for Indigenous Australians - Australian Electoral Commission". Retrieved 2012-03-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Pat Stretton and Christine Finnimore, ‘Black Fellow Citizens: Aborigines and the Commonwealth Franchise’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 25, no. 101, 1993, pp. 521–35

External links