Court bid on British vote rights

The Australian, 16 September 1996, p.4.

By Mike Steketee
Mike Steketee is The Australian's national affairs editor.

The High Court may be asked to rule on the legality of allowing hundreds of thousands of Britons who live in Australia but have not taken out citizenship to vote in Australian elections. The executive director of Ausflag, Mr Harold Scruby, is seeking legal advice after preliminary discussions with lawyers who said there could be grounds for a case because the present electoral law did not give other non-citizens the right to vote and therefore conflicted with the Racial Discrimination Act. If the High Court ruled this way, it would force the Federal Government to confront the issue or otherwise allow all non citizens to vote.

According to an AGB McNair poll conducted last month for Ausflag - which wants a national vote on a new Australian flag - 81 per cent of voters believe that only Australian citizens should have the right to vote at Australian elections or referendums. Under the present law, people from Britain who came to Australia before 1984 can vote in Australian elections and referendums without becoming Australian citizens.

The Immigration Department estimates that there are about 1 million residents in Australia who are eligible to apply for citizenship but have not done so. Of these, about 600,000 hold British passports but an unknown proportion of them came to Australia after 1984, when the law was changed for future immigrants. The Australian Electoral Commission has identified about 200,000 Britons on the Commonwealth electoral roll through address changes since 1984, suggesting that a total of between 200,000 and 600,000 non-citizens have the vote in Australian elections.

This is enough to decide a close election or other national vote, such as a plebiscite or referendum on a republic or the flag. In 1989 the then Race Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Irene Moss, wrote to the government to argue the Electoral Act be made consistent with the Racial Discrimination Act. But politicians have shied away from the issue for fear of losing votes.

Republicans argue it would be particularly inappropriate to allow Britons a say in whether Australia cuts the largest remaining tie with the mother country. Mr Scruby puts a similar argument when it comes to a future vote on the Australian flag, including whether the Union Jack should remain in the top left-hand corner: "British citizens have been implored to become Australians but they are significantly more reluctant than any other group of citizens to do so."

Mr Scruby said Ausflag had been spurred on to take legal advice because of the Howard Government's legislation requiring a national vote before there was any change in the flag. "We have always been in favour of a plebiscite but now that John Howard is making it a requirement, we want it to be fair."

The chair of the Ethnic Communities Council of NSW, Ms Angela Chan, said the issue would be considered by future meetings of the council. "When you are considering things like the flag and the republic, I would like to think anyone who is going to vote is an Australian citizen," she said.