Australian Electoral Commission

Electoral milestones for Indigenous Australians

Updated: 10 May 2013
Electoral milestones
Date Milestone
Time before memory Aboriginal society was governed by customary laws handed down by the creative ancestral beings
1770 Captain Cook claimed the eastern half of the Australian continent for Great Britain.
1788 European settlement of Australia commenced. When colonising Australia, the British Government used the term Terra Nullius (meaning land of no-one) to justify the dispossession of Indigenous people. Traditional Aboriginal systems of tribal land ownership were neither recognised nor acknowledged. Colonial and later national development was based exclusively on the English legal system
1829 British sovereignty extended to cover the whole of Australia – everyone born in Australia, including Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, became a British subject by birth
1843 First parliamentary elections in Australia (for New South Wales Legislative Council) were held. The right to vote was limited to men with a freehold valued at £200 or a householder paying rent of £20 per year
1850 + The Australian colonies become self governing – all adult (21 years) male British subjects were entitled to vote in South Australia from 1856, in Victoria from 1857, New South Wales from 1858, and Tasmania from 1896. This included indigenous people but they were not encouraged to enrol. Queensland gained self -government in 1859 and Western Australia in 1890, but these colonies denied Indigenous people the vote
1885 Queensland Elections Act excluded all Indigenous people from voting
1893 Western Australian law denied the vote to Indigenous people
1895 All adult women in South Australia, including Indigenous women, won the right to vote
1901 Commonwealth Constitution became operative – Section 41 was interpreted to deny the vote to all Indigenous people, except those on state rolls
1902 The first Commonwealth Parliament passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902, which was progressive for its time in granting the vote to both men and women. It did however; specifically exclude 'any aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific, except New Zealand' from Commonwealth franchise unless already enrolled in a state. The Aboriginal franchise was further reduced in practice by admitting only those Aboriginal people already enrolled in a state in 1902.
1915 Queensland introduced compulsory voting. This was later introduced in all other jurisdictions
1920 Commonwealth Nationality Act denied the vote to people of South Sea Island origin despite being British Subjects
1922 Regulations in the Northern Territory excluded Indigenous people from voting. Officials had the power to decide who was Indigenous
1925 Natives of British India gained the vote in Australian federal elections
1940s + Professor AP Elkin, the Aborigines Friends Association, and others agitated for better conditions for Indigenous people and their right to vote
1948 Nationality and Citizenship Act established that all Australian born people are citizens of Australia rather than British subjects
1949 The right to vote in federal elections was extended to Indigenous people who had served in the armed forces, or were enrolled to vote in state elections. Indigenous people in Queensland, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory still could not vote in their own state/territory elections
1957 Under the Northern Territory Welfare Ordinance, almost all Indigenous people in the Northern Territory were declared to be "wards of the state" and denied the vote
1962 Commonwealth Electoral Act provided that Indigenous people should have the right to enrol and vote at federal elections, including Northern Territory elections, but enrolment was not compulsory. Despite this amendment, it was illegal under Commonwealth legislation to encourage Indigenous people to enrol to vote. Western Australia extended the State vote to Aboriginal people. Voter education for Aborigines began in the Northern Territory. 1 338 Aborigines enrolled to vote in Northern Territory elections
1965 Queensland allowed Aborigines to vote in State elections. Queensland was the last State to grant this right
1967 A Referendum approved Commonwealth Constitutional change. Section 127 of the Constitution was struck out in its entirety. This amendment allowed Indigenous people to be counted in the Commonwealth Census. Section 51 of the Constitution was amended to allow the Commonwealth to make special laws for Indigenous people. Both Houses of the Parliament passed the proposed Act unanimously; consequently a 'No' case was not submitted. More than 90% of Australians registered a YES vote with all six states voting in favour
1971 Neville Bonner AO (1922–1999) was the first Indigenous person to be appointed to Federal Parliament in Australia. Neville Bonner was born on Ukerbagh Island in the Tweed River in New South Wales. After many years of itinerant work, he stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for the half Senate election in 1970. In 1971 Neville Bonner was appointed by the Queensland Parliament to replace the Queensland Liberal Senator, Dame Annabel Rankin, who had retired from Federal Parliament. At the 1972 election he was returned as a Liberal Senator for Queensland. Senator Bonner continued to represent Queensland as a Liberal Senator until 1983. At the 1983 election he stood as an Independent candidate but was not re-elected
1973 First national elections for Indigenous people to elect 41 members of the National Aboriginal Consultative committee. More than 27 000 Indigenous people voted. Minimum voting age lowered from 21 to 18
1974 Hyacinth Tungutalum (Country Liberal Party), from Bathurst Island was elected to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, representing the electorate of Arafura. Eric Deeral (National Party), became the first Indigenous person to be elected to the Queensland Parliament representing the electorate of Cook
1977 Neville Perkins (Australian Labor Party) was elected to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. He became the first Indigenous person to hold a shadow portfolio, and was appointed deputy leader of the Northern Territory Australian Labor Party
1979 Australian Electoral Commission began the Aboriginal Electoral Education Program
1980 Ernie Bridge (Australian Labor Party) became the first Indigenous member of the Parliament of Western Australian when he won the seat of Kimberley. He later became the first Indigenous person to hold a Ministerial office. Mobile polling first used in remote Northern Territory and Western Australia for state/territory election
1983 Wesley Lanhupuy (Australian Labor Party), from central coastal Arnhem land was elected to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly representing the electorate of Arnhem
1984 Mobile polling first used in remote Northern Territory and Western Australia for Commonwealth elections. Enrolment and voting in Commonwealth elections made compulsory for Indigenous people
1987 Stanley Tipiloura (Australian Labor Party), from Bathurst Island, was elected to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, representing the electorate of Arafura
1990 ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) created – elected regional councils and a board of commissioners made decisions on policy and funding. ATSIC elections were conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission
1992 Maurice Rioli (Australian Labor Party), from Melville Island was elected to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly representing the electorate of Arafura
1993 The AEC's Aboriginal Electoral Education Program became Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Electoral Information Service
1995 John Ah Kit (Australian Labor Party), from Darwin was elected to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly representing the electorate of Arnhem
1996 Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Electoral Information Service was abolished due to withdrawal of Commonwealth funds. Paul Harriss elected to the Legislative Council in Tasmania for the electorate for Huon
1998 Aden Ridgeway was the second Indigenous person elected to the Australian Federal Parliament. He was born in 1962 at Macksville, New South Wales. Aden Ridgeway took his seat in the Senate as an Australian Democrat for New South Wales on 1 July 1999 following his election at the October 3, 1998 federal election. His term expired on 30 June 2005
2001 Carol Martin (Australian Labor Party), became the first Indigenous women to be elected to a State Parliament when she won the seat of Kimberley in the Parliament of Western Australia. Matthew Bonson (Darwin), Elliot McAdam (Tennant Creek) and Marion Scrymgour (Melville Island), were elected to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly representing the electorates of Millner, Barkly and Arafura respectively. They join John Ah Kit as members of the first Labor Government in the Northern Territory
2002 Kathryn Hay (Australian Labor Party), elected to the Tasmanian House of Assembly representing the electorate of Bass. Marion Scrymgour (Australian Labor Party) in the Northern Territory Assembly became the first female indigenous minister in any government in the history of Australia.
2003 Linda Burney (Australian Labor Party) is the first Indigenous person elected to the New South Wales Parliament. She represents the electorate of Canterbury
2005 Following the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly election, Barbara McCarthy (Territory Labor) was elected to represent the electorate of Arnhem, and Alison Anderson (Territory Labor) was elected to represent the electorate of Macdonnell. They join Matthew Bonson, Elliot McAdam and Marion Scrymgour in the Northern Territory Government. One fifth of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly electorates are represented by indigenous Australians. Legislation was enacted to dissolve the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and Regional Councils at the end of the 2005 financial year
2006 Ben Wyatt (Australian Labor Party) elected in a by-election to the Western Australian parliament for the electorate of Victoria Park. He was re-elected in 2008.
2008 Marion Scrymgour (Australian Labor Party) in the Northern Territory Assembly became the first female indigenous deputy chief minister
2010 Ken Wyatt (Liberal Party of Australia) was elected as the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives, representing the electorate of Hasluck in Western Australia.
2013 Adam Giles (Country Liberal Party) was appointed the Northern Territory’s Chief Minister in March 2013 becoming Australia's first Indigenous head of government.