How World War I brought democracy, briefly, to the Territory

Contributed by Michael Hall, April 2015


At the end of 1910 around 730 people received a ‘Notice of Objection of Persons Objected to’ saying they were about to be stripped of one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy – the right to vote. These European descended taxpayers and ratepayers of the Territory for the Seat of Government (now the Australian Capital Territory), created from 1 January 1911, were thus stripped of the franchise by the Commonwealth.

This lumped Territorians together with aliens, lunatics and traitors as well as Indigenous Australians, who were effectively excluded from enrolling under the Franchise Act 1902. Voiceless locals soon realised how powerless they were and became agitated over a perceived unfairness in the compulsory land resumption process in the Territory. However, in 1916 and 1917 Territorians received a short lived restoration of their voting rights and it was all due to World War 1.

A shortage of recruits in World War 1 prompted the Commonwealth to consider legislation to conscript eligible men for overseas service. The Prime Minster, Billy Hughes, realised that whilst he could get the legislation through the lower House with Opposition support, his own party, the Labor Party, which dominated the Senate, would reject it. He decided to put the question to a referendum held on 28 October 1916. Referenda are only binding on constitutional questions, so Hughes was hoping that a ‘yes’ vote would persuade Parliament to pass his legislation.

The Government responded to local agitation for the franchise by making a provision in the Military Services Referendum Act 1916 to allow residents of all Commonwealth territories to vote in the conscription referendum. They advertised locally for “persons living in the Federal Capital Territory who, if the Territory were an electoral division in a State, would be qualified to have their names placed on the electoral roll for that division” to register to vote by 10 October. To be eligible, people had to be 21 years of age or older, have lived in Australia for six months continuously, had lived permanently in the Federal Capital Territory for a period of not less than one month immediately preceding 6pm on 18 September 1916 and were natural born or naturalised subjects of the King. Naturalised British subjects born in a country with which Great Britain was at war, or any person interned, were disqualified.

Once the Government agreed to allow Territorians to vote the local debate about conscription began in earnest. Everard Crace from Gungahleen presided over the Federal Capital National Referendum Committee, formed at a meeting at the Acton Amusement Hall on 30 September. It resolved to assist enrolment and provide speakers in support of the ‘yes’ vote at meetings held in places such as Tharwa, Hall, Acton and the Power House. Women became involved in the ‘yes’ campaign as well, amongst them three Tuggeranong mothers, Mary Cunningham, Jemima Cregan and Sarah Monk whose sons (Andy Cunningham, Jack Cregan and Wilf Monk) had been wounded or evacuated sick from Gallipoli.

The Canberra section of the 1916 electoral roll for the Territory listed 1225 men and women, their location and occupation. Polling booths were established at Acton, the Brickworks, Canberra, Cotter Junction, Duntroon, Gudgenby, Hall, Majura, Mulligans Flat, Oaks Estate, Royalla, Tharwa, Uriarra and Weetangera each with a presiding officer and clerk.

Nationally the referendum failed to get the necessary majority of states and of votes to pass. Published results tend to lump all Commonwealth territories together (including the Northern Territory and Papua) but one analysis suggests that there were 612 ‘no’ votes, 590 ‘yes’ votes and 23 informal votes in the Federal Capital Territory. The result surprised some pundits who expected that the presence of the Royal Military College would guarantee a ‘yes’ vote but they failed to account for the unionised navvies and labourers in the Territory. There were six reported cases of double voting of which five turned out to be errors in marking the roll because of people with the same or similar names. The other concerned a John Johnston, of Oaks Estate, who was subjected to a police investigation because another man also named John Johnston (from Queanbeyan), erroneously voted at Majura on his way home from work. 

In the aftermath of the referendum the Labor Party split into the Australian Labor Party and the National Labor Party, the latter led by Hughes who retained the confidence of Parliament with the support of the opposition Liberal Party. During the Federal election campaign in May 1917 Hughes, realising how divisive conscription was, promised not to introduce it without another referendum.

He kept his word. A second conscription referendum was held in December 1917 and once more the Commonwealth gave Territorians the opportunity to vote. A new roll was created for the referendum and this time 1124 men and women registered. Of those only 991 voted and this time the ‘yes’ vote won (just) with 490 votes compared to 484 ‘no’ votes (with 17 informal votes). Nationally the referendum was lost by a bigger margin.

It would be another decade before Territorians would have the opportunity to vote (on local issues, at the 1928 Liquor Poll) and from then until 1986 there were various advisory bodies with at least some elected representatives. The Territory gained a seat in the House of Representatives in 1949, although its member had only limited voting rights. Those voting restrictions were not lifted until 1966. Since 1975 the ACT has elected two senators but it was not until 1977 that Territorians were granted the right to vote in referendums (and not until 1984 before they could exercise that right). In 1989, when self-government was introduced, the people of the ACT had finally regained the rights enjoyed by their forebears 78 years previously when the Territory was created.


Jan Blank, ‘The Voteless Years, 1911-1928’, Canberra Historical Journal, December 2010
Jan Blank, ‘History of Voting in the ACT and its earlier NSW equivalent area, (ACT Heritage Library), 2010
Michael Hall, ‘The Objectionable Territorians’, Newsletter (Canberra & District Historical Society), August 2008
Jennifer Horsfield, Mary Cunningham – An Australian Life, 2004 (p.126)
NAA (A406) E1916/1982 Enrolment Federal Territory also representation
NAA (A406) E1917/1224 Referendum 1916 facilities for voting by residents of the Federal Capital Territory
NAA (A406) E1918/3208 Military Service Referendum 1917 voting facilities Federal Territory
Queanbeyan Age, 3 October 1916
David Stephens, ‘Queanbeyan and the Great War: The Social Impact of War on a Rural Community’, 1995 (p.52), unpublished manuscript (copy held by Canberra & District Historical Society)