Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902

Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902
Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902
Parliament of Australia
Australian coat of arms 1912 edit.png
Long title: An Act to provide for a Uniform Federal Franchise
Introduced by: Senator Hon Richard O'Connor (Prot)
Date passed:
Date of Royal Assent: 12 June 1902
Other legislation
Amendments: 1905, 1906, 1909, 1911
Related legislation: Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918
Status: Repealed

The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 was an Act of the Parliament of Australia which defined who was allowed to vote in Australian federal elections. The Act granted Australian women the right to vote at a national level, and to stand for election to the Parliament. The Act meant that Australia was the second country, after New Zealand, to grant women's suffrage at a national level, and the first country to allow women to stand for Parliament. However, the Act also prevented Indigenous Australians, Asian people, African people and Pacific Islanders (except New Zealand Maori) from voting.


History of the Act

Before the Act, Australia had no uniform system of voting. The first federal election in 1901 was governed by Section 41 of the Constitution of Australia, which provided that any person who was enrolled and eligible to vote in a State election could also vote in a federal election. Each state had a different system, with different criteria to determine who could vote. In South Australia and Western Australia, women could vote, and in Western Australia and Queensland, Indigenous people were specifically barred from voting. The Act was intended to provide a uniform system of voting across the country. The original bill was introduced into the Senate by Senator Hon Richard O'Connor, the Vice-President of the Executive Council, and later in the House of Representatives by the Minister for Home Affairs, Sir William Lyne. It is unusual for being one of the few major pieces of legislation to be introduced in the Senate before the House.

Women's suffrage

Because of Section 41 of the Constitution, women in South Australia and Western Australia could not possibly be prevented from voting at federal elections. Although the original distribution between the states of seats in the House of Representatives was based on the number of male voters in each state, it was possible that later distributions could proportionally increase the number of seats given to South Australia and Western Australia, since they had proportionally more enrolled voters than their percentage of the population.

Many politicians were concerned that allowing women to vote would discriminate in favour of married men, since, in the words of Sir Edward Braddon, "the married man, happy in his family, whose wife's vote is one which he can command… will have two votes." [1] Others, such as William Sawers, were worried that because there were more women living in the cities, rural areas would become under-represented. Much of the opposition to the granting of women's suffrage in the Act was grounded in the belief that, in the words of William Knox, "the main ambition of a woman's life should be to become the wife of an honorable and honest man." [2] However, there was much support for granting the vote to women, and the bill was approved by large majorities in both houses of Parliament.

Non-white people

The White Australia policy, or at least the ideas behind it, had been very strong since long before Federation. Although the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was established to prevent non-white people from migrating to Australia, significant numbers of foreign citizens, particularly Chinese people who migrated during the Victorian gold rush, were already living in Australia, and many politicians were keen to prevent them from having any political influence. Politicians also wanted to prevent Indigenous people from voting. Although Indigenous men had the right to vote everywhere except Western Australia and Queensland, and Indigenous women also had the right to vote in South Australia, this was not because it had explicitly been given to them, but because it had not explicitly been denied to them.

Preventing non-white people from voting was an idea grounded in the philosophy of eugenics and scientific racism, which were popular ideas at the time. Whereas most Indigenous peoples were excluded from voting, Māori living in Australia were allowed to vote. During the parliamentary debates over the Act, King O'Malley (a radical and "colourful" politician) said that "An Aboriginal is not as intelligent as a Māori. There is no scientific evidence that he is a human being at all." [3]

Provisions of the Act

The Act was originally very short, having only five sections. The main provision was section three, which provided that any person over 21 years of age, whether male or female, married or single, who:

  • had lived in Australia for at least the past six months, and
  • was a natural born or naturalised subject of the British Empire (independent Australian citizenship was not introduced until the Australian Citizenship Act 1948), and
  • was on the Electoral Roll in any federal electoral division

could vote in a federal election.

Section four made a range of disqualifications from the general definition in section three. People who had at any time been convicted of treason could not vote. A person who was under sentence or awaiting sentence for any offence which could be punished by imprisonment for one year or longer (under the law of Australia, or of the United Kingdom, or of any other Dominion of the Empire) was also not allowed to vote. People of "unsound mind" were also disqualified. Indigenous people from Australia, Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands, with the exception of Māori, were also excluded. Indian people were therefore not allowed to vote, even though they were citizens of the British Empire.

Section 44 of the Constitution disqualified a range of people from being elected to the House of Representatives or the Senate, such as any person with an allegiance to a foreign power (such as a citizen of another country), or anyone who was bankrupt or insolvent. However, these people were not prevented from voting by the Act.

Section five provided that no person could vote more than once at each election.

Changes to the Act

In 1906 the Act was amended to allow postal voting. In 1911, it became compulsory for all eligible voters to enrol on the Electoral Roll, although full compulsory voting was not introduced until 1924. Compulsory enrolment nevertheless led to a large increase in voter turnout, even though voting was still voluntary. [4]

In 1918 the Act was repealed and replaced by the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. Many of the important features of the Australian electoral system were not introduced until after the new Act was in force. Instant-runoff voting was introduced for the House of Representatives in 1918, the Single Transferable Vote was introduced for the Senate in 1949, and the qualifying age for voting was lowered to 18 in 1973. Indigenous Australians were not granted the right to vote at a federal level until 1962.

See also


  1. ^ Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 23 April 1902, p11937.
  2. ^ Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 23 April 1902, p11941.
  3. ^ "Commonwealth Franchise Bill, second reading". Australian House of Representatives Hansard. Retrieved 14 July 2005. 
  4. ^ "The Fifth Parliament". Adam Carr's Electoral Archive. Archived from the original on 17 July 2005. Retrieved 14 July 2005. 


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