Padraic P. McGuinness, “Picture of history too black and white,”
The Australian, March 4, 1994, p. 13.

Since we are now well into the decade leading to the celebration of the centenary of federation, there are quite a few milestones to be commemorated along the way. So far none of these seems to explicitly involve our Aboriginal population.

But this is in part due to the popular myth that, until recently, Aborigines had no rights, were the victims of a continual campaign of genocide and had been totally ignored as citizens, actual and potential. This is untrue; the picture is much more complex.

As Professor Henry Reynolds has established quite convincingly, it was never really the intention of the original settlers (who were not in any genuine sense “invaders”) or their sponsors, the British government, to deprive the native population of land rights. There were, of course, immense problems of mutual incomprehension.

There were also subsequent problems of the inevitable clash between settlers, struggling against an unfamiliar and totally unfriendly (as they saw it) environment, and the indigenes. Always there was the attempt, often unsuccessful, of the colonial authorities to impose the rule of law on the situation. In addition, there was inevitably an independence movement (not unrelated to our modern republican movement) which was fed by a desire to be free of the restraints of civilisation and the legal penalties for maltreatment of Aborigines insisted upon by the Crown in London.

Despite the undoubted maltreatment of the indigenous population, it was never universally believed that they had no rights. Indeed, in many parts of Australia they were always assumed to have the right to vote, even if they rarely exercised it.

One of the most notable occasions on which this right was exercised was in 1896, when at Point McLeay in South Australia, an Aboriginal settlement near the mouth of the Murray River, the residents had their own polling station with more than 100 people on the electoral roll, of whom more than 70 per cent voted. This would be an appropriate occasion for a centennial celebration. (I am drawing heavily here, as also from now on, on a publication of the Old Parliament House of South Australia, a division of that State’s History Trust, the research for which was done by Pat Stretton and Christine Finnimore. But don’t blame them for my interpretations.)

Section 41 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia says that “no adult person who has or acquires a right to vote at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of a State shall, while the right continues, be prevented by any law of the Commonwealth from voting at elections for either House of the Parliament of the Commonwealth.”

At the time of federation, four out of the six States allowed Aborigines the right to vote; however, this was only exercised in South Australia. The reasons for excluding Aborigines from the census count (which was reversed by the 1967 referendum) was not to exclude them from voting, but to prevent States coercing nomadic populations to move around and settle in order to boost their own representation in Parliament.

The reason for not simply giving every adult the vote at Federation was that each State wanted to keep control of its own franchise. The Commonwealth gave women the vote in 1902, but did not think it necessary to do so for Aborigines.

Probably the bad news for the Aborigines was when the Commonwealth first introduced compulsory registration (1911) and compulsory voting (1924). The former measure had immense influence all over the world and is the basis of the United States’s system of primary votes for party candidates. Unfortunately, the latter came in the dreadful period of Australian history following World War I, when the whole community was in trauma. It was (and remains) a corrupt party measure.

The person who caused the trouble was that hero of federal history, Robert Garran.

During the 1902 debates on the franchise, the great Sir Isaac Isaacs said: “If it is ever desired by one or more of the States to invest Aboriginals within their territory with the franchise … they will come under section 41 of the Constitution which then gives them the right to vote for the Federal Parliament.”

Garran, secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, advised electoral officials of the very narrow interpretation he and John Quick, his co-author of The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth, advocated: that section 41 was a purely temporary provision with no force. (Unlike other temporary provisions, however, it did not include a phrase such as “until the Parliament otherwise provides”.)

So, progressively, after 1924 Aborigines were deprived of the vote by administrative fiat of the bureaucrats. In that year a magistrate ruled that under section 41 an Indian, who was of course in those days a British subject and who demanded the right to vote, did indeed have it. The Commonwealth lodged an appeal to the High Court and then dropped it lest it fail; instead, an Act was passed giving the vote to Indians, of whom at the time there were very few in Australia.

Garran advised the commonwealth electoral officer that the ruling on Aborigines’ right to vote should not be changed. Thereafter, things deteriorated even though protests from those who actually read what the Constitution said began to emerge. The nadir of the whole business was reached in 1983 when the High Court — with the single dissent of the late Lionel Murphy, who said that section 41 should be accepted to mean what it actually and clearly said — adopted Garran’s racist interpretation.

Probably it was the shame, on cooler reflection, of this decision which led to the eventual success of the Mabo case in 1992. (Three of the four judges who voted against Aborigines in 1983 were in the majority who voted for the Mabo decision in 1992.)

The important message of all this, however, is that our history of the treatment of the Aborigines is not uniformly shameful and that there were always people in our polity who accepted that Aborigines should have the full right to vote and equality of citizenship.

(in order of appearance on
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  2. The Economic Guerrillas: A lecture in honour of Maxwell Newton
  3. The Kangaroo Population Bomb
  4. The Libertarian Alternative
  5. Libel laws block insider's revelations of Australia's industrial mess
  6. But perhaps the merchants of doom have a point
  7. The Origins of Paddy McGuinness
  8. The Itch for Influence
  9. LA safe from religious poverty
  10. Aunty should hang up her boots in face of premature senility
  11. Warning: health is a budget hazard
  12. New ABC Tory chief won't rock the boat
  13. Time to sell the ABC
  14. Youth victims of the welfare con
  15. Paddy McGuinness on class sizes (1991)
  16. More teachers won't solve the problems in our schools
  17. Paddy McGuinness on Catholics and wealth distribution
  18. Paddy McGuinness proposes inheritance tax equal to handouts received by deceased
  19. Let them swim nude
  20. Time to legalise heroin
  21. State-sponsored sports rorts
  22. The blight of the baby-boomers
  23. To reduce the problems of crime and corruption, legalise heroin
  24. We should ban Olympics
  25. Evidence shows heroin policy is not working
  26. Wowsers deny society while killing children
  27. New Paddy McGuinness slogan for ageing feminists and their ideological children
  28. The ABC and the self-evident
  29. Will Australia compete?
  30. Canberra's social revolution
  31. Paddy McGuinness in 1994 on the 2012 class size debate
  32. Why not pay for the ABC?
  33. Paddy McGuinness on David Stove
  34. Punemployment: people are neither numbers nor puzzle pieces; the platitude attitude
  35. Sometimes the truth hurts
  36. Native title, land-tax and Henry George
  37. Paddy McGuinness on compulsory, informal and donkey voting, and breaking electoral laws
  38. Only government-backed monopolies are monopolies, says Paddy McGuinness in 1983
  39. Thomas Sowell, McGuinness, Aborigines and other minorities
  40. Genocide with kindness
  41. Hyde, McGuinness and Sturgess on Chaining/Changing Australia
  42. Government intervention institutionalises bullying
  43. The wrong kind of help for those most needing the right kind of help
  44. Paddy McGuinness defends comparing IQ of races
  45. The Fringe Dwellers: an honest look at the Aboriginal culture of poverty
  46. Impotent priesthood of the global casino
  47. Can primitive black and white minds comprehend nuance?
  48. Class action may be smoking gun
  49. Extend compulsion of compulsory student unionism to voting, paying back student loans and more
  50. Do-gooders should glorify smokers
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