Voting rights of Australian Aborigines

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The acquisition of voting rights by Indigenous Australians began in the late-19th century but was not completed in every jurisdiction until the mid-20th century. Under Australia's federal system, restrictions on Aborigines voting in state and federal elections varied until the 1960s, during which decade all remaining restrictions were eradicated.

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. The Holt Government's 1967 referendum overwhelmingly endorsed automatic inclusion of Aboriginal people in the national census.

Indigenous Australians had first begun to acquire voting rights along with other adults living in Britain's Australian colonies from the late-19th century [1] in 1894. 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 federation in 1901 however, new legislation 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 ex-servicemen and by 1967 Aborigines had equal rights in all states and territories. In 1971, Neville Bonner became the first Aboriginal to sit in the Federal Parliament. In 1984, compulsory enrolment and voting in Commonwealth elections for Indigenous Australians came into effect.[2]

Commonwealth elections[edit]

Some Aboriginal people voted in the very first Commonwealth election. Point McLeay, a mission station near the mouth of the Murray River, got a polling station in the 1890s and Aboriginal men and women voted there in South Australian elections and voted for the first Commonwealth Parliament in 1901. However, it was not until 1983 that indigenous Australians had equivalent voting rights to other Australians, that is compulsory voting at all Commonwealth elections.[3]

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 Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, provided 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] However, Sir Robert Garran, the first Solicitor-General, interpreted section 41 to give Commonwealth voting rights only to those who were already State voters 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,[5] and the Commonwealth government later withdrew a High Court challenge to the judge's ruling.[6] 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]

In 1949 the federal government passed an Act to confirm that all those who could vote in their states could vote in Commonwealth elections. This gave the right to vote to Aboriginal people in all states except Queensland and Western Australia.[citation needed]

In 1962 the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended to give indigenous people the right to enrol and vote in Commonwealth elections irrespective of their voting rights at the state level. If and only if they were enrolled, it was compulsory 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.

In 1983 the Act was amended to remove optional enrolment for indigenous people, removing all discrimination based on race in the Australian electoral system.[7]

There is a common misconception that the 1967 referendum gave Aborigines the right to vote. However, this referendum gave the Commonwealth powers to make laws with respect to the Aboriginal people and counted them in the Census.[8]

State Elections[edit]

New South Wales[edit]

Since the time of the 1866 New South Wales constitution, officially Aboriginal people had the same rights as the other citizens. However from 1902, because they were denied the right to vote in Commonwealth elections, they were often also illegally denied the right to vote in NSW state elections.[citation needed]

Queensland[edit]

In 1965 Aboriginal people were granted the right to vote in Queensland state elections.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Australian Suffragettes
  2. ^ http://www.aec.gov.au/Voting/indigenous_vote/history.htm
  3. ^ History of the Indigenous Vote, Australian Electoral Commission, retrieved 13 October 2011 
  4. ^ Documenting a Democracy, Museum of Australian Democracy, retrieved 13 October 2011 
  5. ^ "ENROLMENT OF ASIATICS.". The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1956) (Melbourne, Vic.: National Library of Australia). 4 September 1924. p. 9. Retrieved 13 October 2011. 
  6. ^ "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. 
  7. ^ COMMONWEALTH ELECTORAL LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 1983 EXPLANATORY MEMORANDUM, Australian Parliament, retrieved 14 October 2011 
  8. ^ Reynolds, Henry (14 November 1997). "Aborigines and the 1967 Referendum: Thirty Years On". Department of the Senate Occasional Lecture Series (Australian Parliament House). 

References[edit]

  • 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[edit]