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Voting rights of Indigenous Australians

  (Redirected from Voting rights of Australian Aborigines)

The voting rights of Indigenous 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-20th century.

Indigenous Australians began 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, Indigenous men acquired the vote alongside their non-Indigenous counterparts in the Australian colonies. In South Australia, Indigenous women also acquired the vote from 1895 onward.

Following Australian Federation in 1901, the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 restricted Aboriginal voting rights in federal elections. For a time Aboriginal people could vote in some states and not in others, though from 1949, Aboriginal people 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 Indigenous Australians to enrol to vote in Australian federal elections. In 1965, Queensland became the last state to remove restrictions on Indigenous voting in state elections, and as a consequence all Indigenous Australians in all states and territories had equal voting rights at all levels of government.

Many restrictions on voting rights only applied to some people that would, today, be considered Indigenous. Specifically, only people of full Indigenous ancestry or of mixed race "in whom the aboriginal blood preponderates" were limited through the Franchise Act. It did not apply to Indigenous people of mixed race that were, to use the language of the time, 'half-castes' or less. In practice, some local electoral officials may have denied enrolment to a broader range of Indigenous people than those formally excluded.[2]


Colonial Indigenous franchiseEdit

New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and TasmaniaEdit

When the colonial constitutions were framed, mostly in the 1850s—New South Wales (1858), Victoria (1857), 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, Aboriginals were not encouraged to enrol to vote and very few participated in elections.[3]

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.[3]

Western AustraliaEdit

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.[3]

Commonwealth franchise in the early 20th centuryEdit

First Commonwealth electionEdit

Section 41 of the Australian Constitution 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.

Legislative restrictionsEdit

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".[4] Section forty-one of the Constitution provided that all those entitled to vote in state elections under the state franchise could vote in Commonwealth elections. It is not clear whether that section was intended to be an ongoing provision, or only an interim measure for State electors enrolled at the time of Federation. The first Permanent Head of the Attorney-General's Department, Robert Garran, gave it the second, narrower, interpretation.[5]

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. (The Commonwealth limitation also applied to native people of Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands except New Zealand). He won his case in the District Court,[6] and the Commonwealth government later withdrew a High Court challenge to the judge's ruling.[7] The effect of the 1924 finding was that indigenous Australians in all states except Queensland and Western Australia could vote in federal polls.

Expansion to full Aboriginal franchiseEdit

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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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 as per non-Indigenous citizens. However, enrolment itself was not compulsory. 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 from the 1971 census, which subsequently affected the distribution of electoral seats, especially in Queensland and Western Australia.

In 1983, the Electoral Act was amended,[11] to remove optional enrolment for Indigenous citizens, and removing any differentiation or distinction based on race in the Australian electoral system.[12]

Indigenous political participationEdit

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 Indigenous person 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 Indigenous person 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.[13] Nova Peris was elected to the Senate for the Northern Territory for the Labor party at the 2013 federal election; she did not recontest the seat at the 2016 federal election. Linda Burney became the first Indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives in 2016 when she was elected to the seat of Barton, having previously represented Canterbury in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly from 2003 to 2016.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Australian Suffragettes
  2. ^ Galligan, Brian (April 2017). "Fabricating Aboriginal voting: a reply to Keith Windschuttle". Quadrant. 61 (4): 50–56.
  3. ^ a b c "History of the Indigenous Vote" (PDF). Australian Electoral Commission. August 2006. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
  4. ^ Documenting a Democracy, Museum of Australian Democracy, retrieved 13 October 2011
  5. ^ Re Pearson; Ex Parte Sipka
  6. ^ "ENROLMENT OF ASIATICS". The Argus. Melbourne. 4 September 1924. p. 9. Retrieved 13 October 2011 – via National Library of Australia.
  7. ^ "INDIANS' RIGHT TO VOTE". The Argus. Melbourne. 12 December 1924. p. 9. Retrieved 13 October 2011 – via National Library of Australia.
  8. ^ Hinkson, Melinda; Harris, Alana (2001). Aboriginal Sydney: a guide to important places of the past and present. Aboriginal Studies Press. pp. 22–24. ISBN 978-0-85575-370-2.
  9. ^ s. 3(b) Commonwealth Electoral Act 1949
  10. ^ The First Australians: A Fair Deal for a Dark Race par SBS TV 2008.
  11. ^ Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Act 1983 (Cth).
  12. ^ Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill 1983 Explanatory Memorandum (PDF), Australian Parliament, retrieved 14 October 2011
  13. ^ "Electoral Milestone / Timetable for Indigenous Australians – Australian Electoral Commission". Retrieved 13 March 2012.


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

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