A history of Aboriginal voting rights

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A history of Aboriginal voting rights
Aboriginal people have fought and continue to fight hard for rights. At different times in Australian history these rights were withheld from Aboriginal people by Federal, State and local government authorities.

Aboriginal organisations and individuals carried on the struggle for rights over many decades. Using a range of strategies, they drew public attention to their grievances and often gained access to politicians at the highest level. Aboriginal leaders wrote letters to members of parliament, they sent petitions, they held demonstrations and formed political organisations to agitate for reform.

Pre 1900

Between 1856 and 1900 all Australian colonies had given Aboriginal men the right to vote. However, in Western Australia and Queensland being a property owner was a pre-condition of being able to vote. At the time, this would have applied to few, if any, Aboriginal men.

In 1894, South Australia was the only colony to give the vote to women, including Aboriginal women. Despite this, the right to vote was often very difficult to exercise due to restrictive conditions on voter registration.

1902 - The Commonwealth Electoral Act

In 1902 the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902 was passed. The Act outlined who could vote in Federal elections and Section 4 of the Act stated: No Aboriginal native of Australia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand shall be entitled to have his name placed on an Electoral Roll unless so entitled under section 41 of the Constitution.

The Act was interpreted very narrowly with reference to Aboriginal people, so that only those Aboriginal people whose names were already on the electoral roll for their State elections would be able to vote in the Commonwealth elections. This right would die with them, because their children's names could not be added to the roll. In addition to this, if an Aboriginal person's name was removed from the State electoral roll (if they were serving a prison term or were dependent on welfare, for example), then they would also be struck from the Commonwealth electoral roll with no further opportunity to enrol.

1949: Voting rights granted to Aboriginal servicemen

The Australian Aborigines League (AAL), formed in 1932 by William Cooper, fought to end all discriminatory practices against Aboriginal people in "civic, political and economic" spheres and demanded full citizens "rights". The Australian Government agreed and in 1949 the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was amended to give the Federal vote to Aboriginal people who were serving, or who had served, in the defence forces.

1962: Voting rights for all Aboriginal people

In 1962 the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was again amended to give all Aboriginal people the right to vote in Commonwealth elections, although voting was not compulsory.

1983: Voting becomes compulsory

A further amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was passed in 1983 which made voting compulsory for all enrolled Aboriginal people.

Today Aboriginal people have the same citizenship rights as other Australians. However, they are typically underrepresented when elections arise. Fewer Aboriginal people cast their vote on election day than are eligible and there are currently no Aboriginals in the Australian Parliament. In contrast, a number of Aboriginal people do currently represent electorates at State and Territorial level, and South Australia has had an Aboriginal Governor, Sir Douglas Nicholls.

The future

It is compulsory for Australian citizens who are 18 years of age or older to be enrolled and vote. More importantly, no political process can be truly democratic without the direct input of all people.

  1. Why is it important for all people to have the vote in a democratic nation?

  2. Add these significant events to the timeline on A3 paper. Include a brief explanation.

  3. Also add with a brief explanation:

  • the period in which it was legislated for children to be forcibly removed from their parents, the Stolen Generations (Official government policy: 1909 – 1969)

  • the first Day of Mourning

  • William Cooper’s petition

  • the 1967 Referendum

  1. Watch http://www.abc.net.au/archives/80days/stories/2012/01/19/3411520.htm

  2. Why was this referendum so important for Indigenous Australians?

  3. What percentage of Australian voters said “Yes”?


Learning intention: To be able to understand and use the key words associated with the issue of reconciliation.

Circle the most correct meaning for the following words from the passage.

  1. Reconciliation

  1. Heritage

  • The culture and tradition of a people

  • Non-woody vegetation

  • The home of a hermit

  1. Justice

  • The act of judging

  • Rightfulness, fair treatment

  • Eye for an eye

  1. Equity

  1. Dispossession

  • The act of dissecting

  • Lack of satisfaction

  • The act of taking property from someone

  1. Respect

Choose words from the box to complete each of the following sentences.

  1. It is hoped that through the process of Reconciliation, all people of Australia will have _____________________ for each other.

  2. One of the aims of reconciliation is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ____________________ is valued.

  • Heritage

  • Justice

  • Equity

  • Dispossession

  • Respect

  • Disadvantage

  • Occupied

  • History

Australia was ________________________ by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people prior to invasion.

  1. It is recognised that, as a result of invasion, Indigenous people suffered __________________________.

  2. All levels of government need to be committed to addressing Aboriginal _______________________.

  3. Part of the vision is for _________________________ and ____________________ in a united Australia.

  4. Reconciliation is about Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people sharing _____________________________.

Reconciliation and National Reconciliation Week

26 May 2010

The Reconciliation movement began in 1967 when a 90% majority of Australians voted to allow the Commonwealth government to make decisions respecting Aboriginal Australians.

1. Working together to close the gaps between Indigenous and other Australians benefits all Australians.

When we talk about reconciliation we are talking about a process of building relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that enables us to work together to close the gaps, and to achieve a shared sense of fairness and justice.

Closing the Gaps describes the actions that governments, business and community organisations engage with to end Indigenous disadvantage. Reconciliation has no meaning if it isn’t aimed at achieving equality in life expectancy, education, employment and other indicators of disadvantage.

In working to achieve measureable equality, Reconciliation Australia encourages simultaneous efforts to improve daily life and address underlying actions that influence daily life. This includes a mix of practical and symbolic efforts. Working together to close the gaps benefits all Australians, not just Indigenous Australians or those who work directly with them. The financial as well as human cost of failure impacts on us all.

2. Building mutually respectful relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other Australians is core to reconciliation.

Good relationships are based on trust, understanding, communication and mutual respect. Reconciliation Australia’s research shows that our levels of trust in each other are generally low and we often fail to understand each other. If we are to change this, everybody in Australia has a role to play in improving our relationships.

Trying to improve our relationships is happening on many levels. This includes the overarching relationship between the Australian Government and the nation’s first peoples, as well as in every workplace, school, sporting club and every community. It also has to happen at the individual level because that is where Australians understand reconciliation as a felt experience.

3. Reconciliation didn’t end with the bridge walks or The Apology.

National Reconciliation Week 2010 highlights that a decade after the historic bridge walks it’s fair to say the future for reconciliation has never looked brighter. And while there’s still a way to go, respect, trust and the knowledge to turn good intentions into effective actions pave the way forward. In the words of the Prime Minister, we can now walk and work together.

Implicit in the concept of reconciliation is justice. The wounds of injustice among us continue to cause pain and prevent us from feeling reconciled. Australians recognise when justice has been achieved, this was felt in the 1967 Referendum and again in 2008 when the nation stopped the watch The Apology. Those involved, feel justice is done when Native Title has been recognized or stolen wages compensated.

When we talk about justice, we are really talking fairness; it’s a quality we value and practice as a nation. While a sense of justice may be felt at the personal level, a belief in fairness is collective. When we work together and succeed by building good relationships, we experience a shared sense of what is fair and just.

4. National Reconciliation Week is a time to reflect on what we can do to make a difference.

In 1993 faith communities of Australia started the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation. Following its success, the week was expanded in 1996 to become National Reconciliation Week to provide nationwide focus for all reconciliation activities. This is a time for all Australians to commit to changes and actions within their circle of influence to contribute to a more mature and inclusive Australian community. This year will be the 15th year of National Reconciliation Week. It also marks 10 years since the bridge walks for reconciliation.

May 27 marks the anniversary of Australia’s most successful referendum and a defining event in our nation’s history. The 1967 referendum saw over 90 per cent of Australians vote to give the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and recognise them in the national census. 2012 marks the 45th anniversary of the ’67 referendum.

On 3 June, 1992, the High Court of Australia delivered its landmark Mabo decision which legally recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a special relationship to the land—that existed prior to colonalisation and still exists today. This recognition paved the way for land rights called Native Title. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Mabo decision.

5. We all have a role to play in reconciliation.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the bridge walks for reconciliation, this National Reconciliation Week asks all Australians to think about what actions they can take individually and as part of their community to contribute to a reconciled nation.

When people come together to share conversations and share in each other’s hopes and dreams for a better Australia, reconciliation takes another step forward. You can celebrate our success so far by holding a BBQ or morning tea, or by organizing an event for customers, staff, students or members of the community. It’s also an opportunity to talk about what still needs to be done over the next 10 years.

On Friday May 28, Reconciliation Australia will launch a new public awareness campaign that encourages Australians to consider their own role in reconciliation. There will be online, television, cinema, radio and print components and will call for all Australians to help finish what was started. The Unfinished Oz website will be central to the campaign and offers a range of ways for people to get involved in the reconciliation process.


Watch the following You Tube clip

Reconciliation Australia Fresh Eyes


Answer these two questions.

  1. Why was this clip created? (CCTF) (5 marks)

  2. How useful is this clip in helping historians understand the significance of reconciliation? (4 marks)

http://www.unfinishedoz.com.au/ Visit this site if you are interested to learn more.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy

January 2012

Learning intention: To understand the significance of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy as a symbol of political rights for Indigenous Australians.

1) The Tent Embassy started out with four protesters and a beach umbrella

On Australia Day in 1972, a number of Indigenous activists erected a beach umbrella on the lawns of Old Parliament House. Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Koorie set up the protest and placed a sign that said ‘Embassy’ to represent a displaced nation. The activists were protesting against the McMahon Liberal Government’s statement in which land rights were rejected in favour of 50-year leases to Aboriginal communities (a similar protest in Perth, WA was staged at the same time).


The protesters issued a petition in February, which detailed a five point plan addressing Aboriginal ownership of existing reserves and settlements, preservation of all sacred sites, $6 million in compensation and full rights of statehood for the Northern Territory. A policeman on duty at the time reportedly asked the activists how long the protest would last. When told the Embassy would stay until Aboriginal Australians had land rights, the police officer replied “that could be forever”.

2) The Aboriginal Tent Embassy has been a focal point for protests and marches on Parliament

Since 1992, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has been a focal point for protests and marches on Parliament. Activists Arthur and Rose Kirby were even married there in 1997. In recent years protests have taken on a more ceremonial style, such as the lighting of the scared fire in1998. Every year on 26 January, the Tent Embassy holds a free public event called Coroborree for Sovereignty, and issues a public invitation to the community to attend the event.

The black, yellow and red land rights flag was first flown at the Tent Embassy in 1972, uniting Aboriginal people from around the country. Many have described the Embassy as the birthplace of the final form of the Aboriginal Land Rights flag designed by Harold Thomas. Thomas reportedly responded to the request to have the black above the red, not the red over the black. As the late Billy Craigie stated, “otherwise they’ve already buried us, Brother!”.http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/3/3f/australian_aboriginal_flag.svg/220px-australian_aboriginal_flag.svg.png

Given its position in the nation’s capital, the Embassy has also become a place where non-Indigenous Australians and international visitors first meet and talk with Aboriginal people to learn firsthand about their history.

3) The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was given heritage value in 1995

The tents erected on the lawns of Old Parliament House were removed twice by the Liberal Government in 1972 (by use of police force, territory and planning guidelines and direct negotiations, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7j3Rq2Tryo ). From 1975, the Embassy was intermittently closed and re-erected in line with the political climate at the time. However, in 1992 it became a permanent fixture, representing the ongoing struggle for Aboriginal sovereignty and land rights. In 1995 the Embassy was listed on the Australian Heritage Commission’s National Estate. It is the only place recognised nationally for the political struggle of Aboriginal people.

The Embassy’s mix of grassroots politics has seen it become a powerful symbol of resistance and cultural revival with many Aboriginal activists attributing their political consciousness and education to the Embassy.

4) The Tent Embassy will commemorate and celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2012

January 26, 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the Tent Embassy. The anniversary is a significant milestone both for Aboriginal people and for our nation’s history.

Despite some labeling the Tent Embassy as an eyesore, its existence over the past 40 years has seen it become an icon of Aboriginal political rights and struggles and has become a national icon for all Australians.

In you books write the heading Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Then, using this information, write 6 facts about the embassy.

The meaning of land

Learning intention: To understand the unique meaning of land to Indigenous Australians and that it is central to all aspects of life.






The emblem, mark or symbol of a clan




To do with the soul, religious


Holy, deserving religious respect


Word of mouth


A ceremony of admission (e.g. into adulthood)


To do with politics and governing of people


A feeling of belonging to or being bound to something


Culture and traditions preserved from one generation to the next


Efficient use of resources or wealth


To do with hearing


Involved or complex


To do with ways of living, passed down through generations


The act of having something taken away from you


Native to the land

For Indigenous people around the world, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, land is the source of all aspects of life – economic, spiritual, cultural, social and political. ‘Mother Earth’ is a term commonly used to denote a close attachment to the land. There is no sense of ownership as such, rather a feeling of belonging and of being part of the interconnection of all the land provides, both living and non-living. As Pat Dodson, former chairperson of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, said:

land cannot be given or taken away. We belong to the land; our birth does not sever the chord of life which comes from the land. Our spirituality, our culture and our social life depend on it.

Before invasion, the land provided Aboriginal people with all the necessities of life – food, clothing and shelter. The land provided a nutritious and varietal diet, regardless of whether home was in the dessert or on the coast. In fact, the environment had a big impact on the types and availability of food. Each Aboriginal nation had an intricate knowledge of the foods available in particular seasons and particular parts of their land. Aboriginal people were conscious of preserving the environment and practise various farming techniques to ensure the survival and growth of food sources.

Spirituality, through the Dreaming, the land provided the religious basis of life. Each nation had its own dreaming stories and tracks that linked the past with the present and future, providing a continuous heritage for each generation. The Dreaming also preserved the land and the food sources as it provided guides as to what could and could not be done. For example, in many nations, each person was given a totem. Each person then had the responsibility to protect their totem through rules, such a not being allowed to eat the totem during its reproductive season. These practices helped ensure the regrowth of food sources.

Culturally, the land and its Dreaming tracks provided Aboriginal nations with the basis of their cultural practices. This included such things as sacred and non-sacred ceremonies, corroborees and recording of events through art, dance, music and so on. Again, these practices were often closely related to food and daily survival. For example, an unexpectedly large catch of food might be a call for a celebration and neighbouring families and clans may be asked to join in and share the food and celebrations. A huge feast with dancing, music and storytelling would result and probably be recorded somewhere, such as on cave walls or in the sand. In these ways, Aboriginal people were able to keep oral and aural records of events in their history.

Socially, the land provided the basis for family and social organisation. Kinship systems revolved around both the individual’s and the group’s relationship to the land and determined behaviours and lifestyles. In this extended family situation, each member had a clearly defined personal and group identity related to the land. Through intermarriage, for example, one of the couple would become a member of their spouse’s extended family and would therefore assume certain responsibilities towards them and their land.

Politically, the land provided Aboriginal nations with the boundaries and the laws under which they lived. Again, the Dreaming stories about the land and its people laid down the basis of group, including individual roles and expected behaviours. A system of rewards and punishments were built into this, expressed through cultural practices such as initiation ceremonies. This system was passed down through each generation.

YOUR TASK Complete this mind-map with concepts from the information above. One has been done for you.
Today, despite forcible removal from their ancestral lands, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples still have ties to their land through kinship and community links. Many still consider this link to the land as central to their lives even if they are living in an urban centre and the connection is not visible.

Thus, the importance of land to Aboriginal and Torres Strait people cannot be understated as it is the basis of all aspect of life. To take away the land is to take away not only the physical means of support, but also the spiritual, cultural, social and political structures necessary for survival. In this context, the impact of dispossession from land as a result of invasion was, and still is, devastating. It is, thus, the basis for Aboriginal peoples’ continual struggle for justice today

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