Migrants challenge republic vote rules

The Australian, 9 September 1997, p.1.

By political editor Michael Gordon

The right of about 500,000 British subjects to have a say in whether Australia becomes a republic faces a challenge in the High Court.

Preparations for the challenge were revealed yesterday as the Howard Government said it was impossible to exclude the British subjects from the vote for next year's constitutional convention.

An Italian who came to Australia in 1960, Lorenzo Poletto, is likely to initiate the challenge on behalf of non-British residents who are excluded from the vote.

Ironically, Mr Poletto said he had so far declined to take out Australian citizenship because of Australia's constitutional link to the British monarchy. He now found it "appalling" that he was prevented from a say in the make-up of a convention that could lead to the removal of this obstacle.

When Australia becomes a republic, I'll be the first to queue up to become an Australian citizen," said Mr Poletto, a Sydney plumber who has an Australian wife and three children. Mr Poletto is being backed by Ausflag, the group that has campaigned for several years to have British subjects removed from the electoral roll.

Ausflag executive director Harold Scruby told The Australian last night he had legal advice that the challenge was likely to succeed. The advice had come from a Sydney QC who was "very keen to take the case".

"The court will simply be asked whether non-British persons should have the same right to vote under the Racial Discrimination Act as British subjects," Mr Scruby said.

The senator responsible for the convention, Nick Minchin said yesterday that eligibility to vote for the convention would be the same as for federal elections. Ballot papers for the voluntary vote to elect half the delegates to the convention will be sent out later this year. The convention will be held early next year and consider whether Australia should become a republic and what model for change should be considered at a subsequent vote.

Under the Commonwealth Electoral Act, British subjects who were on the electoral roll before Australia Day in 1984 are eligible to vote. Those who have arrived since or who were not on the roll then are ineligible.

Senator Minchin said yesterday that when the Act was amended, it was considered unfair to disenfranchise British subjects who were already on the roll. He added that it would be impossible to identify and then exclude those on the roll who are British subjects. Senator Minchin's office confirmed that between 300,000 and 500,000 British subjects could be eligible to vote.

The director of the Sydney Institute, Gerard Henderson, has urged the Government to restrict the voluntary vote to elect convention delegates to Australian citizens. "In my view it's quite reprehensible that people who choose not to become Australian citizens should determine our future," Mr Henderson said last week.

Mr Scruby has legal advice that the provision allowing British subjects who were on the roll in 1984 to vote may be inconsistent with section 10(1) of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre is also preparing a brief for a barrister on the issue, and has told Mr Scruby it is liaising with the Ethnic Communities Council on further action.

The chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, Malcolm Turnbull, urged all Australian residents last night to ensure their eligibility to vote by taking out citizenship.

"If somebody thinks so little about Australia, that being entitled to become a citizen they have chosen not to be one, then you would have to ask how they could in good conscience vote for this constitutional convention," Mr Turnbull said.

The executive director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, Kerry Jones, urged residents to become Australian citizens, adding that British citizens on the electoral roll were no more or less likely than other voters to support a republic.