Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2002 Week 7 Hansard (4 June) . . Page.. 1861 ..
MS DUNDAS (4.30): As a number of members have noted, 1965 is the date that marks true universal Aboriginal suffrage in Australia, as between 1962 and 1965 Aboriginal people in Queensland were still denied the right to vote in state elections. But the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 marked an end to the exclusion of Aboriginal people from voting in federal elections so is a significant date and one well worth celebrating.
Progress towards indigenous suffrage was achieved through a series of steps. Some of these were backwards rather than forwards. The last step to full equality in suffrage occurred as late as 1983, when voting finally became compulsory for enrolled Aboriginal voters.
From the earliest debates about suffrage, progressive voices were heard on the subject as well as the voices of self-interest and prejudice. As early as the 1850s, Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia entrenched suffrage for Aboriginal men in their state constitutions. South Australia extended suffrage to all-both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal-in 1894.
But there was no natural progression from this point to suffrage at a federal level. When the first Commonwealth parliament was elected by state voters, it was the Commonwealth parliament that then had to decide who should be entitled to vote for it in the future. In the debates of 1902, questions were asked about whether women, non-white immigrants and Aboriginal people should be allowed to vote. Government Senate leader and future High Court judge, Richard O'Connor, presented to the Senate the Commonwealth Franchise Bill, which in its original form conferred voting rights on Aboriginal people. In tabling the bill, he said:
I think we might treat the position of Aboriginals under our electoral laws not only fairly but with some generosity ...
As has been noted, some senators objected to this bill. Their spokesman was Senator Alexander Matheson, an English aristocrat and businessman who migrated to West Australia in 1894. He said, "We must take some steps to prevent any Aboriginal from acquiring the right to vote." Mr Smyth alluded to the denigrating way in which Senator Matheson viewed Aboriginal people. Senator Matheson moved an amendment to exclude Aboriginal people from voting in federal elections. O'Connor spoke strongly against the amendment, saying:
It would be a monstrous thing ... to treat the Aboriginals whose land we are occupying in such a manner as to deprive them absolutely of any right to vote in their own country ... Surely we are not going to apply this doctrine ... with a savagery which is quite unworthy of the beginnings of this Federation?
Matheson's amendment was defeated, but when the bill went to the House of Representatives for debate this initiative to legislate Aboriginal suffrage was undone. Labor leader at the time, Chris Watson, feared that giving the vote to Aborigines would disadvantage the ALP. Mr Watson said in the chamber:
In Western Australia where Aboriginals are very largely indentured to squatters ... they would not dare to attempt to exercise their votes in defiance of the wishes of their masters ... Uncivilised blacks ... could in sufficient numbers be brought in to turn the tide at an election.