Immigration

Comment: Australia should give permanent residents the vote

Voters queue at a polling booth at West Epping Public School in the electorate of Bennelong in Sydney, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy) NO ARCHIVING
Voters queue at a polling booth in the electorate of Bennelong in 2010. Source: AEC

Voting rights should extend to all community members because they are members of the community.

Millions of foreign-born legal permanent residents living in Australia can’t vote. This is despite living, working, paying taxes and using public services like schools and Medicare.

While figures vary, the Department of Immigration reports that around 1.5 million permanent resident visas were granted from 2000-2010. This also includes around 250,000 New Zealanders living in Australia.

These permanent residents should be given full voting rights just as any Australian citizen. The prejudice against enfranchising non-citizen residents sits in stark contrast to democratic principles.

The fundamental principle of a democracy (which literally translates as “rule by the people”) is that members of the community should have a say in the decisions that affect them. 

The word ‘members’ is key here. Most people mistakenly associate voting rights exclusively with citizenship. This is wrong. Democracy is about membership, of which, citizenship is the main membership category. But still, it is just one part of membership. Permanent residents are also pivotal members — members whom are excluded from having a say in the decisions that affect them.

The concept of who is allowed to vote has changed significantly over time. For example, originally in England only male land-holders were able to vote. At the beginning of voting in Australia, only men were allowed to vote. Women and Indigenous Australians were excluded. In short, the category of people who can vote in a community is changeable.

Where do non-citizens vote?

Today, there are at least over 40 countries that have approved some form of foreign resident voting rights. The majority of cases where non-citizens can vote are in local elections. Many European countries, including the Nordic states, allow each other’s citizens to vote in municipal elections.

A few countries also allow residents to vote in national elections. In 1975, New Zealand granted permanent residents the ability to vote in their national elections. Similarly, Chile allows foreign residents to vote if they’ve lived there for more than five years. The UK even grants Irish citizens and a selection of some Commonwealth citizens the vote in their general elections.

In the US, non-citizen voting was widespread for the first 150 years of its history. From 1776 until 1926, 22 states and federal territories allowed non-citizens to vote in local, state, and even federal elections until this was eventually revoked.

Australia also allows some foreign citizens to vote in federal elections, albeit strictly limited in nationality and time. “British subjects” that were enrolled in a federal electorate in Australia before 26 January 1984 are obligated to vote.

Four key debates  

Naturally, any change to enfranchise foreign born permanent residents requires careful consideration. Here are four key discussions:

1. Foreigners need to “earn” their right to vote  

Critics argue that immigrants need to demonstrate significant ‘patriotic effort’ in order to be given the privilege to vote, which is why voting is exclusive to citizens. Intuitively, this is a fair claim. 

However, the very fact that these are newly minted permanent residents demonstrates their commitment to Australia. After all, they’ve left their homeland and, in many cases, their families to start afresh. It is not foreign residents’ fault that a cumbersome bureaucracy has established a prolonged barrier to citizenship. 

In some cases many permanent residents have made more of a commitment to Australia than Australian-born citizens. 

2. The asymmetry dilemma  

There are numerous instances where Australian citizens living abroad, despite not living in the country for potentially years on end, are still eligible to vote. But permanent residents can live in Australia for years on end but still be ineligible to vote. 

This dilemma highlights the problem of associating citizenship with voting rights.

3. Second class citizens

Supporters argue that excluding foreign residents from voting makes them feel like second class citizens. 

Currently, non-citizens are at risk of bias. Politicians can ignore their interests, knowing that these members of the community cannot vote against them. 

Instead, non-citizen voting should be viewed as a natural pathway to citizenship. It promotes civic education. It promotes inclusive participation. And once permanent residents receive citizenship, they can then feel more confident and competent about participating in the Australian political system.

4. The dual-citizenship dilemma

Some permanent residents are from countries that do not allow dual-citizenship. If they were to become Australian citizens they'd have to renounce citizenship of their birth country. 

Critics might argue that permanent residents should simply become citizens. However, it's unreasonable to expect these individuals to lose links with their family and homeland even though they've dedicated their new life to Australia.

5. They’ll affect the political landscape

Some people express concern that adding millions of new voters to the electoral role would change the political landscape. That's the whole point. Their views and opinions should be heard and taken into account by lawmakers. 

Ultimately, voting rights should extend to all community members because they are members of the community.

Heath Pickering is deputy editor of Election Watch.

This article was co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Election Watch