The Right to Vote

One of the most important ways that individuals can influence governmental decision-making is through voting in parliamentary elections. In a representative democracy such as Australia, voting gives people the power to affect how their country is governed by electing those who will represent their interests in parliament.

While the right to vote was one of the principles of democratic reform demanded by the British Chartists, it was initially limited in colonial Australia to a select group of men who held property of a certain value. The list of those eligible to vote was gradually expanded but, universal suffrage, the right of all adult men and women to vote was not achieved nationally until 1963 when Indigenous Australians were granted the right to vote at federal elections.

Adelaide City Council members, 1897.
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One of the most important ways that individuals can influence governmental decision-making is through voting in parliamentary elections. In a representative democracy such as Australia, voting gives people the power to affect how their country is governed by electing those who will represent their interests in parliament.

While the right to vote was one of the principles of democratic reform demanded by the British Chartists, it was initially limited in colonial Australia to a select group of men who held property of a certain value. The list of those eligible to vote was gradually expanded but, universal suffrage, the right of all adult men and women to vote was not achieved nationally until 1963 when Indigenous Australians were granted the right to vote at federal elections.

Adelaide City Council members, 1897.
1840

First elected town councils

First elected town councils

The first city council is established in Adelaide, followed by Sydney in 1842. Men must own property worth more than £1000 to stand for election, and wealthy landowners have up to four votes each.


1843

First parliamentary election

First parliamentary election

Voting begins in the first election for the NSW Legislative Council. Created by the New South Wales Constitution Act 1842 (UK), the Council is Australia’s first semi-representative legislature and lays the groundwork for the parliamentary system. It does not grant full responsible government, but it enables the first election to be held for the two-thirds elected NSW Legislative Council. Ex-convicts are eligible to vote and stand.


1848

NSW Constitutional Association

NSW Constitutional Association

The NSW Constitutional Association is formed by radical patriots, including Henry Parkes, to agitate for extension of the franchise and land reform. In his first public speech, made at the City Theatre in January 1849, Parkes advocates universal suffrage as the best guarantee that the people, growing in enlightenment, would avoid the excesses of Paris and Frankfurt. His radicalism reaches a high point in April 1850 when John Dunmore Lang and James Wilshire establish the Australian League to work for universal suffrage and transformation of the Australian colonies into a Great Federal Republic.


1856

Responsible government

Responsible government

The Australian colonies become self-governing — all adult (21 years and over) male British subjects are entitled to vote in South Australia from 1856, in Victoria from 1857, New South Wales from 1858, and Tasmania from 1896. This includes Indigenous men, although they are not encouraged to enrol. Queensland and Western Australia introduce responsible government in 1890 but deny Indigenous people the vote.


Secret ballot introduced

Secret ballot introduced

Victoria is the first Australian colony to pass a law adopting the secret ballot, a system already successfully used in France and some American states. It involves people voting at elections by casting their vote on paper and putting it in a ballot box, rather than voting by a public show of hands. Voting by ballot has a long history. It was a key element in the British Chartist Movement of the 1830s along with one person one vote, manhood suffrage, equal representation of electoral districts and annual elections. The secret ballot is used in the Victorian elections for the Legislative Assembly in September–October 1856, and is also adopted by Tasmania and South Australia in the same year. It remains a controversial issue in Britain, with advocates seeing it as a way of promoting democracy while opponents fear it will lead to fraud or, at worst, undermine the need for a man to publicly defend his political choice.


Start of manhood suffrage

Start of manhood suffrage

South Australia secures the one man one vote principle by abolishing plural voting, which is common practice in the colonies at the time. All of the other colonies follow suit, but in most cases it does not take effect until the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s.


South Australian Constitution

South Australian Constitution

Adult male (including Indigenous) suffrage, a secret ballot and no property qualification for Members of the House of Assembly are some of the South Australian Constitution’s decrees, making it one of the most democratic in the world at the time.


1858

Australian ballot

Australian ballot

The secret ballot, first used in Victoria’s Legislative Assembly elections and adopted by Tasmania and South Australia in 1856, evolves into the ‘Australian ballot’ by 1858. This innovative version of the secret ballot features the distribution of government-printed official ballot slips by electoral officials, ensuring absolute secrecy of people’s voting preferences and limiting the opportunity for corruption. The Australian ballot is a form of the secret ballot and its features are subsequently adopted by many other countries. It remains an important element of the Australian electoral system today.


1884

First women’s suffrage society

First women’s suffrage society

Henrietta Dugdale, Annie Lowe and several other women establish the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society to campaign for the female vote. Their model is followed by other colonies.


Taxation and votes for women

Taxation and votes for women

Taxation becomes a platform for women’s suffrage supporters in South Australia. In 1891 a petition is presented in parliament arguing that, as women pay taxes, they should be entitled to parliamentary representation through voting. The Taxation Act is passed in 1884. Throughout the 1880s numerous women’s suffrage Bills are introduced unsuccessfully to the South Australian Parliament. The Constitution Amendment Bill is finally passed in 1895.


1888

Women’s Suffrage League

Women’s Suffrage League

The Women’s Suffrage League is established in South Australia, spearheading the campaign for women’s right to vote. The League grows out of the work of the Social Purity Society.


1895

Women’s right to vote

Women’s right to vote

South Australia becomes the first colony in Australia, and one of the first places in the world, to grant women the right to vote. South Australian women also win the right to stand for election to parliament, a world first. The Constitution (Female Suffrage) Act 1895 (SA) is passed by the South Australian parliament in 1894 but the Attorney-General advises Governor Kintore on 21 December 1894 that Royal Assent is required to enact the Bill. Queen Victoria subsequently signs her Assent on 2 February 1895. Other Australian colonies follow suit - Western Australia in 1899, New South Wales in 1902, Tasmania in 1903, Queensland in 1905, and Victoria in 1908. In 1902, after Federation of the colonies, women over the age of 21 years win the right to vote in Australia’s national elections, some 16 years before British women. However, the Commonwealth Franchise Act effectively excludes Indigenous Australian women (and men) until 1962, when the Menzies Liberal-Country Party coalition government grants the right to vote in national elections to all Aboriginal people.


Women vote for the first time

Women vote for the first time

South Australian women go to the polls in 1895, becoming the first women in Australia and amongst the first in the world to cast their vote in parliamentary elections. The Constitution (Female Suffrage) Act 1895 (SA) also grants women the right to stand for parliament, making them the first in the world with this right. South Australian women with property can also vote in the upper house elections, but they cannot stand for election until 1959. Amongst the women who vote in the South Australian elections on 21 March 1895 are 81 of the 102 Indigenous women of the Point McLeay Mission who have registered to vote.


1901

Australia’s first federal election

Australia’s first federal election

On 29–30 March, the first federal election is held in Australia. Seventy-five members are elected to the House of Representatives and 36 members to the Senate. The first federal parliament is officially opened on 9 May at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne.


1902

Women get the vote

Women get the vote

The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 sets out who can vote in elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate, the two Houses of the new Commonwealth Parliament. The Act excludes from enrolling to vote all ‘aboriginal native[s] of Australia Africa Asia or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand’ unless covered under Section 41. Because women (other than those excluded on racial grounds) can vote in South Australia (and thus the Northern Territory) and Western Australia, they are eligible under the Australian Constitution. Those in New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland, and Victoria achieve the right to vote in the Federal election on 16 December 1903 under this Act. These women finally win the right to vote in their own State elections in 1902, 1903, 1905, and 1908 respectively.


1903

Women vote in federal election

Women vote in federal election

With the passing of The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 ‘all persons not under twenty-one years of age whether male or female married or unmarried’ are entitled to vote or stand for election in federal elections. The Act excludes Aboriginal women and men unless they are eligible to vote under state law. On 16 December 1903, women vote for the first time in an Australian federal election, and four women nominate for election. Vida Goldstein (Victoria), and Nellie Martel and Mary Ann Moore Bentley (New South Wales) stand for election to the Senate, and Selina Anderson stands for the seat of Dalley (New South Wales) in the House of Representatives. They are the first women nominated for any national Parliament within the British Empire. Although none is elected, the event is described by The Dawn newspaper as ‘the greatest day that ever dawned for woman in Australia’.


1911

Compulsory electoral enrolment

Compulsory electoral enrolment

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1911 introduces compulsory electoral enrolment for all Australians who are eligible to vote. Compulsory voting is first advocated by Alfred Deakin shortly after Federation, but voting remains voluntary at the first nine federal elections. Proponents of compulsory voting argue that it teaches citizens the benefits of participation in political and parliamentary representation. Since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924, the turnout at Australian elections has never fallen below 90 per cent.


1921

Australian Federation of Women Voters

Australian Federation of Women Voters

The British Dominions Women Citizens’ Union joins with women’s societies in Australia to form the Australian Federation of Women’s Societies for Equal Citizenship (later the Australian Federation of Women Voters). Founded by Bessie Rischbieth, it aims to achieve ‘equality of opportunity, status, responsibility and reward between men and women’. From 1922, each Australian delegation to the League of Nations General Assembly includes women as a result of the Federation’s lobbying. The Federation affiliates with the British Commonwealth League and the International Alliance of Women, and survives until at least 1974.


1924

First Cabinet meeting in Canberra

First Cabinet meeting in Canberra

Prime Minister Stanley Bruce holds the first federal Cabinet meeting in the national capital, at Yarralumla House. In 1931, at the depth of the Great Depression, Cabinet begins meeting in the federal parliament building (now Old Parliament House). The location of Cabinet within the parliament signifies the growing power of the Executive branch of government over the elected parliament during the 20th century.


1937

Sex discrimination in Australian law

Sex discrimination in Australian law

The Australian Federation of Women Voters compiles a memorandum on the status of women, showing sex discrimination is endemic in Australian law. The memorandum is an annex to the report prepared by the government on the same subject and is forwarded to the Secretariat of the League of Nations.


1973

Voting age lowered

Voting age lowered

The voting age for federal elections is lowered from 21 to 18 years.