Protecting Australians’ right to vote and other democratic freedoms
Australians can be justifiably proud of our strong democratic institutions and culture. We have a strong, inclusive electoral system based on the idea of a universal suffrage.
At times we have been world leaders in advancing voting rights – Australia was one of the first nations to allow women to both vote and stand for parliament, and at times our actions have been shameful – is wasn’t until 1962 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were given the vote at federal elections.
Whilst voting rights in Australia today are widely enjoyed, we cannot take them for granted. In recent years state and federal governments have sought to restrict Australians’ right to vote and have only been prevented from doing so through legal action.
The HRLC works to protect the right to vote through strategic litigation and advocacy.
We have been involved in two landmark cases in the High Court that have strengthened the right to vote in Australian law.
In 2007, in Roach v Electoral Commissioner the High Court recognised for the first time that Australia’s Constitution protected the right to vote. In doing so, it struck down a law that denied all prisoners the right to vote and won the right for nearly 10,000 people in prison to vote.
In 2010, Rowe v Electoral Commissioner, the High Court struck down laws that required the electoral rolls to be closed on the date of the issue of electoral writs. The decision restored the previous arrangement where the rolls were kept open for 7 days after the issue of writs. Our work ensured an estimated 100,000 people who enrolled in this 7 day period were able to vote at the 2010 election. The impact of the decision continues today. In the current 2013 election, over 180,000 people enrolled, re-enrolled or updated their details in this period.
Our work protecting the right to vote is continuing. The Coalition has indicated it would restrict the right of prisoners to vote at federal elections if it was elected and right now, the Queensland government is proposing to pass a law that would require Queensland voters to show identification in order to cast a vote in an election. Such a law is likely to discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people experiencing homelessness, young people, old people and people with disability who are less likely to hold the necessary ID. The HRLC has worked with other community groups to write to the Queensland A-G urging him not to introduce voter ID requirements.
The HRLC’s Ben Schokman and our plaintiff in the 2007 case, Vickie Roach, were also recently on ABC’s Sunday Extra discussing prisoner voting rights issues.
Voting rights are just one of a range of human rights such as freedom of speech and rights to associate, assemble and protest that are fundamental to democracy. The HRLC’s work to strengthen these rights have included:
- defending protest rights in litigation supporting Occupy Melbourne protesters;
- successfully challenging rules that limited public housing tenants’ freedom of speech and peaceful assembly rights;
- intervening to support freedom of speech when City of Adelaide by-laws prohibited canvassing, preaching or haranguing without a permit; and
- challenging parole conditions that restricted freedom of speech by preventing Aboriginal activist Lex Wotton from attending community meetings or speaking or communicating with the media without permission .
Regardless of your political allegiances, we hope you can take a moment to appreciate the fundamental democratic freedoms we enjoy in Australia and join us in working to protect and strengthen them even further.