Australian Electoral Commission

The Right to Vote in Australia

Updated: 28 January 2011

By the mid nineteenth century the desire for more representative and responsible government in colonial Australia permeated the community. It was fed by the ideas of the great reform movements (Chartism, Republicanism, etc.) which swept Europe, the United States of America and the British Empire, and by the colonists' spirit of practical self-reliance.

The end of convict transportation made the introduction of responsible government to Australia a realistic development and progress in this direction accelerated in the 1840s and 1850s.

Colonial legislators were influenced in their drafting by the national democratic sentiment so clearly demonstrated in the events surrounding the Eureka Stockade in 1854.

The Australian Colonies Government Act of 1850 was a great landmark. It provided for the separation of Victoria from New South Wales and granted representative constitutions to Victoria, South Australia and Van Diemen's Land (renamed Tasmania in 1853) in addition to NSW.

This Act granted the colonial legislatures power to alter their constitutions and change the voting qualifications of electors.

These powers were soon exercised as the colonies entered an intensive period of constitution writing.

These constitutions produced were democratically progressive in many ways. South Australia, the only colony without a 'convict past', was the first colony to introduce universal manhood suffrage for its Assembly in 1856. G S Kingston, J Baker and J Hughes were among the most powerful and vocal advocates of adult manhood suffrage. Baker pleaded for manhood suffrage undiluted by property qualification for the lower house in these words:

A man came here to benefit himself and his family and the fact that a large family prevented a man from acquiring property is no reason why he should be disenfranchised.

The other colonies' colonial parliaments also introduced manhood suffrage, or initially applied modest property qualifications to the manhood suffrage ballot for their lower houses.

In other respects the new constitutions revealed a deep seated conservatism. Constitutional arrangements maintained the role of the colonial upper houses, the Legislative Councils, as representative of social and economic 'interests' rather than of the population. New South Wales retained a nominated Legislative Council into the 20th Century. The other colonies opted for elected upper houses, or part elected and part nominated, but retained property qualifications and often plural voting for them well in to the 20th century.

Federal elections In its Franchise Act of 1902, the first Commonwealth Parliament granted the right to vote to men and women who were British subjects 21 years or older. This franchise applied to both houses of federal parliament and was free of property qualification.