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Oz legislation

the strike and the cross

1856 Tasmanian Electoral Act

Talented Mr Boothby

Wakefield and ballot


The Australian Ballot

Secret ballot - not an Australian first
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AEC links



Australian Dictionary
of Biography











Enrolling the People


The Development of Modern Electoral Administration
a postgraduate project of the ANU and the Electoral Council of Australia 
funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council.

A lightning-quick history of elections in Australia

The first Australian colony, New South Wales , was established as a penal settlement in 1788. Initially, virtual full power rested with the Governor, but by 1820 demands for elective franchise were gathering. They were repeatedly postponed in large part by the issue of convict transportation: the overwhelming majority[1] of free white men[2] had originally arrived in the colony as convicts.[3] The abolition of transportation, and an evening up of the numbers, eventually cleared the way for some kind of elective representation, and the first elections were held in 1841. (By now there were five colonies.) These were for the municipal council in the South Australian capital, Adelaide. In 1842 the New South Wales ‘city’ of Sydney and ‘town’ of Melbourne held similar elections.

Table: Years electoral legislation assented to in the six Australian colonies








First Council electoral legislation







First Assembly electoral legislation







* Qld inherited NSW electoral law when separating in 1859. First Qld electoral legislation in 1860.

The first colony-wide Legislative Council election in Australia was in New South Wales in 1843. The Council had been created twenty years earlier, with five members to advise the Governor. In 1843, 36 members were elected colony-wide to the body, on a restricted franchise; they were joined by eighteen Governor appointees. In 1851 the colonies of Victoria and Tasmania (both formerly parts of New South Wales) and South Australia held similar legislative Council elections. In 1855, four of the five colonies (Western Australia the exception) were granted self-government - ‘responsible government’ in the universal contemporary idiom, which meant, in the words of one player, ‘that species of executive government [with] a ministry responsible to a lower branch of the legislature.’[4] In the Australian colonies the lower houses were Legislative Assemblies (House of Assembly in South Australia) and the upper chambers were the Legislative Councils. The Councils remained highly restricted by electoral qualification - and some partially appointed - but Assemblies were fully elected and by 1858 three of the four (Tasmania the exception) had close to universal male suffrage[5]. Few ‘countries’ (as the colonies called themselves)[6] in the world enjoyed such wide voting rights, certainly not the United Kingdom. In 1901, the six colonies (Queensland was carved out of New South Wales in 1859 and Western Australia achieved self-government in 1890) federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia, transforming themselves into states in the process. This added a third tier of elections.

[1] Melbourne, A. C. V. (1963). Early Constitutional Development in Australia . Melbourne, University of Queensland Press

[2] Women didn’t vote until the end of the 19th Century. Indigenous Australians initially outnumbered Europeans in 1788, but within decades this had reversed due to population changes on both sides. Aborigines were in most jurisdictions deprived of the vote until the early 1960s.

[3] Melbourne , Op cit

[4] H..S. Chapman, two years before devising the ‘Australian ballot’, wrote in 1854 of the term ‘Responsible Government’, that it ‘was first adopted in Canada, and has since been very generally used in [British] colonies, as well as in all discussions relative to the government of the colonies, to designate that species of executive government which has, for upwards of a century and a half, existed in England, and has in the last fourteen years been extended to Canada and the rest of British North American colonies with the most marked success;  - namely, a ministry responsible to the lower branch of the legislature’. H. S. Chapman, 1854, Parliamentary Government; or Responsible Ministries for the Australian Colonies, Pratt and son, Hobart, p3

[5] I use the equivocal ‘close to’, because there are always exceptions to universality, for example regarding residence, citizenship and incarceration.

[6] Australians tend to see Federation in 1901 as the beginning of ‘nationhood’, and relegate the six predecessors to the status of ‘colonies’. But the self-governing provinces were for most purposes ‘countries’, and considered themselves as such; the move to independence from the United Kingdom was a gradual one that continued well into the twentieth century. New Zealand, for example – which considered joining the Australian federation in 1901 – usually dates nationhood to the mid nineteenth century, and in the 1890s it had roughly equivalent status to the Australian ‘colonies’.