Evolution of Democracy in Victoria

By Paul Thornton-Smith – Manager, Information and Research

Ceramic figures of suffragettes

Democracy means ‘government by the people’. But just who are the ‘people’ who are entitled to be involved in government? This term has become more inclusive over Victoria’s 168 years.

In ancient Greek democracy, the ‘people’ were adult male citizens. This was far wider than anything seen before. Even so, women, slaves and residents from other Greek cities were excluded from having a say.

1855 – Self-government

When Victoria gained self-government in 1855, it was seen as very democratic. Most men aged 21 or over could vote for members of the Legislative Assembly (Lower House), though there was a low property qualification. However, you had to be an affluent property owner to be able to vote for members of the Legislative Council (Upper House), and seriously wealthy to be a member of the Upper House.

1857 – Wealth

In 1857 property qualifications were abolished, and nearly all men gained the right to vote and be members of the Legislative Assembly. However, the Legislative Council remained a house of wealth and property for many years.

1863 – Women

In 1863 some women accidentally got the vote, through Parliament enfranchising all local council ratepayers (10% of ratepayers were women). Parliament soon fixed its ‘mistake’, and Victoria was the last State to give women the vote, in 1909. Victoria, though, had the strongest women’s suffrage movement in Australia, and in 1891 30,000 women signed a petition to Parliament that ‘Women should Vote on Equal terms with Men.’

1950 – All Adults

All adults were able to vote for members of the Upper House.

1962 - Indigenous Australians

There were never any Victorian laws barring Aboriginal Australians from voting. However, Aboriginal people were not encouraged to vote, and a law denying the vote to persons receiving charitable relief may have acted as a barrier. Commonwealth legislation in 1902 effectively disenfranchised Aboriginal people. From 1962 Aboriginal Australians were able to enrol and vote.

1973 – Age

The lowest voting age was 21 for more than 100 years. In 1973, 18-year-olds were given the right to vote, as part of a worldwide trend. Now there is some pressure to reduce the voting age to 16.

1984 – Foreigners

This is one area that has become less inclusive. Until 1984, British subjects (which included citizens of Commonwealth countries as well as the United Kingdom) were able to enrol and vote in Victorian elections. In 1984 the law changed; British subjects who were enrolled at that point kept their rights, but otherwise only Australian citizens could enrol and vote in Victorian State elections. However, foreign residents who own property can enrol and vote in local council elections (though not many do).

Prisoners

The law on voting by prisoners has changed several times. Currently, prisoners who are serving a sentence of less than five years can enrol and vote. In fact, only a small proportion of eligible prisoners do vote.

In law, the ‘people’ – those who have a legal right to participate in Victorian democracy - is much wider than in the past. In practice, physical, social and attitudinal barriers hinder participation by all eligible Victorians. The VEC needs to keep on working to reduce these barriers.

Today…

The Victorian Electoral Commission’s (VEC) vision of ‘all Victorians actively participating in their democracy’ is a commitment to being fully inclusive of the growing diversity of people within its communities. The VEC prioritises the engagement of those traditionally under-represented in the electoral process, including:

  • people with disabilities
  • people experiencing homelessness or in prison
  • people from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds
  • people from other culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
  • young people from all communities.

Under-represented communities are targeted through activities such as:

  • employment of opportunities to work as Democracy Ambassadors to educate their peers
  • the development of resources in accessible and inclusive formats (e.g. Talking Democracy, Voters Voice app, Easy English guides)
  • offering no-fixed-address enrolment for people experiencing homelessness
  • offering mobile voting to prisons and homelessness services, aged care facilities and hospitals
  • the provision of free outreach education to schools and community groups
  • the provision of braille ballot papers
  • offering telephone-assisted-voting
  • the provision of translated voting instructions
  • upskilling the workforce that engages with these groups
  • embedding consultation designed to address barriers and improve our electoral services.

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