Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902
|Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902|
|Parliament of Australia|
|An Act to provide for a Uniform Federal Franchise|
|Date of Royal Assent||12 June 1902|
|Introduced by||Senator Hon Richard O'Connor (Prot)|
|1905, 1906, 1909, 1911|
|Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918|
The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 was an Act of the Parliament of Australia which defined a uniform national criteria of who was entitled to vote in Australian federal elections. The Act established universal suffrage for federal elections for those who are British subjects over 21 years of age who have lived in Australia for six months, with some qualifications. It granted Australian women the right to vote at a national level, and to stand for election to the Parliament.
The Act meant that, though the Colony of New Zealand had granted women universal suffrage in 1893 and this carried forward to New Zealand subsequently becoming an independent nation in 1907, Australia was the first independent country to grant women's suffrage at a national level, and the first country to allow women to stand for Parliament. However, the Act also disqualified some Indigenous Australians, Asian people, African people and Pacific Islanders (except New Zealand Maori) from voting, even if they would otherwise be qualified as British subjects.
The act was replaced by the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.
Provisions of the Act
The Act was originally very short, having only five sections. The main provision was section 3, which provided that any person over 21 years of age, whether male or female, married or single, who:
- was a natural born or naturalised British subject,
- had lived in Australia for at least the past six months, and
- was on the electoral roll in any federal electoral division -
could vote in a federal election. At the time who was considered a British subject was determined by rules of English common law and an independent Australian citizenship was not introduced until 26 January 1949 with the coming into effect of the Australian Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948.
Section 4 made a range of disqualifications from the general definition in section 3. People who had at any time been convicted of treason could not vote. A person who was under sentence or awaiting sentence for any offence which could be punished by imprisonment for one year or longer (under the law of Australia, or of the United Kingdom, or of any other Dominion of the Empire) was also not allowed to vote. People of "unsound mind" were also disqualified. Indigenous people from Australia, Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands, with the exception of Māori, were also excluded. Indian people were therefore not allowed to vote, even though they were citizens of the British Empire.
Section 44 of the Constitution disqualified a range of people from being elected to the House of Representatives or the Senate, such as any person with an allegiance to a foreign power (such as a citizen of another country), or anyone who was bankrupt or insolvent. However, these people were not prevented from voting by the Act.
Section 5 provided that no person could vote more than once at each election.
Amendments to the Act
In 1906 the 1902 Act was amended to allow postal voting. In 1908, a permanent electoral roll was established and in 1911, it became compulsory for all eligible voters to enroll on the electoral roll. Compulsory enrolment led to a large increase in voter turnout, even though voting was still voluntary. From 1912, elections have been held on Saturdays.
History of the Act
Before Federation of Australia in 1901, Australia consisted of six colonies, each with their own voting systems and franchise. Section 41 of the Constitution of Australia governed how the first federal election in 1901 was to be conducted. It provided that any person who was enrolled and eligible to vote in a State election could also vote in a federal election. Each state had a different system, with different criteria to determine who could vote. In South Australia and Western Australia, women could vote, and in Western Australia and Queensland, Indigenous people were specifically barred from voting.
The 1902 Commonwealth Act created a uniform voting system for federal elections across the country. The original bill was introduced into the Senate by Richard O'Connor, the Vice-President of the Executive Council, and later in the House of Representatives by the Minister for Home Affairs, William Lyne. It is unusual for being one of the few major pieces of legislation to be introduced in the Senate before the House.
In 1918, the 1902 Act was repealed and replaced by the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. Many of the present features of the Australian electoral system were introduced after the 1918 Act came in force. Instant-runoff voting was introduced for the House of Representatives in 1918, compulsory voting was introduced in 1924, and the single transferable vote was introduced for the Senate in 1949. Indigenous Australians were granted the right to vote at federal elections in 1962. The qualifying voting age was lowered to 18 in 1973.
Because of Section 41 of the Constitution, women in South Australia and Western Australia were able to vote at federal elections. Although the original distribution between the states of seats in the House of Representatives was based on the number of male voters in each state, it was possible that later distributions could proportionally increase the number of seats given to South Australia and Western Australia, since they had proportionally more enrolled voters than their percentage of the population.
Many politicians were concerned that allowing women to vote would discriminate in favour of married men, since, in the words of Sir Edward Braddon, "the married man, happy in his family, whose wife's vote is one which he can command… will have two votes." Others, such as William Sawers, argued that because there were more women living in the cities, rural areas would become under-represented. Much of the opposition to the granting of women's suffrage in the Act was grounded in the belief that, in the words of William Knox, "the main ambition of a woman's life should be to become the wife of an honorable and honest man." However, there was much support for granting the vote to women, and the bill was approved by large majorities in both Houses of Parliament.
The White Australia policy, or at least the ideas behind it, had been very strong since long before Federation. Although the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was established to prevent non-white people from migrating to Australia, significant numbers of foreign citizens, particularly Chinese people who migrated during the Victorian gold rush, were already living in Australia, and many politicians were keen to prevent them from having any political influence. Politicians also wanted to prevent Indigenous people from voting. Although Indigenous men had the right to vote everywhere except Western Australia and Queensland, and Indigenous women also had the right to vote in South Australia, this was not because it had explicitly been given to them, but because it had not explicitly been denied to them.
Preventing non-white people from voting was an idea grounded in the philosophy of eugenics and scientific racism, which were popular ideas at the time. Whereas most Indigenous peoples were excluded from voting, Māori living in Australia were allowed to vote. During the parliamentary debates over the Act, King O'Malley (a radical and "colourful" politician) said that "An Aboriginal is not as intelligent as a Māori. There is no scientific evidence that he is a human being at all."
In line with the attitudes of the time, the Act disqualified some Indigenous Australians, Asian people, African people and Pacific Islanders (except New Zealand Maori) from voting, even if they would otherwise be qualified as British subjects. In relation to Indigenous Australians, the Act 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". 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 was 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.
- ^ Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 23 April 1902, p11937.
- ^ Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 23 April 1902, p11941.
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