The material shown here is of a historical nature and does not reflect current electoral procedures. For current information please visit the Australian Electoral Commission website. Some material may contain descriptions and terms that reflect the authors’ views, or those of the period in which the content was created and may not be considered appropriate today.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples did not gain the vote in the 1967 Referendum. In fact, before Federation in 1901, some Aboriginal people had been entitled to vote in a number of Australian colonies.
Each colony could determine who was allowed to vote which sometimes led to some curious differences. For example, Aboriginal women in South Australia were able to vote in 1894, years before non-Indigenous women could vote in either Sydney or Melbourne.
While in Queensland and Western Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were barred from voting in elections from the end of the nineteenth century until the 1960s.
After Federation, there was heated debate about who should be eligible to vote in the elections for the newly-established Australian government. There was very strong opposition by a significant number of politicians who campaigned against giving all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults the right to vote.
Senator Alexander Matheson expressed the view that such a step would be ‘repugnant and atrocious’. Senator Richard O’Connor, on the other hand, made a passionate plea for equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
‘It would be a monstrous thing, an unheard of piece of savagery on our part, to treat Aborigines, whose land we were occupying, to deprive them of any right to vote in their own country simply on the grounds of their colour.’ (1902)
Despite O’Connor’s compelling argument, the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902 further restricted Aboriginal voting rights. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were barred from participating in Commonwealth elections unless they were already eligible to vote in state elections.
Under the Constitution, individual states had the right to legislate the definitions of who was considered to be an Aboriginal and or Torres Strait Islander person. These definitions could be used to determine who was and who was not eligible to vote.
During the first half of the twentieth century, changes to the definitions often led to further restrictions on voting rights. Because of these policies, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were excluded from participating in the political process.
Voting rights for all
‘I ask for franchise for all people of Aboriginal blood’ — Sir Douglas Nicholls, footballer, pastor and activist, 1961
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, a growing number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander campaigners sought to gain rights for, and improve the living conditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Over time, their efforts led to changes in legislation.
In 1949, the Electoral Act was amended to extend the federal vote to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who had served in the armed forces, and to continue to enfranchise those who had the right to vote in their own state.
In 1961, following sustained campaigning by activist groups such as the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, the Federal Government convened a Select Committee on Voting Rights of Aborigines. The Committee’s Report estimated that approximately 30,000 people living in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia were excluded from the vote.
As a result, the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended in 1962 to give all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults the right to vote in federal elections, although enrolling was not made compulsory.
Legislators were concerned that some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples might choose not to exercise their right to vote and might be penalised for not voting. For this reason, the Act stressed that enrolment was optional.
The new Act also made encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults to enrol an offence. This unusual situation remained in effect until 1984 when voting was made compulsory for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in line with the rest of the nation.
With the expansion of voting rights, a wide range of material was produced to inform diverse groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of their rights and obligations in relation to voting.
The AIATSIS Collection includes information and promotional materials that chart the changing approaches to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the electoral process. The materials chart changing official approaches to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the electoral process over half a century. They also form a powerful record of the evolving engagement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia’s democratic system.
The education campaigns
An instruction in voting
In September 1962, Charles ‘Jack’ White, a senior official with the Commonwealth Electoral Office (the forerunner to the Australian Electoral Commission), initiated an education program to provide information to Aboriginal voters. The program was designed specifically for use in the Northern Territory which was where the first election following the 1962 Act was held. It sought to instruct adults who had just gained the right to vote, and to educate future generations of voters.
At the time, election education materials consisted of English-language pamphlets with no illustrations. White commissioned the production of more versatile visual aids — a filmstrip and picture cards — that could be used to deliver instruction in Aboriginal languages as well as English.
The filmstrip ‘Franchise for Aborigines’ was a series of images that could be projected onto a screen or wall. It was the first effort to illustrate the Australian parliamentary system and voting procedures for an audience presumed to have little knowledge of either.
The filmstrip focused on the mechanics of the voting process with little discussion of the functions of government and how voting might impact on peoples’ lives.
These early education materials established a set of images that visualised the participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian democratic system. They reoccur in many of the later materials, with subtle differences reflecting changing government policies and the growing recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as active participants in the political process.
An urban audience
The extension of federal voting rights to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, together with the continuing efforts of Aboriginal campaigners and their supporters, contributed to the expansion of voting rights to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in state elections.
Voting rights for Aboriginal people in Western Australia were extended in 1962; the Native Welfare Act, passed in 1963, repealed earlier Acts which had restricted the civil liberties of Aboriginal people in Western Australia.
In 1964, the Western Australian Department of Native Welfare produced the pamphlet Citizens to explain these legislative changes to Aboriginal people. It is the earliest item in the Collection that explicitly communicates with an urban Aboriginal audience.
In 1965, the Commonwealth Electoral Office updated the visual aids, using similar layouts to the 1962 filmstrip but with naturalistic drawings replacing the abstract silhouettes.
Like the 1962 materials, the images on these cards are designed for Aboriginal audiences in rural and remote communities, predominantly in Western Australia where Jack White had taken the role of Chief Commonwealth Electoral Officer for that state.
In 1965, Queensland was the last state to fall in line and pass legislation allowing all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults to vote in state elections.
The increasing public awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander electors during the 1960s is demonstrated by a Weet-Bix card produced in 1969.
The card was one of a collectable series of cards distributed in Weet-Bix cereal boxes, depicting various aspects of Aboriginal lives and cultures. It features an image of Aboriginal people exercising their right to vote. The accompanying text was emphatically positive about the impact of extended voting rights:
‘[…] increasing numbers of Aborigines are voting at each election. The day may not be far away when an Aborigine will be elected to Parliament’.
Indeed, the day was not far off. In 1971, Neville Bonner was appointed by the Queensland Liberal Party to fill a vacancy as a senator for Queensland, becoming the first Aboriginal person to sit in the Commonwealth Parliament. It was a historic appointment and he was subsequently returned to office in the 1972 election.
‘First and foremost I participate […] as an Australian citizen. […] As an Australian, I am concerned for the future of my country, for the welfare of its people and for the quality of life that they enjoy.’ — Neville Bonner, maiden parliamentary speech, 1971.
Materials in language
The 1970s saw the growing assertion of distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identities. This social context was reflected in electoral education materials that featured more active roles for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the electoral process, as well as the production of these materials in Aboriginal languages.
Much of this material was produced for voters living in remote communities in Western Australia, as well as in remote areas of the Northern Territory and South Australia.
In 1977, the Australian Electoral Office (AEO), as it was then called, intensified its education efforts. That year saw a federal election in December, as well as a number of state elections and an election to choose candidates for the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC).
As with previous efforts, the education program primarily focused on the mechanics of voting.
Popular Yorta Yorta country music performer Jimmy Little appeared in an AEO instructional film called ‘What you should know for election day’. Jimmy Little provided information on a number of electoral topics, including absentee and postal voting, and performed several of his well-known songs.
Little’s popularity across Aboriginal communities made him the ideal choice for this film, the first to feature a celebrity to promote engagement with the electoral process.
Instructional posters in a range of Aboriginal languages were produced for display at polling booths for the 1977 federal election. The selection of languages focused on languages spoken in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia, such as Garrwa, Iwaidja, and Arrente.
The AEO also distributed cassette tapes featuring Slim Dusty, another country music singer popular among many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, to explain the NAC election process. On the reverse side of the tapes, this information was translated into 17 Aboriginal languages.
'This is the way to make a vote' was developed by the Adult Aboriginal Education Section of the Western Australian Education Department in conjunction with the AEO. The comic book uses the character of an Aboriginal electoral officer to explain the intricacies of preferential voting which was produced for communities in Western Australia.
It was part of a Voting Procedures Course undertaken by the AEO in November and December of 1977 to prepare Aboriginal voters in the Western Australian seat of Kimberley for a state by-election. The by-election was the result of a successful court challenge that found a number of procedural irregularities which had significantly impacted on non-literate Aboriginal voters in an earlier state election.
You can have your say
Building on the intensified education efforts begun in 1977, the Aboriginal Electoral Education Program (AEEP) was established in June 1979.
The new program, called ‘You Can Have Your Say’, shifted from earlier efforts that only addressed the mechanics of the electoral process, to a central message emphasising active participation in the democratic process. The bold imagery reflected 1970s design as well as the iconography of the decade’s activism.
The program initially was carried out in Western Australia and South Australia before being expanded to the Northern Territory.
Two teams travelled with caravans to Aboriginal communities for four or five days and did electoral education classes in consultation with community elders and leaders. The program also distributed packages of the electoral education material for continued use in Aboriginal communities
The education package included new audio-visual material featuring Jimmy Little, sample ballot papers and a set of poster cards.
While the purpose of the program was to teach an understanding of the parliamentary and electoral system, legislation was still in effect that made it an offence to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults to enrol to vote.
Despite this, the program not only provided instruction on the basics of electoral procedures, it also sought to encourage ‘Aboriginal people to value the rights and obligations implicit in the parliamentary system’.
Unlike earlier education material, it portrayed Aboriginal people as active participants in the electoral process, including images of an Aboriginal candidate.
‘More than ever, Governments are sitting up and taking notice of Aboriginal people. More than ever, the Aboriginal voice is being listened to.’ — Aboriginal Votes Count pamphlet
The 1980s saw a more visible presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in Australian public life, along with greater awareness of the struggles faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In 1983, amendments to the Electoral Act made enrolment compulsory for all Australians, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults. The earlier restriction against encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults to enrol was removed. This change required a concerted effort on the part of the re-named Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to ensure the enrolment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voters, who may not have previously been enrolled.
In 1985, the AEEP was replaced with the Australian Aboriginal Electoral Information Service (AEIS). The AEC’s new service was different to previous efforts in that it aimed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-management in electoral matters. This aim was in keeping with wider policy shifts occurring across government.
The AEIS sought to work with Indigenous communities and organisations to promote the enrolment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voters. The program also included the training of Aboriginal Community Electoral Assistants. The AEIS produced a wide range of education material to promote enrolment, voting and participation in the democratic system.
The Vee Family
A series of 39 booklets were produced by the AEIS to provide electoral education through the experiences of the various members of the fictitious Vee family.
These experiences range from that of a non-literate voter voting for the first time, a person obliged to undertake postal voting and that of a person participating as a candidate in the election.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the AEC sought new and more engaging ways to communicate electoral information to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voters. Materials including comic books and vibrant, large format posters were produced.
The message also began to change, emphasising the responsibilities of elected representatives to address the needs and aspirations of their electorates.
Individuals were encouraged to vote as a way to assert their rights as citizens, and their desires for the future for themselves and their communities.
The Phantom Enrols and Votes
In 1988, the popular comic book figure The Phantom was recruited for use in electoral education material. The Phantom was and continues to be a favourite character in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and was considered an ideal way to engage with potential voters. Like earlier education materials, the comic book was a format chosen to appeal to a wide range of age groups, including children who would become future voters.
Both comics were designed by Garage Graphix, a not-for-profit community art organisation consisting of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous artists and designers based in western Sydney.
The 1988 comic book The Phantom enrols & votes focused on encouraging enrolment and explaining voting procedures.
The AEC commissioned a series of posters by Aboriginal and non-Indigenous designers from the Redback Graphix artists’ collective in Wollongong. The designers used visual imagery rather than written text to convey the messages.
The posters were recognisable by their distinct and colourful style, and became renowned for their visual appeal.
As Australia entered the twenty first century, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander achievements, role models, and contributions began to gain a greater public profile.
The Australian Electoral Commission continued to make ongoing efforts to educate and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly youth, in the electoral process.
A 2001 campaign, 'Jump to it', featured celebrities including singer Christine Anu, AFL player Xavier Clarke and Olympic Gold medallist Cathy Freeman.
'The Vote, it’s important' campaign was produced for the 2004 federal election, and included prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander role models such as athlete Kyle Vander Kuyp, and Simone Stacey and Naomi Wenitong from the musical group Shakaya.
Visits to communities, and the production of resources in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, continued to be an important part of the information given to voters.
‘I vote at every election and I think it is very important that I have a say. I think it is very important that we continue to have a voice.’ — Christine Anu, performer, 2012
The year 2012 was the fiftieth anniversary of the amendments to the 1962 Commonwealth Electoral Act that had given all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults voting rights. The AEC marked the occasion by reprinting three classic Redback Graphix posters, testifying to the lasting legacy and impact of these important endeavours.
To the credit of the AEC and its predecessor organisations, their electoral education materials and campaigns spanning 25 years had inspired similar electoral education programs in countries around the world.
We welcome opportunities to build knowledge about the AIATSIS Collection. If you have additional information about the materials presented here, please contact us.
AIATSIS would like to thank the following individuals and organisations for their assistance with this story: Australian Electoral Commission, Bronwyn Barwell, Marla Guppie, Alistair Legge, Marie McMahon, Lin Mountstephen, Paula Nesci, Frances Peters-Little, Will Sanders, Sanitarium Health & Wellbeing Company, The University of Melbourne Archives, and Tony Thorne.
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