110th anniversary of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902

Tuesday 12 June 2012 marks the 110th anniversary of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, the law that granted most Australian women the right to vote, and therefore to stand, in Commonwealth elections. The Act stated that ‘all persons not under twenty-one years of age whether male or female married or unmarried’ would be entitled to vote in Commonwealth elections. It excluded Indigenous men and women, unless they were eligible to vote under state laws in accordance with Section 41 of the Australian Constitution. Across Australia, women voted for the first time in the second Commonwealth election held on 16 December 1903. Women in South Australia (who were granted voting rights in 1895) and Western Australia (1900) were eligible to vote in the first Commonwealth elections held in 1901, since these were conducted under state laws. Four women stood as candidates for election to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1903. They were the first women nominated for any national Parliament within what was then the British Empire, although none of the women were elected.

In April 1902, Senator the Hon RE O’Connor, Vice-President of the Executive Council, introduced the Commonwealth Franchise Bill into the Senate with the intention of creating a ‘uniform franchise for the Commonwealth’. He sought to extend the franchise to all women over 21 years and to Indigenous people. The Government estimated that over 750 000 new voters would be added to the electoral rolls as a result of this reform. The Bill provoked considerable debate in the new Commonwealth Parliament, and these were reported in the newspapers of the day. Opponents of women’s suffrage made various claims, including that women did not want the vote, and that they already exercised considerable influence through their domestic roles. The Bill was successful, however, extending the right to vote in Commonwealth elections to women in New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria who, at the time of Federation, did not have the right to vote for their state parliaments. These four states subsequently granted women the right to vote in state elections in August 1902 (NSW Legislative Assembly), 1903 (Tasmanian House of Assembly), 1905 (Queensland) and 1908 (Victoria).

More controversially, the Bill also sought to extend the Commonwealth franchise to Indigenous men and women and to ‘coloured people’ from overseas. Many Senators and Members were opposed to the idea that Indigenous peoples might be eligible to stand for the Parliament. After a vigorous debate, the Bill was passed with an amendment that specifically excluded ‘aboriginal native[s]of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand’ from having their name placed on the electoral roll, unless entitled under Section 41 of the Constitution. At Federation, Indigenous men had the right to vote in state elections in Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, and were excluded from voting in Queensland and Western Australian state elections. Indigenous women had the right to vote in South Australia. The first Solicitor-General, Sir Robert Garran, interpreted the new Act to mean that only people who were already state voters in 1902 would be eligible to vote in Commonwealth elections. In 1962, after decades of lobbying by Indigenous activists and supporters, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (which replaced the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902) was amended to allow Indigenous people the right to enrol and vote at federal elections, including Northern Territory elections, although enrolment was not compulsory. In the same year Western Australia extended the state vote to Indigenous people, followed by Queensland in 1963. Compulsory enrolment and voting was introduced for all Indigenous people in 1984.

The Parliamentary Library has produced a number of research papers relevant to the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902:

· A matter of public importance: votes for women was published in 2002 to commemorate the centenary of the Act. It provides links to a range of key historical debates and campaigns, as well as other sources relating to women’s suffrage in Australia.

· First women in Australian parliaments—historical note outlines the sequence of women's enfranchisement in Australian legislatures, and includes a table summarising women’s eligibility to vote and sit in Australia’s parliaments, as well as details of the first women to be elected.

· Representation of women in Australian parliaments provides further information about women standing for Australian parliaments, including a selection of related milestones.

· Voters and the franchise: the federal story provides a history of the Commonwealth franchise including excerpts from the parliamentary debates.

· The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia and indigenous peoples 1901–1967 outlines the role of the Commonwealth Parliament in Indigenous affairs, including a section dealing with the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902.

The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 was amended in 1906 to allow postal voting, and again in 1911 to make it compulsory for all eligible voters to enrol. Key changes to Australia’s electoral laws since 1901 are outlined in the Australian Electoral Commission’s timeline of major electoral developments.

Prepared by Joy McCann and Janet Wilson.


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