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Aboriginal South Australians and Parliament

Voting in South Australian Elections

When Parliament was established in 1857, all adult men who had been registered in the colony for six months were entitled to vote. This included Aboriginal men, although it is unlikely that this was the intention of the men who wrote the Constitution. There is no record of any Aboriginal men registering to vote in the early days of Parliament.

When women gained the vote in 1894, Aboriginal women were included. At the Ngarrindjeri mission at Point McLeay, a number of Aboriginal women insisted on enrolling on the electoral roll and voting in the 1896 election, even though they were actively discouraged by the white manager of the mission. There were more than 100 people on the rolls, and more than 70 of them voted that year.

Map of South Australia
Early Map of South Australia, reproduced from South Australia's Foundation: select documents, p.70.

By the late 19th century, Aboriginal people had the vote in all the colonies apart from Western Australia and Queensland, but it was only in South Australia that some Aboriginal people actually enrolled and voted.


Voting in Federal Elections

When the Australian colonies were developing the Australian Constitution, an important question was who should have the right to vote in Federal elections, as each colony had different arrangements for the franchise. In particular there was debate over whether women and Aboriginal people should be entitled to vote. This was also tied to the debate over Aboriginal people being included in the Australian census.

The South Australian delegation to the Constitutional Convention and the South Australian House of Assembly both argued that Aborigines should be counted in the Australian census, because otherwise they would be at risk of losing their right to vote. Robert Caldwell argued that to exclude them was

"... one of the black spots of the Bill. There were many aborigines on the electoral roll who were intelligent men and to exclude them from the census was an insult."
Source: quoted in "How Australian Aborigines lost the Vote", an Old Parliament House Research Paper.

Unfortunately the South Australian arguments were defeated, and the census excluded Aboriginal people. Key supporters of Federation and future Prime Ministers, Alfred Deakin and Edmund Barton, assured the South Australians that Aboriginal voting rights would still be protected, and Clause 41 was inserted in the new Constitution which provided that all people who had State votes should also have Commonwealth votes.

But in 1902, the Commonwealth passed a Franchise Act which set up uniform voting rights across Australia. This included a clause banning all "non-whites" from voting, except those who already had State votes. Aboriginal people were included in the definition of "non-whites".

This should at least have protected the voting rights of Aboriginal people in States where they could vote in State elections. But over the years, debate on the interpretation of the Constitution and the decisions of electoral officials resulted in many Aboriginal people losing their right to vote in Federal elections, including in 1933, 11 long standing voters at Point McLeay.


Restoring the right to vote

Aboriginal people eventually secured the right to vote in Federal elections in 1962, after growing pressure to end the discrimination.

In 1967, following a referendum, Aborigines gained full citizenship rights, and were at last required to be counted in the census.


Aboriginal people in South Australian politics

The first Aboriginal candidate for State Parliament was Ruby Hammond, who stood in 1988. In 1976, Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls was appointed Governor of South Australia, the first Aboriginal Governor of any Australian State.