Voting rights

The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 September 1996, p.12.

A glaring anomaly of the Australian voting system is that it generously grants voting privileges to non-citizens. Not to all non citizens, however. Because of a loophole entrenched by the Commonwealth Electoral Act, British migrants who came to Australia between 1949 and 1984, and who have not taken out Australian citizenship, are entitled to vote in elections and referendums. Estimates suggest that between 200 000 and 600 000 British subjects may be able to take advantage of this.

In 1989, the then Race Relations Commissioner, Ms Irene Moss, raised the possibility that if a challenge to this provision by a non-citizen who is not a British subject was successful under the Racial Discrimination Act, the apparent result would be that all non-citizens would become eligible to vote. No action was taken on her recommendation to review the relevant provision of the Electoral Act to ensure it was consistent with the Racial Discrimination Act. This was despite the fact that the then Federal Government had embarked on a campaign to encourage all residents to become Australian citizens.

The Minister for Immigration, Mr Ruddock, argued when in opposition against changing the Electoral Act because it would retrospectively remove a right previously granted by legislation. This would only be the case, however, if the votes of these non-citizens cast in previous elections were declared invalid. This is obviously not the case. The legislation would be prospective, not retrospective. From a certain date, only Australian citizens would be entitled to vote in elections and referenda.

The Federal Government is presently amending the Flags Act to ensure that the Australian flag cannot be changed without a plebiscite. It has also promised a plebiscite to elect half the delegates to a constitutional convention. The issue, however, goes deeper than these immediate matters. The right to make decisions about Australia's future – including the most important decision of electing a government – should be exclusively reserved for those who have made a definite commitment to the country by taking out Australian citizenship. As the British Consul-General, Mr Morrice, has pointed out, a British citizen, by acquiring Australian citizenship, does not place in jeopardy the continuing right which he or she enjoys to retain British citizenship.