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Voting rights of Indigenous Australians

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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, that is Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander peoples, 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 allowed only Aboriginal people who could vote in their state to vote in federal elections. From 1949, Aboriginal people could vote if they were or had been servicemen. In 1962, the Menzies government 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.[2]

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-caste" or less. In practice, some local electoral officials may have denied enrolment to a broader range of Indigenous people than those formally excluded.[3]

Indigenous voting history[edit]

Prior to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Imp),[4] each colony of Australia could pass its own legislation concerning the enfranchisement of indigenous Australians.[5] Differences between the colonies meant Indigenous Australians' right to vote depended on the area in which they resided.[6]

Voting was reformed by the Constitution Act, which united the states of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland.[7] The Constitution established the Commonwealth of Australia, with the previously self-governing colonies federated to establish the Commonwealth.[8] Indigenous Australians were granted the universal right to vote in federal elections in 1962[9] under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962.[10]

Timeline of Indigenous Australians' right to vote[edit]


Date Event
1829 British sovereignty extended to cover the whole of Australia – everyone born in Australia, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, became a British subject by birth.
1850+ The Australian colonies become self governing – all adult (21 years) male British subjects were entitled to vote in South Australia from 1856, in Victoria from 1857, New South Wales from 1858, and Tasmania from 1896  including Indigenous people. Queensland gained self-government in 1859 and Western Australia in 1890, but these colonies denied Indigenous people the vote.
1885 Queensland Elections Act excluded all Indigenous people from voting
1893 Western Australian law denied the vote to Indigenous people.
1895 All adult women in South Australia, including Indigenous women, won the right to vote.
1901 Commonwealth Constitution came into effect, giving the newly created Commonwealth Parliament the authority to pass federal voting laws. Section 41 prohibited the Commonwealth Parliament from denying federal voting rights to any individual who, at the time of the Commonwealth Parliament’s first law on federal voting (passed the following year), was entitled to vote in a state election.
1902 The Commonwealth Parliament passed its first law on federal voting (the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902), granting men and women in all states the right to vote in federal elections. The Act did, however, specifically deny federal voting rights to every "aboriginal native" of Australia, Asia, Africa, or the Islands of the Pacific (except New Zealand) who, at the time of the Act, did not already have the right to vote in state elections.
1915 Queensland introduced compulsory voting. This was later extended to other regions. The act continued to deny "aboriginal natives" the vote but allowed voting for "half-caste" people, a term that is now considered offensive.
1922 Regulations in the Northern Territory excluded Indigenous people from voting. Officials had the power to decide who was Indigenous.
1930-1939 In Queensland, several acts passed in 1930, 1934 and 1939:
  • Clarified that Torres Strait Islanders were also disqualified from voting, along with Aboriginal people.
  • Additionally restricted voting rights based on arbitrary racial categories such as "half-caste", "cross breed" and "a preponderance of Aboriginal blood."
  • The "cross breed" category also restricted the voting rights of some South Sea Islanders who had Indigenous Australian ancestors and/or who lived with Indigenous Australians.
1940s Professor AP Elkin, the Aborigines Friends Association, and others agitated for better conditions for Indigenous people and their right to vote.
1944 In Western Australia, the Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944 is passed. Indigenous people can apply for citizenship including the right to vote, provided they satisfy all of the following: they have renounced contact with "tribal and native association" for two years (except for their immediate family), they have references from two "reputable citizens" that certify their "good character and industrious habits", they have adopt "the manner and habits of civilised life" and they and are not suffering from "active leprosy, syphilis, granuloma, or yaws". They can lose citizenship if they contract one of the diseases or are convicted of "habitual drunkenness".[11]
1949 The right to vote in federal elections was extended to Indigenous people who had served in the armed forces, or were enrolled to vote in state elections. Indigenous people in Queensland, the Northern Territory, and the vast majority in Western Australia still could not vote in their own state/territory elections.
1957 Under the Northern Territory Welfare Ordinance,[12] almost all Indigenous people in the Northern Territory were declared to be "wards of the state" and denied the vote. In 1961, 17,000 people were wards.[13]
1962 Commonwealth Electoral Act provided that Indigenous Australians should have the right to enrol and vote at federal elections, including Northern Territory elections, but enrolment was not compulsory. It was an offence for anyone to use undue influence or bribery to induce Indigenous people to enrol or to refrain from enrolling to vote.

Voter education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people began in the Northern Territory. 1,338 Indigenous Australians enrolled to vote in Northern Territory elections.

Western Australia extended the State vote to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

1965 Queensland allowed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to vote in State elections. Queensland was the last State to grant this right.
1984 Commonwealth Electoral Act 1983 came into effect, making it compulsory for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to enrol to vote.[14] It had already been compulsory for other Australians since 1924.[15]

Colonial Indigenous franchise[edit]

New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania[edit]

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 Aboriginal people were aware of their rights. They were not encouraged to enrol to vote and very few participated in elections.[16]

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. For much of Australia’s political history, tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could not vote in state or federal elections. In 1962 the Australian Parliament passed a landmark Act to give all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the option to enrol and vote in federal elections. But it was not until 1984 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were finally treated like other voters and required to enrol and vote in elections.[17]


Queensland gained self-government in 1859, extending voting rights in 1872 to include all British male subjects over the age of 21. Aboriginal people were excluded from voting in Queensland in 1885, and the disqualification was in place until 1965.[16]

Western Australia[edit]

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. Aboriginal people were disqualified for the vote in Western Australia until 1962.[16]

Commonwealth franchise in the early 20th century[edit]

First Commonwealth election[edit]

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.[17]

Legislative restrictions[edit]

The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 withdrew any 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".[18] 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.[19] The Act also denied the vote to native people of Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands except New Zealand.

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,[20] and the Commonwealth government later withdrew a High Court challenge to the judge's ruling.[21] 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 franchise[edit]

Cartoon by Tom Glover mocking the idea of Indigenous members of parliament, published by Sydney's Sun days before the 1938 Day of Mourning

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 Aboriginal peoples.[22] The Lyons government's New Deal for Aborigines announced in 1939 promised additional civil rights, including voting rights, as the culmination of a process of cultural assimilation. However, progress was limited; in 1941, Victor Turner, the Chief Electoral Officer, wrote to his departmental head Joseph Carrodus that "no responsible authority would seriously advocate the grant of all political and other rights [...] to aboriginals generally. To do so could only result in utter chaos and the opening of the way to extensive abuses".[23]

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.[24] 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.[25]

In the 1960s, influenced by the strong civil rights movements in the United States and South Africa, many changes in Aboriginal peoples' 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.

In 1983, the Electoral Act was amended,[26] to remove optional enrolment for Indigenous citizens, and removing any differentiation or distinction based on race in the Australian electoral system.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Australian Suffragettes". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 1998. Archived from the original on 23 April 1999.
  2. ^ a b "Electoral milestones for Indigenous Australians". Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 14 May 2019.
  3. ^ Galligan, Brian (April 2017). "Fabricating Aboriginal voting: a reply to Keith Windschuttle". Quadrant. 61 (4): 50–56.
  4. ^ Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act
  5. ^ Korff, Jens (8 February 2019). "Australian 1967 Referendum". Creative Spirits. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
  6. ^ "Events in Australian electoral history". Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
  7. ^ "Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act". www.aph.gov.au. Parliament of Australia. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
  8. ^ "Australian Electoral History Reform". Australian Electoral Commission.
  9. ^ "Elections and Voting in Australia" (PDF). Museum of Australian Democracy, Old Parliament House.
  10. ^ Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962
  11. ^ Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act (23 of 1944). 23 December 1944. Archived from the original on 27 October 2021. Retrieved 26 January 2022.
  12. ^ "Welfare Ordinance 1953-1960". Australasian Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 7 February 2022.
  13. ^ "Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory". National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 17 May 2019.
  14. ^ "Indigenous Australians' right to vote". National Museum of Australia. 27 September 2022. Retrieved 24 March 2023.
  15. ^ "Australian voting history in action". 16 September 2020. Retrieved 24 March 2023.
  16. ^ a b c "History of the Indigenous Vote". Australian Electoral Commission. August 2006. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
  17. ^ a b "Electoral rolls and voter records | Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies". aiatsis.gov.au. Archived from the original on 3 February 2016.
  18. ^ Documenting a Democracy, Museum of Australian Democracy, retrieved 13 October 2011
  19. ^ Re Pearson; Ex Parte Sipka
  20. ^ "ENROLMENT OF ASIATICS". The Argus. Melbourne. 4 September 1924. p. 9. Retrieved 13 October 2011 – via National Library of Australia.
  21. ^ "INDIANS' RIGHT TO VOTE". The Argus. Melbourne. 12 December 1924. p. 9. Retrieved 13 October 2011 – via National Library of Australia.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ Silverstein, Ben (2011). "From Population to Citizen: The Subjects of the 1939 Aboriginal New Deal in Australia's Northern Territory" (PDF). Kontur (22): 29.
  24. ^ s. 3(b) Commonwealth Electoral Act 1949
  25. ^ The First Australians: A Fair Deal for a Dark Race par SBS TV 2008.
  26. ^ Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Act 1983 (Cth).
  27. ^ Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill 1983 Explanatory Memorandum (PDF), Australian Parliament, retrieved 14 October 2011


  • 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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