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‘Our vote = our future’

1962: Indigenous Australians granted the right to vote

University of Melbourne Archives 1989.0014.00016
1900 2000

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. How important was the passing of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1962 in the campaign for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights in Australia?

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s right to vote is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

2. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>‘Our vote = our future’ metal badge</p>
National Museum of Australia

In a snapshot

For much of Australia’s political history, tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people couldn’t vote in state or federal elections. In 1962 the Australian Parliament passed a landmark Act to give all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the option to enrol and vote in federal elections. But it was not until 1984 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were finally treated like other voters and required to enrol and vote in elections.

‘Our vote = our future’ metal badge

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. Where were Aboriginal people allowed to vote before 1901, and where weren’t they allowed to vote?

2. When did Queensland give all Aboriginal people the right to vote?

3. How did the 1983 Act differ from the 1962 law in relation to Aboriginal people and voting?

What voting rights did Indigenous Australians have before 1962?

Before Federation Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian colonies had varied voting rights. While Aboriginal men could vote in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, it took until 1896 for Tasmania to give Aboriginal men the franchise. In 1895 South Australia gave equal voting rights to men and women, including Aboriginal women.

Laws that stopped Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from voting were introduced in Queensland (1885), Western Australia (1893) and the Northern Territory (1922). The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 gave all men and women around Australia the right to vote. But it excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people unless they already had the right to vote before 1901.

<p>Young Labor banner on Aboriginal rights, May Day procession, 1965</p>

Fryer Library, F3400, The University of Queensland. creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/au/

<p>Young Labor banner on Aboriginal rights, May Day procession, 1965</p>

How did the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 come about?

In Queensland Aboriginal people had been unable to vote since the late 1800s, and this restriction included Torres Strait Islander people from 1930 onwards. In the Northern Territory, most Aboriginal people were declared ‘wards of the state’, meaning they couldn’t vote. In Western Australia, the Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944 allowed Aboriginal people to vote only if they could speak English, had ‘industrious habits’ (worked hard) and didn’t have certain medical conditions.

Many had to show they were no longer part of their own community, and these regulations were referred to as the ‘dog-collar act’ or ‘dog-act’. This was because these laws were offensive to Aboriginal identity and limited what Aboriginal people could do.

Research task

 

How important was the passing of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1962 in the campaign for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights in Australia?

‘Your Committee, while limited by its terms of reference to the franchise, recognizes that franchise alone is not enough. It hopes that the exercise of the franchise by aboriginal people will lead to policies which meet their needs.’

 

Report from the Select Committee on Voting Rights of Aborigines, 1961

 

Aboriginal activist George Abdullah, 1953.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists such as Joe McGinness, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (formerly Kath Walker), Dulcie Flower, Doug Nicholls, Pearl Gibbs, Faith Bandler and George Abdullah opposed these laws. They set up groups such as the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) to fight for voting rights and other issues.

The campaign of the FCAA and other groups led to the Australian Government setting up a select committee to investigate Aboriginal voting rights in 1961. It interviewed 324 people, and almost half of these were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The committee found that 30,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not allowed to vote in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland. In response, the government introduced a Bill to ‘give to Aboriginal Natives of Australia the right to Enrol and to Vote as Electors of the Commonwealth’, which resulted in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962.

What was the effect of the Act?

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 gave all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the option to enrol and vote in federal elections, although enrolment was not compulsory. Shortly after this, Western Australia and the Northern Territory gave Aboriginal people the right to vote in state elections. Queensland passed an Act in 1965 which finally gave voting rights to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

It was not until 1984 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were politically equal to other Australians under the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 1983. This Act made enrolling to vote at federal elections compulsory for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Research task

 

The Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) campaigned for issues beyond voting rights. Research one of these issues, and describe how this helped Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people achieve one of their main aims.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. Where were Aboriginal people allowed to vote before 1901, and where weren’t they allowed to vote?

2. When did Queensland give all Aboriginal people the right to vote?

3. How did the 1983 Act differ from the 1962 law in relation to Aboriginal people and voting?