Voting Attitudes and Behaviour among Aboriginal Peoples: Reports from Anangu Women

By Hill, Lisa; Alport, Kate | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Voting Attitudes and Behaviour among Aboriginal Peoples: Reports from Anangu Women


Hill, Lisa, Alport, Kate, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The low voting participation of Aboriginal Peoples in remote regions of South Australia at state, and especially at federal, elections is a matter of concern for those who see voting as the premier privilege of citizenship. But data and studies of the voting behaviour and attitudes of remote Indigenous Australians which might explain their higher than average levels of voting abstention are even scarcer than is the case for the comparable settler-society populations of New Zealand and Canada where the paucity of reliable data is lamented. (1) Determining the extent of electoral participation of Aboriginal people in any setting worldwide is "notoriously difficult". (2) However there is broad consensus that in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, turnout is lower than average among Aboriginal populations. Since 1935, turnout rates for Maori voters have been consistently lower than for the general population, (3) while in Canada, voting turnout among on-reserve Aboriginals is around sixteen points lower than for the rest of the population. (4) In order to enrich and contextualise the following discussion, research from both settings will be drawn upon; data from the Canadian setting is particularly useful given that, unlike Maori who are significantly urbanised, many Aboriginal Canadians face the same problems of remoteness as the Australian constituency considered here.

Background: Aboriginal Voters and the Franchise

Aboriginal Australians were not entitled to vote in federal elections until 1962. The 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Act excluded any "aboriginal native of Australia" from the right to vote "unless so entitled under Section 41 of the Constitution". In 1902, neither South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales nor Tasmania formally prohibited Indigenous people from voting in state elections since all adult male British subjects were entitled to the vote in those jurisdictions at that time. But few Aboriginal men actually participated in elections. There were other exclusionary requirements such as property qualifications and the condition that only those not in receipt of charitable aid were entitled to vote, (5) and many were unaware of their rights.

In early 1962 all Aboriginal and Islander citizens won the right to vote in federal elections when the Commonwealth Electoral Act No. 31 (Cth) was passed with little debate. (6) More controversial, perhaps, was the proviso that enrolment should be voluntary for Aborigines. (Once enrolled, voting would thereafter become compulsory.) The reasoning here was partly based on claims about the difficulties involved in enrolling nomadic people (although the Opposition pointed out that the "difficulties in aborigines voting are exactly the same as the difficulties attending all outback voting"). (7) For many observers, voluntary enrolment symbolized that Aborigines had not yet achieved formal equality with non-Aboriginal Australians. (8) It is likely that voluntary registration for indigenous people was a significant obstacle to their participation in state and federal elections since it is known to have inhibited turnout at NAC, NACC and ATSIC elections. (9) It wasn't until 1983 that formal equality was finally achieved when voting and registration were made compulsory for all Australian citizens. (10) With this amendment any reference to "Aboriginal natives" was removed from Commonwealth electoral legislation and indigenous people became the legal equals of other Australian voters. (11)

Indigenous Voting in Remote South Australia

It is worthy of note that formal equality in electoral terms has not translated into equal rates of electoral participation for Australian aboriginal citizens. There is evidence that, despite the considerable efforts of electoral officers, many Indigenous Australians continue to exist outside mainstream civic life. In line with experience in other settler societies, it is not easy to establish precise (or even approximate) figures for Aboriginal electoral participation in Australia due to their under-enrolment, the unreliability of census figures, and the fact that voters are not identified by ethnicity on electoral rolls. …

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