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Focus question 5: Why didn't all adults get the vote at Federation and how did those excluded work to achieve it?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: The argument about women's voting rights ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: Methods used by women to gain the vote ESL Activity 2
Activity 3: Suffragist meeting ESL Activity 3
Activity 4: The Constitution, The Franchise Act 1902 and Aboriginal citizenship ESL Activity 4
Activity 5: The 1967 Referendum ESL Activity 5
Activity 6: A timeline of Aboriginal people's achievement of the right to vote ESL Activity 6
Unit assessment task ESL Unit assessment task
Assessment criteria  


In 1901 the six colonies joined together to form the nation of Australia. A national government was created to look after matters that affected all Australians, such as defence and immigration.

Most of the Chartist principles on which the governments of the colonies were already based also formed the basis for the national government. At the time of Federation women were campaigning to get the vote. They had obtained it in South Australia in 1894 and Western Australia in 1899. In 1902 the Commonwealth Parliament gave votes to women for federal elections and at the same time excluded Aboriginal Australians.

Activity 1: The argument about women's voting rights

1a Read the sources below including the lines telling where they came from. They cover a range of views.

1b Sort the sources into those for giving women the vote and those against it. Write the summary in your workbook and beside each point note the source that provides the evidence.

For example:


It is unwomanly to vote. Women campaigning for the vote are not real women. (Source C)


Women as people deserve the same rights as men. (Source A)

Source A
We claim that as a human being, she should have ... the same rights and privileges as that other section of humanity called men.

Rose Scott in a report of a debate with Miss Badham in the Australian Economist, vol 4, no 16, 21/6/1895, p 496.

Source B

... The suggestion that women are equal to men is absurd. They are as inferior mentally as well as physically.

The country, cited in Worker, NSW, 16/5/1896.

Source C

I have never found any desire for the franchise on the part of women - I mean real women. I have met he-women - who ought to have been born men, but nature made a mistake ...

Captain C Salmon in Victorian Parliamentary Debates, vol 74, 19/7/1894.

Source D

Woman's suffrage ... because a Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, should mean all the people not one half.

Women's Christian Temperance Union leaflet, 1894.

Source E

All experience proves that the rights of the labouring man are best preserved in Governments where he has possession of the ballot, we therefore demand on behalf of the labouring woman the same powerful instrument, that she may herself protect her own interests.

Scott, Rose 1903, 'Why Women Need a Vote', papers of the Women's Political and Educational League of NSW, 1903-10.

Source F

I have no doubt that the homes of some of these women who are the advocates of woman suffrage are in a very miserable state. The type of women who frequent this Chamber when the woman suffrage Bill is being discussed is enough to terrify anyone. We only have to look at them - and my word! What a good thing it is that we are not related to any of them!

A Member of Parliament in a debate in Victoria, Victorian Parliamentary Debates, vol 96, 11/12/1900, p 117.

Source G

Woman's suffrage ... because it is the foundation of all political liberty that those who obey the law, should be able to have a voice in choosing those who make the law.

Women's Christian Temperance Union leaflet, 1894.

Women had to fight hard to overcome the attitudes that stood in the way of their obtaining the vote. Much of the struggle took place in the 1890s. Before Federation in 1901 South Australia and Western Australia were the only colonies where women had been successful in obtaining the right to vote. Because they had been granted the right to vote in elections for their State government they were permitted to vote in the Commonwealth election of 1901. Women in the other States were determined that they too should vote, and in 1902 their campaign met with success when the Commonwealth extended the vote to all women.

Activity 2: Methods used by women to gain the vote

In their fight to get the vote a variety of strategies were used. Women who campaigned for the vote were called 'suffragists'. Many of the suffragists were energetic, capable and courageous.

The following is a list of the methods they used:

They had two goals: to spread the message as widely as possible, and to persuade or convince people of the rightness of the cause.

2a Look at Sources H to K. For each source write down which of the methods listed above you think it belongs with, for example: Source T = petition.

Source H Letter from Rose Scott to candidates, 1901

Letter from Rose Scott to candidates, 1901

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Source I Extract from The Voice

Extract from the Voice

Extract from The Voice, Mortlock Library of South Australiana, State Library of South Australia, published in Mansutti, Elizabeth 1994, Mary Lee 1821-1909: Let Her Name Be Honoured, Elizabeth Ho, in association with The Women's Suffrage Centenary History Sub-Committee, Adelaide.

Source J

In Victoria in 1891 the Premier told a deputation of women that if they could persuade him that 'ordinary women' wanted the vote, he would introduce a Bill. Hundreds of enthusiastic women took their lists from door to door in Melbourne and in country towns, and collected 30,000 signatures. It was the longest petition ever presented to the Victorian Parliament, and became known as 'the monster petition'.

A Historian Audrey Oldfield writing in 1994 Oldfield, Audrey 1994, Australian Women and the Vote, CUP, Oakleigh, Vic, p 24. Cambridge University Press.
Reprinted with permission of Cambridge University Press.

Source K Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW Poster

Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW Poster

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Source L

The suffrage is the right of all women, just as it is the right of all men, and ... we insist on it on behalf of the solitary, the hard pressed and the wronged ...

Letter written by Mary Lee to South Australian Register, 21/3/1890.
Source M

We never lost a debate. I remember only one fight. It was in Newtown Town Hall and only a few chairs were broken.

Maybanke Wolstenhome, The President of the NSW Womanhood Suffrage League, cited in Mansutti, Elizabeth 1994, Mary Lee 1821-1909: Let Her Name Be Honoured, Elizabeth Ho, in association with the Women's Suffrage Centenary History Sub-Committee, Adelaide, p 27.

Activity 3: Suffragist meeting

3a Imagine that you have helped to form a local branch of the Suffragist League. The group is meeting to decide on tactics and strategies to be used to help win the vote for women. In a group of two or three write a dialogue between members of the group about the methods to be used. You should have at least three characters speaking. Each character should:

3b Act out or read your dialogue to the class.

Aboriginal peoples' struggles for full citizenship status

Aboriginal people lived as second-class citizens in the land of their birth throughout most of the twentieth century. Not only were they denied the right to vote, but they were prevented from exercising the rights allowed other Australians.

At the time of Federation, Aboriginal men in the States of Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, and Aboriginal men and women in the State of South Australia were able to vote for the new Commonwealth Parliament. This was because people eligible to vote in elections for their state government were automatically entitled to vote in the Commonwealth elections. Aboriginal people in Queensland and Western Australia were denied the vote because they were not entitled to vote in their States.

The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 effectively removed the right to vote in Commonwealth elections for many Aboriginal people. But the Australian Constitution itself, which sets out the rules and powers for the government of Australia, discriminated against Aboriginal people in other ways.

Activity 4: The Constitution, The Franchise Act 1902 and Aboriginal citizenship

4a Look at Sources N to T and answer the questions that follow.

The Constitution

Source N

In reckoning [counting] the numbers of the people of Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.

The Australian Constitution, Section 127 (now repealed).

Every five years we have a count of the people in Australia. This is called the census. From 1901, when the Australian Constitution came into being, until 1967, Aboriginal people were not counted. One reason for this Section was that money was divided between the States according to population - the more people, the more money. The other reason is that the more people a State had, the more representatives it had in the Commonwealth House of Representatives. In agreeing to Section 127, the founding fathers assumed that Aboriginal people were not the equal of European Australians - they were not to expect as much money spent on them or to be counted for representation in parliament.

Source O

The Parliament shall ... have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to: ...

(xxvi) The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is necessary to make special laws.

The Australian Constitution, original Section 51 (xxvi).

This section of the Constitution was included to give the new Commonwealth Government the power to make laws about 'immigrant races' such as the Chinese and South Sea Islanders. Aboriginal people were excluded because the Constitution writers did not think it necessary to have the same laws in every State.

Aboriginal Day of Mourning, 1938

Source P

On Australia Day in January 1938, when celebrations were being held for 150 years of white settlement, a conference organised by the Aborigines Progressive Association and supported by the Australian Aborigines League was held. The conference declared the day a 'Day of Mourning' and passed this resolution:

'We, representing the ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in Conference ... on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the whitemen's seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian Nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, and we ask for a new policy which will raise our people to FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.

From the leaflet produced by the Aborigines Progressive Association on the Day of Mourning and Protest, 26/1/1938.
Reproduced with permission of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee and Jack Horner, author of Bill Ferguson: Fighter for Aboriginal Freedom, and Bill Ferguson's descendants.

Source Q Aboriginal people on Day of Mourning, 1938

Aboriginal people on Day of Mourning, 1938

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

The Commonwealth and Aboriginal People

Following this Day of Mourning, a deputation of 20 Aboriginal men and women met with the prime minister, Joe Lyons, for two hours to present its case. Part of the statement which was put to him was as follows:

Source R

In respectfully placing before you the following POLICY FOR ABORIGINES we wish to state that this policy has been endorsed by a conference of Aborigines, held in Sydney on 26 January of this year. This policy is the only policy which has the support of the Aborigines themselves.


1. We respectfully request that there should be a National Policy for Aborigines. We advocate Commonwealth Government control of all Aboriginal affairs.

2. We suggest the appointment of a Commonwealth Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs ...

4. The aim of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs should be to raise all Aborigines throughout the Commonwealth to full Citizen Status and civil equality with whites in Australia ...

'Our Ten Points: Deputation to the Prime Minister' 1938. Australian Abo Call, 1, p 1.

Source S

William Cooper, the leader of Australian Aborigines League, campaigned for the Commonwealth Government to take control of Aboriginal Affairs from 1930 until his death in 1941. In 1930 he collected signatures for a petition to the King to have an Aboriginal representative in the House of Representatives in the Commonwealth Parliament. In 1936 he wrote to the prime minister Joseph Lyons:

We do plead for one controlling authority, the Commonwealth and request that all aboriginal interests be absolutely federalised ...

We have no hope where the States with large aboriginal populations cannot adequately finance their obligations and the States with small aboriginal populations ... should not be freed from responsibility.

William Cooper, Hon Secretary, AAL, to the Rt Hon the Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, 22/7/1936.
Cited in Attwood, B et al 1997, The 1967 Referendum or When Aborigines Didn't Get the Vote, AIATSIS, Canberra, p 9.

Source T

Citizenship rights

The majority of Aboriginal people [during the 1940s] ... could not: vote; receive social welfare such as the old-age pension and unemployment benefits; move freely from place to place; choose their place of residence; make decisions concerning their own lives such as where to work, what to do with their earnings and any property they acquired, and whom they might marry. In addition, their children might be removed and placed in an institution, in employment, or in the custody of strangers.

Attwood et al, 1997, p 13.

4b What were Aboriginal people asking for in their 'Policy for Aborigines'?

4c As a class, discuss what might have been meant by 'full citizen status and civil equality' within the community. Construct a list of the rights and responsibilities your class thinks are a part of having 'full citizen status'. (We will return to this question as you collect more information.)

4d Aboriginal people wanted to have the Commonwealth Government take control of Aboriginal affairs. Looking back at Source O, what would have to have changed before that could be achieved?

4e Why did Aboriginal people want the Commonwealth Government to take control of Aboriginal affairs?

4f Reread Source T. What additional reasons can you suggest for Aboriginal people wanting the Commonwealth to have the power to make special laws for Aboriginal people?

4g For each of Sources P to S above, construct a list of the strategies used by Aboriginal people to achieve the same rights as other Australian citizens. The strategies might range from the formation of groups to represent Aboriginal interests, to drawing public attention to the their cause, to having a magazine to share ideas in the Aboriginal community.

Activity 5: The 1967 Referendum

During the period from 1940 to 1965 most of the laws discriminating against Aboriginal people were removed by the Commonwealth and State governments. The Constitution, however, still contained the two sections that discriminated against Aboriginal people.

Changes to the Constitution require the support of a majority of voters in a majority of states. In 1967 a referendum was held in which Australian citizens were asked to vote 'Yes' to remove Section 127 and to change Section 51 (xxvi) so that the Constitution no longer discriminated against Aboriginal people. The 'Yes' vote was 90.77 per cent. A case for 'Yes' was put by the government. There was no campaign to vote 'No'.

5a Look at Sources U to AA and for each source, list:

5b How might Gordon Bryant's position have been helpful in persuading the government or enabling Aborigines to meet or lobby ministers?

5c How might the publication of this message in a mass-circulation newspaper have helped to persuade people of the need for a referendum?

Source U


A petition drawn up by the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement for its second campaign for constitutional reform in 1962.

Courtesy Aboriginal Studies Press, AIATSIS.

Source V

Gordon Bryant, President of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League and Labor Member of the House of Representatives, played a major role in all the campaigns for constitutional reform. Writing in Smoke Signals, to support the 'Yes' vote at the referendum, he said:

No aborigine can feel absolutely free and equal to other Australians whilst the Commonwealth Constitution contains the two clauses which exclude him from the Census ... and from Commonwealth laws ...

Bryant, Gordon 1962, 'A Referendum', Smoke Signals 2 (1), pp 2-3.

Source W

At a protest held outside the Commonwealth Bank in Sydney and near the offices of many New South Wales federal MPs in 1996. Leaflets were distributed which read:

Today, 30th June, is the Census Day. Today the white population of Australia will be counted. But Aborigines are excluded from the Commonwealth Census by Section 127 of the Constitution ... Why should the descendants of the original inhabitants of Australia suffer this insult? Because the referendum which was to remove this grave discrimination has not been held. Every fair-minded Australian must deplore this law. Please write to your Federal member protesting against the injustice of this provision and demand the referendum be held.

Cited in Attwood et al 1997, p 34.

'Racial Discrimination - What's that?'
Source X

This photo of two boys appeared on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald two days before the referendum. The caption read 'Racial Discrimination - What's that?'

The Fairfax Photo Library.

Source Y

Voting Yes to these proposals is a simple matter of humanity. It is also a test of our standing in the world. If No wins, Australia will be labelled as a country addicted to racist policies. In spite of our increasing involvement with Asia, in spite of our protestations of good will towards all men of all colours and creeds, this label would have a millstone's weight around the neck of Australia's international reputation.

Editorial, Age, 22/5/1967 [The editorial in a newspaper gives the 'official' view of the paper - that is, not just the view of one individual writing for the paper.]

Source Z

This is an extract from publicity for the media authorised by Bill Onus, Director of the Victorian Vote 'Yes' Campaign Committee.

Aboriginal Rights and the Referendum

... Aboriginal leader Charles Perkins has stated that the coming referendum is an opportunity for white people to demonstrate in a positive way their desire to help in the emancipation [freeing] of the Aboriginal of Australia ...

Cited in Attwood et al 1997, p 49.
Source AA

The following is an extract from recommendations about the structure of the campaign of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in support of voting 'Yes'.


To ensure that the proposed change is supported by a majority of people in a majority of States ...

The Australian people are sure to respond to a demand for equal recognition from the Aboriginal people themselves. To this end every opportunity must be created for Aboriginal bodies to be seen and heard in their own cause ...


Aboriginal communities

Service clubs (Apex, Jaycees, etc)

Local governments

Tertiary students

Unions and Churches

Miscellaneous organisations: RSL, Housewives Associations, Country Women ...


A press committee to be formed ...

Seek co-operation of the Australian Association of National Advertisers ...

Cited in Attwood et al, 1997, p 100.

5d Return to the list your class constructed for Activity 4c. Contribute to a class discussion of the rights or responsibilities you are now aware of and that you would include in that list.

5e Write into your workbook a list of the rights you would expect a citizen of Australia to have. For example, the right to vote, the right to move around the country, and so on. You might get some help from Source V.

Activity 6: A timeline of Aboriginal people's achievement of the right to vote


Before white settlement Aboriginal male elders made decisions for their clans.


The Commonwealth Franchise Act prevented Aboriginal people from voting in Commonwealth elections.

Aboriginal people in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania had the right to vote in elections for their State. However, because they were denied the right to vote in Commonwealth elections, they were often illegally denied the right to vote in state elections.


Aboriginal people who served in the defence forces in World War II were allowed to vote in Commonwealth elections as were Aboriginal people who 'understood the process'.


Aboriginal people over 21 were allowed to enrol to vote in Commonwealth elections. Unlike for other Australians, voting was not compulsory. However, once they enrolled it was compulsory to vote. Aboriginal people in Western Australia and Northern Territory gained the right to vote.


Aboriginal people in Queensland gained the right to vote.


A referendum was held to change the Constitution: 90.77 per cent of the Australian electorate voted to give the Commonwealth Government the power to make laws for Aboriginal people, and to count Aboriginal people in the census.


All Aboriginal people over the age of 18 had to enrol and vote in Commonwealth elections. This was the same as for other Australians.

6a Read the timeline.

6b Which Aboriginal group was allowed to vote by 1949? Why would that group have gained the right ahead of other Aboriginal people?

6c What was the main problem with the change to the way Aboriginal people could vote in 1962?

6d In which year were Aboriginal people finally allowed to vote on the same terms as other Australians?

6e Look back at Source T. It tells us that Aboriginal people were concerned with a range of issues affecting their position in Australian society. Being allowed to vote in elections was only one of a number of things they wanted to see changed.

As a class, discuss whether gaining the vote would have made a great difference to the position of Aboriginal people in Australian society.

Unit assessment task

You will remember that a charter is a list of rights. The Chartists of the 1800s drew up a list of six points, aimed at extending democracy at the time.

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

ESL activities

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