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Suffrage in Australia

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Suffrage in Australia

Suffrage in Australia refers to the right to vote (usually referred to as franchise) for people living in Australia, including all its six component states (before 1901 called colonies) and territories, as well as local councils. The colonies of Australia began to grant universal male suffrage during the 1850s and women's suffrage followed from the 1890s onward.

Though the various parliaments of Australia have been constantly evolving, the key foundations for elected parliamentary government have maintained an historical continuity in Australia from the 1850s into the 21st century.


  • History 1
  • Male suffrage 2
  • Female suffrage 3
  • Indigenous Australians 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6


Upon first settlement in 1788, the appointed governors had autocratic powers within the colony, but agitation for representative government began soon after the settlement.[1] A legislative body, the New South Wales Legislative Council, was created in 1825. It was an appointed body whose function was to advise the Governor. On 24 August 1824, 5 members were appointed, increased to 7 members in 1825, and between 10 and 15 in 1829. Also in 1829, British sovereignty was extended to cover the whole of Australia, and everyone born in Australia, including Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, became a British subject by birth.

The first parliamentary elections in Australia took place in 1843 for the Legislative Council under the Constitution Act 1842. The Council had 36 members, of which 12 were appointed by the Governor and the remainder was elected. The right to vote was limited to men with a freehold valued of £200 or a householder paying rent of £20 per year.

In the 1850s, limited self-government was granted to South Australia (1856), Victoria (1857), New South Wales (1858) and Tasmania (1896): all adult (21 years) male British subjects were entitled to vote. This included indigenous people but they were not encouraged to enrol. Queensland gained self-government in 1859 and Western Australia in 1890, but these colonies denied indigenous people the vote. An innovative secret ballot was introduced in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia.[2]

In 1856, under a new Constitution, the NSW Parliament became bicameral with a fully elected Legislative Assembly and a fully appointed Legislative Council with a Government taking over most of the legislative powers of the Governor. On 22 May 1856, the newly constituted New South Wales Parliament opened and sat for the first time. The right to vote was extended to all adult males in 1858.[3]

In 1901, the six Australian colonies united to form the federal Commonwealth of Australia. 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 the 1901 Australian Federal election. Only in South Australia (since 1894) and Western Australia (since 1899) did women have a vote. Tasmania retained a small property qualification for voting, but in the other states all male British subjects over 21 could vote. Only in South Australia and Tasmania were indigenous Australians even theoretically entitled to vote. A few may have done so in South Australia. Western Australia and Queensland specifically barred indigenous people from voting.

In 1902, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, which established a uniform franchise law for the federal Parliament. The Act declared that all British subjects over the age of 21 years who had been living in Australia for at least 6 months were entitled to a vote, whether male or female, and whether married or single. Besides granting Australian women the right to vote at a national level, it also allowed them to stand for election to federal Parliament.[4] This meant that Australia was the second country, after New Zealand, 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 Indigenous people from Australia, Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands, with the exception of Māori, from voting, even though they were British subjects and otherwise entitled to a vote. By this provision, Indian people, for example, were disqualified to vote. The only exception was in relation to those who were entitled under Section 41 of the Australian Constitution to a vote. Section 41 states that any individual who has gained a right to vote at a state level, must also have the right to vote in federal elections. The Solicitor-General, Robert Garran, interpreted it to mean that Commonwealth rights were granted only to people who were already State voters in 1902. Also, those otherwise entitled voters who are subject to a crime which carries a penalty of over one year in prison are disqualified to vote. There was also no representation for any of the territories of Australia.

In the meantime, State franchise laws continued in force until each one chose to amend them. The year in which women obtained the right to vote in Australia are summarised as follows:

Female suffrage
Right to Vote Right to stand for Parliament
South Australia 1894 1894
Western Australia 1899 1920
Australia (Commonwealth) 1902 1902
New South Wales[3] 1902 1918
Tasmania 1903 1921
Queensland 1905 1915
Victoria 1908 1923

Decades before most other Western nations Australians achieved voting rights. Britain's Australian colonies granted male suffrage from the 1850s and in 1895 the women of South Australia achieved the right to both vote and stand for Parliament, enabling Catherine Helen Spence to be the first to stand as a political candidate in 1897.[5] The Australian colonies federated as the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 and the Franchise Act of 1902, granted the right to vote to men and women.[4] However, the Act also restricted votes for 'natives' unless they were already enrolled. These restrictions were unevenly applied and were relaxed after World War II, with full rights restored by the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1962.[6] Senator Neville Bonner became the first Aboriginal Australian to sit in the federal Parliament in 1971. Julia Simpson became the first female Prime Minister of Australia in 2010.

Male suffrage

Boyle Travers Finniss became the first Premier of South Australia in 1856 - and the first leader of an Australian colonial parliament elected by universal male suffrage.

Traditional Aboriginal society had been governed by councils of elders and a corporate decision making process, but the first European-style governments established after 1788 were autocratic and run by appointed governors - although English law was transplanted into the Australian colonies by virtue of the doctrine of reception, thus notions of the rights and processes established by the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights 1689 were brought from Britain by the colonists. Agitation for representative government began soon after the settlement of the colonies.[1]

In 1835, William Wentworth established the Australian Patriotic Association which successfully agitated for representative government for New South Wales and a broad franchise, a goal at least partially achieved in 1842.[7] Despite opposition from conservative free settlers in the colony, who sought representative government but emancipists bing disenfranchised, the colony's constitution of 1842 gave to emancipists the same political rights as free settlers, but which was subject to a property test.

In 1840, the Adelaide City Council and the Sydney City Council were established. Men who possessed 1000 pounds worth of property were able to stand for election and wealthy landowners were permitted up to four votes each in elections. Australia's first parliamentary elections were conducted for the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1843, again with voting rights (for males only) tied to property ownership or financial capacity. Voter rights were extended further in New South Wales in 1850 and elections for legislative councils were held in the colonies of Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.[2]

By the mid 19th century, there was a strong desire for representative and responsible government in the colonies of Australia, fed by the democratic spirit of the goldfields evident at the Eureka Stockade and the ideas of the great reform movements sweeping Europe, the United States and the British Empire. The end of convict transportation accelerated reform in the 1840s and 1850s. The Australian Colonies Government Act [1850] was a landmark development which granted representative constitutions to New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania and the colonies enthusiastically set about writing constitutions which produced democratically progressive parliaments - though the constitutions generally maintained the role of the colonial upper houses as representative of social and economic "interests" and all established Constitutional Monarchies with the British monarch as the symbolic head of state.[8]

Female suffrage

South Australian suffragette Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910). South Australian women achieved the right to vote and stand for parliament in 1895.

The female descendants of the Bounty mutineers who lived on Pitcairn Islands could vote from 1838, and this right transferred with their resettlement to Norfolk Island (now an Australian external territory) in 1856.[9]

Propertied women in the colony of South Australia were granted the vote in local elections (but not parliamentary elections) in 1861. Henrietta Dugdale formed the first Australian women's suffrage society in Melbourne, Victoria in 1884. Women in the other colonies soon followed forming their own societies. The international Women's Christian Temperance Union set up Womanhood Suffrage departments in each colony. Women's Suffrage Petitions The suffrage groups collected monster petitions to submit to the colonial parliaments, with varying success. For Queensland's three petitions, one for women and a second for men collected in 1894, and a third arranged by the WCTU see Women's Suffrage Petitions in Queensland, Australia Women became eligible to vote for the Parliament of South Australia in 1894 and in 1897, Catherine Helen Spence became the first female political candidate for political office, unsuccessfully standing for election as a delegate to Federal Convention on Australian Federation. Western Australia granted voting rights to women in 1899.[10]

The first election for the Parliament of the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 was based on the electoral provisions of the six pre-existing colonies, so that women who had the vote and the right to stand for Parliament at state level had the same rights for the 1901 Australian Federal election. In 1902, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act, which enabled all women to vote and stand for election for the Federal Parliament. Four women stood for election in 1903.[11] The Act did, however, specifically exclude 'natives' from Commonwealth franchise unless already enrolled in a state. Women in Queensland won the right to vote in state elections in 1905 and Victoria followed suit. In 1949, The right to vote in federal elections was extended to all Indigenous people who had served in the armed forces, or were enrolled to vote in state elections (Queensland, Western Australian, and the Northern Territory still excluded indigenous women from voting rights). Remaining restrictions were abolished in 1962 by the Commonwealth Electoral Act.[12]

Edith Cowan was elected to the West Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921, the first woman elected to any Australian Parliament. Dame Enid Lyons, in the Australian House of Representatives and Senator Dorothy Tangney became the fist women in the Federal Parliament in 1943. Lyons went on to be the first woman to hold a Cabinet post in the 1949 ministry of Robert Menzies. Rosemary Follett was elected Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory in 1989, becoming the first woman elected to lead a state or territory. By 2010, the people of Australia's oldest city, Sydney had female leaders occupying every major political office above them, with Clover Moore as Lord Mayor and State MP, Kristina Keneally as Premier of New South Wales, Marie Bashir as Governor of New South Wales, Tanya Plibersek as Federal MP, Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, Quentin Bryce as Governor General of Australia and Elizabeth II as Queen of Australia.

Indigenous Australians

Indigenous Australians began to be enfranchised within Parliamentary systems of the Australian colonies during the 1850s. However, the granting of voting rights was uneven and restricted altogether in some colonies (and later states). Vestigial legal discrimination against Indigenous voters was removed in the 1960s.

The Holt Government's Australian referendum, 1967 (Aboriginals)[13] - is often wrongly recalled as the year that the Aboriginal people of Australia gained the right to vote, however this is an incorrect date. When the state constitutions of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania were framed in the 1850s, voting rights were granted to all male British subjects over the age of 21, which included Aboriginal men. However, few Aborigines were aware of their rights and hence very few participated in elections. The situation became murkier when the Commonwealth Franchise Act was passed in 1902. The Act gave women a vote in federal elections but Aboriginal people and people from Asia, Africa or the Pacific Islands (except for Māori) were excluded unless entitled under Section 41 of the Australian Constitution. Section 41 states that any individual who has gained a right to vote at a state level, must also have the right to vote in federal elections. The Solicitor-General, Sir Robert Garran, interpreted it to mean that Commonwealth rights were granted only to people who were already State voters in 1902. What transpired was a situation where Aboriginals who had already enrolled to vote were able to continue to do so, whereas those who had not were denied the right. This interpretation was challenged in Victoria in 1924 by an Indian migrant, where the magistrate ruled that Section 2 meant that people who acquired State votes at any date were entitled to a Commonwealth vote. The Commonwealth government instead passed laws giving Indians the vote (There were only about 100 in Australia at the time), but continued to deny other non-white applicants.

Campaigns for indigenous rights in Australia gathered momentum from the 1930s. In 1938, with the participation of leading indigenous activists like First Fleet of British in Australia and launched its campaign for full citizenship rights for all Aborigines. 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 the 1950s, the government pursued a policy of "assimilation" which sought to achieve full citizenship 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).[14]

In the 1960s, reflecting 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. The Menzies Government Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1962 confirmed the Commonwealth vote for all Aborigines. Western Australia gave them State votes in the same year, and Queensland followed in 1965.

The freedom rides into parts of Australia to expose discrimination and inequality. In 1966, the Gurindji people of Wave Hill station (owned by the Vestey Group) commenced strike action led by Vincent Lingiari in a quest for equal pay and recognition of land rights.[15]

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.[6]

See also


  1. ^ a b [1]
  2. ^ a b "Australia’s major electoral developments Timeline: 1788 - 1899 - Australian Electoral Commission". 2011-01-28. Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  3. ^ a b "About us". NSW Parliament. Retrieved 17 July 2010. 
  4. ^ a b "The Right to Vote in Australia - Australian Electoral Commission". 2011-01-28. Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  5. ^ "Electoral Milestones for Women - Australian Electoral Commission". 2011-01-28. Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  6. ^ a b "Electoral Milestone / Timetable for Indigenous Australians - Australian Electoral Commission". Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ "The Right to Vote in Australia - Australian Electoral Commission". 2011-01-28. Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  9. ^ EC (2005-04-13). "Votes for Women | Elections New Zealand". Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  10. ^ "Documenting Democracy". Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  11. ^ "". 25 Oct 2007. Retrieved 27 Jun 2010. 
  12. ^ "". Retrieved 2011-01-08. 
  13. ^ "Indigenous people and the vote - Australian Electoral Commission". 2010-12-22. Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  14. ^ The First Australians: A Fair Deal for a Dark Race par SBS TV 2008.
  15. ^ Geoffrey Bolton (1990) p.193 and 195
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