On 21 May 2022, Australians will go to the polls to vote for the next government. The date is also the 60th anniversary of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being granted the right to vote in federal elections. Receiving Royal Assent on 21 May 1962, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 granted all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the option to enrol and vote in federal elections. However, it was not until 1984 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were included with other eligible electors under compulsory enrolment requirements.
Content warning: Some quoted text may contain descriptions and terms that reflect the views of the period in which the content was created, and which may not be considered appropriate today.
Before Federation in 1901, each Australian colony determined its own requirements for voter eligibility. As noted by politics professor Murray Goot, ‘the adult male franchise, granted in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia between 1856 and 1859, in Western Australia by 1870 and in Tasmania by 1900, did not exclude Aborigines’.
After Federation, the Senate passed a version of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 that would have given Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the vote in federal elections. However, a substantial majority in the House of Representatives (27 votes to 5) did not support this approach. The Act as passed excluded any ‘aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand […] unless so entitled under section 41 of the Constitution’. The Commonwealth interpreted section 41 of the Constitution to mean that only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people enfranchised before 1902 could vote in federal elections.
Goot notes that, in subsequent decades, the interpretation and administration of Commonwealth and state electoral acts ‘eroded Aboriginal rights even where they did not abolish them’. Goot observes that ‘not until the Second World War was the Commonwealth franchise expanded. From 1940 until six months after the war, Aborigines serving in the military were enfranchised’. In 1949, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1949 reintroduced the vote to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had served in the armed forces, enshrining it in legislation.
The next major turning point was the Report from the Select Committee on Voting Rights of Aborigines in 1961, which followed campaigning by advocacy groups such as the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines. In its report, the Committee’s view was:
No person is excluded from the Commonwealth franchise on the ground of race. Commonwealth exclusion of some aborigines up to the present has not been based upon race but upon the non-incorporation of tribal and nomadic aborigines within the general community and the irrelevance of the general Australian society to their way of life. But more and more they are being integrated into the Australian community and there are no longer any great numbers of nomads.
The Committee’s main recommendations were:
- That the right to vote at Commonwealth elections be accorded to all aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander subjects of the Queen, of voting age, permanently residing within the limits of the Commonwealth.
- That, for the time being, the enrolment of aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders be voluntary, but when enrolled, compulsory voting be enforced.
The Committee gave its reasons for recommending voluntary enrolment:
[T]he extension of the compulsory provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act to many aborigines still in the tribal state, or recently emerged from the tribal state, or not completely integrated into the Australian community, could result in grave injustice. These people have not perceived the relevance of parliamentary elections to their lives, so to compel enrolment would be harsh.
Your Committee is also concerned at the danger of electoral malpractice and the possible use of influence by those having contact with aborigines.
Your Committee considers voluntary enrolment a temporary provision in respect of the aboriginal people, and one which creates immediately an entitlement to the franchise for those who desire the franchise, without injustice to those who do not desire it or simply have no use for it in a tribal or nomadic life.
Taking a wider perspective, the Committee observed:
Your Committee, while limited by its terms of reference to the franchise, recognizes that the franchise alone is not enough. It hopes that the exercise of the franchise by aboriginal people will lead to policies which meet their needs.
A key consequence of the report was the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962. Receiving Royal Assent on 21 May 1962, it amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to enact the Committee’s above recommendations in legislation.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gaining the right to vote is sometimes misattributed to the 1967 referendum. The 1967 referendum amended the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal (including, for legal purposes, Torres Strait Islander) people, and to include them in the census count for Commonwealth purposes, including for the calculation of how many seats each state is entitled to in the House of Representatives on the basis of the population of each state. In a publication to mark the 50th anniversary of the Referendum, the Parliamentary Library noted that ‘the significance of the 1967 Referendum has been somewhat obscured by a number of myths [including] that the Referendum granted Aboriginal people citizenship, the right to vote, wage equality and access to social security, among other things’.
It was not until 1984, following passage of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 1983, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were given the same compulsory obligation to enrol and vote in federal elections as all other Australians.
Additional information about developments in the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voting rights is available from the websites of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), and the National Museum of Australia (NMA). In March 2022 the Parliamentary Library published a chronology of key dates relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander treaties, constitutional and legal recognition and representation in Australia.