Brits – no right to the Aussie vote

The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 September 1996, p.13.

By Gerard Henderson
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. Internet address

It may be 200,000. Perhaps 600,000. Possibly even 800,000. Whatever the figure, there are an awful lot of British citizens voting in Australian elections, referendums and plebiscites.

These men and women are not part of that group which enjoys the benefit of dual British and Australian citizenship. Rather, they are individuals who have consciously chosen not to take out Australian citizenship. Yet these non-Australians freely vote in Federal and State elections Down Under. How come? Shortly after its election in March 1983, the Hawke Labor Government acted to close off an anomaly in the electoral act. Bob Hawke and his ministers decided that, as from Australia Day 1984, only Australian citizens would be eligible to vote in Australian elections.

Before January 25, 1984, certain British subjects living in Australia since 1949 were entitled to vote, even though they were not Australian citizens. This arrangement ceased as of January 1984. But the voting rights of those British subjects already on the rolls were not touched. Many still have the right to vote in Federal and State elections. How many? Nobody knows. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has identified some 200,800 individuals who are almost certainly in this category. These are men and women who have changed their addresses since January 1984 and have been required to nominate their British nationality. However, the AEC concedes the possibility that some of these individuals could have subsequently taken out Australian citizenship.

United Kingdom officials estimate that there are some 600,000 British passport holders living in Australia. Clearly not all British citizens resident Down Under hold a UK passport - but most probably would. Obviously, some of these British passport holders would have arrived in Australia after January 1984. This suggests that a figure of 600,000 British citizens voting in Australian elections is not an impossibility. However, the figure probably errs on the high side. Other estimates have been bandied about - from 1.1 million to 800,000. Either figure is possible, but most unlikely. The best guess from all the available data would be that there are probably about 300,000 British citizens, who have declined to take out Australian citizenship, voting in Australian elections.

It's not inconceivable that the individual voting preferences of these estimated 300,000 Brits could have determined the outcome of some close Federal and State elections of recent memory. However, their potential impact would be diminished on account of the fact that Commonwealth and State Governments are determined by out comes in individual electorates.

But this is not the case in referendums. To be successful, a proposal to alter the Constitution requires the support of a majority of electors nationwide as well as in a majority of States. Plebiscites have no necessary constitutional implication. But to be successful, a plebiscite would have to attract at least a majority of votes throughout Australia. In referendums or plebiscites, about 300,000 could determine the national out come and/or the result of one or more States. This gives many non-Australian British subjects real electoral clout.

In recent interviews with the Adelaide Advertiser and The Courier-Mail, John Howard claimed that 52 per cent would not be a suitable majority in order for Australia to become a republic. The Prime Minister told The Advertiser's David Penberthy that such an outcome would be "the worst possible result" irrespective of whether the republican or monarchist cause prevailed. According to Mr Howard: "Inevitably, people would say, 'Let's have another vote in five years', that would be awful." So what? John Howard is Prime Minister with an enormous majority in the House of Representatives. Moreover, he has decreed that Advance Australia Fair should remain the national anthem.

Yet, in March 1996, the Coalition won 54 per cent of the two-party preferred vote to Labor's 46 per cent. And in the May 1977 plebiscite Advance Australia Fair was the first preference of about 43 per cent of Australians.

It's much the same whenever elections, referendums or plebiscites are conducted. In some Australian colonies at the turn of the century, the federation cause achieved narrow majorities. In 1916 and 1917, conscription was only narrowly defeated - the same is true of the 1951 attempt by the Coalition Government to ban the Australian Communist Party.

Whatever the Prime Minister's personal views, a majority in a constitutional referendum is a majority. And that is 50 per cent plus one vote at the national level and in at least four States.

In any proposal as to whether Australia should have an Australian head of state and/or a new flag, it is reasonable to expect that only Australian citizens should be entitled to vote. The case is strongly made in Carol A. Foley's The Australian Flag (1996).

Obviously, Australia has changed significantly since British subjects voted as of right. Of Australia's first 10 prime ministers, no fewer than four grew up in Britain (George Reid Andrew Fisher, Joseph Cook and Billy Hughes) and one (John Watson) was born on his way to the Antipodes. There was also Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who was more British than most British. As Joan Rydon points out in A Federal Legislature (1986), in 1901 over half the members of the Commonwealth Parliament were born overseas mostly in the British Isles.

In 1914 and again in 1939, Australia's security was at stake and Australia had good reason to fight against German militarism and Nazi totalitarianism. Yet it is also true that many Australians at the time thought themselves to be British. That was understandable then. But not now. It's not that the Australia/British relation ship has diminished in any way. Not at all. Britain is a traditional ally and many, if not most Australians are fond of Britain and the Brits.

It's just that Australia is not Britain. It has not been for quite some time, despite the attempts by some of the "Land of Hope and Glory" set to argue otherwise. Writing in the London Weekly Telegraph in July 1994, Geoffrey Partington claimed that until Gough Whitlam became Labor Prime Minister in 1972 the Englishness or Britishness of Australia was an acknowledged fact of life.

What nonsense. Some Australians may have identified with Britain. But those from non-British backgrounds, including the Irish, tended to identify with their adopted land. Mary MacKillop, of Scottish descent, thought of herself as Australian. So did John Monash whose parents were Prussian Jews. Australia remains a multicultural, immigrant nation and moves to dual citizenship should be welcomed. But that does not mean that British citizens who choose not to be Australians should vote in our elections. This is so whether they number one million or just one.