Research Report 6 - Electorally Engaging the Homeless: Background

Updated: 30 May 2013


Australia is regarded as a highly inclusive and representative democracy. Universal adult suffrage was achieved for most Australians several generations ago while enrolling to vote has been compulsory for all Australians, excluding indigenous Australians, since 1911. Compulsory voting was introduced in 1924 and has since become an accepted part of Australia's political landscape. Reforms to extend the same franchise rights enjoyed by the majority of Australians to indigenous Australians occurred in 1983 and since this time Australia has worked to operate an open electoral system with minimal hurdles to both enrolling and voting. To achieve this goal, Federal, State and Territory Electoral Commissions have expended considerable effort to ensure all Australians have adequate access to the ballot.

In 2002, the Council to Homeless Persons, the Big Issue1 and the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) raised concerns that existing enrolment and voting procedures effectively were disenfranchising homeless Australians. Concern centred on the fact that homelessness in itself excluded these individuals from exercising the same democratic rights as other Australians. It was argued that the lack of a permanent residential address should not of itself disenfranchise a significant, and already severely disadvantaged group of Australians, if strong claims for representative democracy in Australia are to ring true.

As the JSCEM submissions and recommendations indicate, making enrolment and voting more accessible to homeless people is an important first step. But unless people experiencing homelessness believe voting is worthwhile and relevant to their circumstances, it is likely that they will not exercise their right.

For the purposes of this project the ABS three-category definition of homelessness was adopted. Homelessness encompasses:

  • Primary homelessness – those people without conventional accommodation namely those living on the streets, sleeping in parks, or squatting in derelict buildings;
  • Secondary homelessness – those who move frequently from one form of temporary shelter to another and covers those who use emergency accommodation (e.g. hostels or night shelters), teenagers staying in refuges, women and children escaping domestic violence, people residing temporarily with other families and those who use boarding houses on an occasional or intermittent basis;
  • Tertiary homelessness – those people who live in boarding houses, on a medium to long term basis, where they do not have a separate bedroom and living room, kitchen or bathroom facilities of their own and do not have the security of tenure provided by a lease.

1 The Big Issue Magazine is an independent magazine published in Australia on behalf of and sold by people experiencing homelessness.