Updated: 14 January 2013
But the referendum didn't give Aborigines the right to vote. They already had it. Legally their rights go back to colonial times. When Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia framed their constitutions in the 1850s they gave voting rights to all male British subjects over 21, which of course included Aboriginal men. And in 1895 when South Australia gave women the right to vote and sit in Parliament, Aboriginal women shared the right. Only Queensland and Western Australia barred Aborigines from voting.
Very few Aborigines knew their rights so very few voted. But some eventually did. Point McLeay, a mission station near the mouth of the Murray, got a polling station in the 1890s. Aboriginal men and women voted there in South Australian elections and voted for the first Commonwealth Parliament in 1901.
That first Commonwealth Parliament was elected by State voters but when it met it had to decide who should be entitled to vote for it in future. Three groups attracted debate. Women had votes in some States but not in others, so had Aborigines. And there were some Chinese, Indian and other non-white people who had become permanent residents before the introduction of the White Australia immigration policy.
The debates reflected the racist temper of the times with references to savages, slaves, cannibals, idolaters and Aboriginal 'lubras' and 'gins'. The Senate voted to let Aborigines vote but the House of Representatives defeated them. The 1902 Franchise Act gave women a Commonwealth vote but Aborigines and other 'coloured' people were excluded unless entitled under section 41 of the Constitution.
Section 41 said that anyone with a State vote must be allowed a Commonwealth vote. South Australia got that clause into the Constitution to ensure that South Australian women would have Commonwealth votes whether or not the Commonwealth Parliament decided to enfranchise all Australian women. The Commonwealth did enfranchise all women so they did not need section 41. But that section did seem to guarantee that, except in Queensland and Western Australia, Aborigines would be able to vote for the Commonwealth because of their State rights.
But did it mean that? The first Solicitor-General, Sir Robert Garran, interpreted it to give Commonwealth rights only to people who were already State voters in 1902. So no new Aboriginal voters could ever be enrolled and, in due course, the existing ones would die out. The joint Commonwealth/State electoral rolls adopted in the 1920s give some idea of the number of Aborigines who voted for their State parliaments but were barred by the Commonwealth. The symbol 'o' by a name meant 'not entitled to vote for the Commonwealth' and almost always indicated an Aborigine.
Garran's interpretation of section 41 was first challenged in 1924, not by an Aborigine but by an Indian who had recently been accepted to vote by Victoria but rejected by the Commonwealth. He went to court and won. The magistrate ruled that section 41 meant that people who acquired State votes at any date were entitled to a Commonwealth vote. Instead of obeying that ruling the Commonwealth passed an Act giving all Indians the vote (there were only 2 300 of them and the immigration policy would see there were no more) but continued to reject Aborigines and other 'coloured' applicants under its own interpretation of section 41.
Some of the Commonwealth officials got even tougher. They came to believe that no Aborigines had Commonwealth voting rights. Besides refusing new enrolments they began, illegally, to take away the rights of people who had been enrolled since the first election in 1901.
It was not until the 1940s that anyone began to battle for Aborigines' political rights. Various lobby groups took up their cause and in 1949 the Chifley Labor government passed an Act to confirm that all those who could vote in their States could vote for the Commonwealth. The symbol 'o' disappeared from the electoral rolls. But not much was done to publicise the change and most Aborigines, told for so long that they couldn't vote, continued to believe it.
In the 1960s moral outrage at the way countries like South Africa and the United States treated their black populations stirred Australians to look at their own behaviour. Many changes in Aborigines' rights and treatment followed, including at long last full voting rights. The Menzies Liberal and Country Party government gave the Commonwealth vote to all Aborigines in 1962. Western Australia gave them State votes in the same year. Queensland followed in 1965. With that, all Aborigines had full and equal rights. In 1971 the Liberal Party nominated Neville Bonner to fill a vacant seat in the Senate. He was the first Aborigine to sit in any Australian Parliament.
There is a happy ending to this story of discrimination and neglect. The Australian Electoral Commission is now making up for the sins of earlier generations. For a time, through its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Electoral Information Service, it sent field workers all over Australia, especially to remote areas, to tell people about voting and encourage them to enrol. But funding cuts have since ended that service.
At election time it cooperates with Imparja, the Aboriginal television station at Alice Springs, to broadcast information about State and Commonwealth elections to the outback of Queensland, the Northern Territory, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. A mobile polling program uses aircraft to enable remote people, black and white, to vote where they live rather than travel long distances to polling stations in town.
There's an irony there. Some of the strongest opposition to Aboriginal rights came from the outback. But equality with the Aborigines has brought its white settlers better electoral services than they ever achieved on their own.
Pat Stretton is a Research Officer with the State History Centre in South Australia.
The AEC wishes to thank Pat Stretton for permission to reproduce this article on the AEC website.