Indigenous Australians and the vote
It was 1962 before all Indigenous Australians gained the right to vote, and another 21 years before voting for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples became compulsory.
At the very first federal election, held in in March 1901, people who could vote in their state elections were allowed to vote for the first federal Parliament. After that, it was up to the Parliament to make laws about how elections were conducted, including who could vote. In some states, Indigenous Australians, as well as women, had the right to vote. This meant they could take part in the 1901 election. However, not many Indigenous people were aware they had this right.
Denied the vote
The following year, the Parliament passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902. This gave all Australian women the vote, but excluded 'any aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa, or the islands of the Pacific, except New Zealand' from voting unless they were on the electoral roll before 1901. As a consequence, most Indigenous Australians were excluded from voting. The Act, or law, was based on a desire to maintain the British character of the new nation, and it reflected racist attitudes which were common at the time.
There was a widespread belief Indigenous Australians were a dying race who needed to be 'protected', or looked after. Each state had an Aboriginal Protection Act which allowed them to put Indigenous Australians on reserves and make them wards of the state.
Because they were treated as dependents, it was thought Indigenous people did not need the vote. Isaac Isaacs, then a member of the House of Representatives, argued Indigenous people did not have 'the intelligence, interest or capacity to vote.' Some members of parliament supported giving Indigenous Australians the vote, however they were in the minority.
The Hon Arthur Calwell MP told the House of Representatives, 'To our eternal shame we have not treated the aborigines properly'. Then Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Harold Holt MP, spoke of 'uneasiness at the way in which we, as a people, have treated the aborigines who are the true natives of the Australian continent.'
However, the right to vote was not extended to all Indigenous Australians. Instead, in 1949, federal Parliament amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act to give Indigenous people who had completed military service, or who already had the right to vote in their state, the right to vote in federal elections.
The right to vote
By the 1960s, the US Civil Rights Movement led many Australians to question the treatment of Indigenous people in this country, including the fact most were denied a say in federal elections. In 1961, a parliamentary committee set up to investigate Indigenous voting rights recommended all Indigenous Australians be given the right to vote at federal elections.
The following year, the Parliament amended, or changed, the Commonwealth Electoral Act to do just that. However, unlike other Australians, Indigenous people did not have to vote. Voting was only compulsory for those who enrolled to vote.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were finally given equal voting rights in 1983 when the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended to make it compulsory for all Indigenous Australians to vote.