Polling in London, 2010 Federal Election

The vast majority of Australians living overseas are no longer entitled to vote. This is not due to lack of interest or involvement but rather Australia’s restrictive overseas elector laws which make it practically impossible for many of us to remain on the electoral roll.

An estimated 1 million Australians live overseas and 75% of us will eventually return home. We proudly identify as Australians while we are away, and our commitments and feelings towards our country remain strong. We retain investments and properties and are up to date on friends, family and football scores. Cheap flights mean we visit home more often than ever before.

Australia’s electoral laws do not reflect this modern reality of an involved and connected diaspora. Current legislation disenfranchises up to 1 million mostly young, highly skilled and educated citizens. We have lost our voice in the future of our country.

Eligible Overseas Electors

The concept of expat voting rights is not new – it was first introduced in the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Act 1983. This amendment provided all citizens the possibility to be listed as an “Eligible Overseas Elector” (EOE) for a limited number of years after departure from Australia. Overseas voting privileges had previously only been granted to members of the Defence Forces.

The original 1983 law had a limitation of three years. In an era where the last of the migrants were arriving at Fremantle by boat and long-distance communication costs were prohibitive, the average citizen would presumably have lost the requisite connections to home to warrant political participation after an election cycle abroad.

This limitation stood unchallenged until the late 1990s when the Inquiry into the Conduct of the 1996 Federal Election recognized that a number of Australians, most notably Australia’s Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union, had been deleted from the electoral roll on the basis of non-residence.

The Inquiry recommended “the qualifying period of three years or less under section 94 of the Act should be extended to six years”. This recommendation was adopted through the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Act 1998.

With minor amendments, this legislation is still in force. Specifically:

  • Citizens that express intent to leave Australia for more than six years are immediately removed from the electoral roll.
  • Citizens that express intent to leave Australia for less than six years may register with the AEC as an ‘Eligible Overseas Elector’ (EOE) within their first 3 years away.
  • EOE status is valid for six years, after which it can be renewed annually by means of written application to the Electoral Commissioner. Each annual application must be made within 3 months before the expiration of the previous period.
  • Should an EOE fail to vote at a federal election, their status is forfeited and their enrolment is cancelled.

Technically, keeping oneself permanently on the roll is possible given an initial declaration of intent to leave Australia for less than six years followed by a subsequent annual petition to the Electoral Commissioner after the six-year period has lapsed. Missing an annual application or failing to vote in an election will irrevocably cancel one’s EOE status, as getting back on the roll after three years abroad is not possible.

In practice, very few Australians are registered as EOEs, numbering around 2% of the expat population in 2013 (21,789 registrations).

How We Compare

Australia’s stance on overseas electors is one of the most restrictive of western democracies. This is especially surprising given Australia’s strong and proud voting culture. A 2001 study into overseas voting rights in 63 democracies found that 33 of the surveyed nations had no time limitations on overseas voting. Many of the remaining nations had more liberal rules than Australia.

Australia compares poorly with even our closest allies:

  • In New Zealand an elector can remain on the roll as long as they have returned to the country for any duration of time within the preceding three years.
  • In the UK an elector can remain on the roll for up to fifteen years after moving abroad.
  • In the USA there are no limits on the voting rights of citizens overseas.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

In October 2003 the Australian Senate ordered an inquiry by its Legal and Constitutional References Committee into issues regarding the Australian diaspora. The resulting report, They still call Australia home: Inquiry into Australian expatriates, remains the most comprehensive on the issue to date. On the topic of overseas voting rights, the Senate Committee concluded:

…a greater number of expatriate Australians should be entitled to enrol, and subsequently to vote, in Australian elections. The Committee recognises that many Australians living overseas maintain their connections to Australia, and are able to keep informed in relation to Australian affairs. In particular, Internet technology means it is easier than ever for Australians overseas to keep informed of events and issues in Australia. For this reason, the Committee considers that the enrolment provisions for Australian citizens overseas should be relaxed to make it easier for expatriates to maintain their electoral enrolment (or ‘EOE status’). At the same, the Committee supports the notion that such Australians should be required to demonstrate some form of continuing connection with Australia, such as having returned to Australia in recent years, along the lines of the approach taken by New Zealand.

When these words were published, facebook.com was being launched and Skype was only 18 months old. The Committee’s reasoning holds even more true in 2018.

They went on to recommend that:

…the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 should be amended as follows to assist expatriate Australians to maintain their electoral enrolment:

  • Australian citizens moving or living overseas should be entitled to register as an ‘Eligible Overseas Elector’ if they left Australia in the previous three years, or have returned to Australia (for any length of time) in the past three years; and they intend to resume residence in Australia within six years of their departure; and
  • Australian citizens who have been living overseas for over six years should be entitled to renew their enrolment as an Eligible Overseas Elector if they have returned to Australia (for any length of time) within the last three years.

It’s time to take action on this recommendation.

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