Our British voters may not count

The Australian, 10 September 1997, p.12.

Should the British over here be allowed to defend their monarchy? This may be an emotive and misleading way to put it. But many Australians would be surprised to learn that British subjects who live here and who have not been naturalised can influence next year's constitutional convention. At least some of them will be eligible to vote for delegates charged with considering whether Australia should sever all connection with the British monarchy and become a republic. It must seem, to Australian citizens, not just surprising but inappropriate.

The republican question is not an academic one. The latest Newspoll, published in The Australian today – shows for the first time – majority support (54 per cent) for an Australian republic. Fewer Australians are undecided now, and once they make up their minds, they are for a republic. One influence is almost certainly the reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Still, as the centenary of federation approaches, the debate about how best to approach a constitutional referendum on the head-of-State question is likely to become more immediate.

One aspect of that debate is the role to be played by British subjects who are residents but not Australian citizens. As The Australian reported yesterday, a Sydney plumber, Lorenzo Poletto, is considering a legal challenge. Why, he asks, should British subjects be the only resident non-citizens to have a vote in the convention elections? This is contrary to federal anti-discrimination law, according to advice obtained by Harold Scruby, who is executive director of Ausflag and who is behind the proposed legal action. The question raised by Mr Poletto is a good one but the answer may be found in politics, not in the courts.

By 1981 the Government had recognised it was no longer appropriate for British subjects to have the privilege of a non-citizen vote. Since 1984 only citizens have been eligible to vote in federal elections (and the convention relies upon the federal electoral roll, as does a constitutional referendum). But it seemed unfair to take away the right to vote enjoyed by those British subjects on the roll at the time the new law took effect. At last count there were 166 920 electors in this category. There are difficulties in knowing the true number, and it could be closer to half a million, but it would still be relatively small compared to the size of the electorate. It is a historical anomaly that will disappear with the passage of time. It is too early to assess the likely effect of any court action. There seems no legal reason why the electoral law would not survive an inconsistency with anti-discrimination law. But at a political level, at the level of public perception, it might be different.

Given the uncertainty of a voluntary postal vote for the 76 elected convention delegates, republicans may fear these British subjects as a force for the monarchy. Such a fear could easily be overstated. Under electoral law, British subjects include people from nations as various as the Irish republic, New Zealand, Cyprus and Swaziland. No doubt the English would dominate but it would be rash for the Australian monarchists to expect their universal support.

Some of these Britons may be like Mr Poletto, an Italian national who arrived here in 1960: he gives Australia's absentee monarchy as one reason why he has not become naturalised. Even so, it seems wrong that any non-citizen should have a say in whether Australia is to change something as fundamental as its head-of-State arrangements. The republican argument has much to do with symbols, and non-citizens having an influence in its ultimate resolution seems entirely the wrong symbol.

Perhaps these British subjects should not have been allowed to vote for convention delegates. But it seems too late now to consider that question: the elections are too close. It would be unfair not to give this category of electors a last chance to become citizens. They may feel just as Australian as any citizen. Their reasons for not making their loyalty formal may be complex.

In any event, important as it is, the convention itself will not make the crucial decision. That decision – whether there is to be a republic – will be made by the Australian people voting in a constitutional referendum. It seems inappropriate that, come referendum day, non-citizens should have a vote. It would not be taking away from that category of British subjects a right previously enjoyed.

The principle is hard to argue with, but putting it into practice may be difficult. The Government should examine the possibility of legislation. True, it may well be cumbersome and expensive to devise a system that would identify all those on the electoral roll not eligible to vote in a head-of-state referendum. On the other hand, enforceability often falls short of the ideal, particularly so in electoral law. If after careful study the Government decides legislation would be more trouble than it is worth, then it should redouble its publicity campaign to convince all non-citizens that they should join the Australian majority.