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No vote, no voice


Australians living overseas indefinitely — meaning they do not intend to return within six years — cannot vote in elections and referenda. As one of these Australians, I experience some frustration about this whenever an election rolls around. But I will also not be able to vote in the Voice referendum. 

That hurts because this is the kind of referendum which defines a nation, and the nation in question is still the most important one to me. I desperately hope the proposal to establish an Indigenous Voice to Parliament will succeed. (I implore everyone to read the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a more moving and powerful document than is generally recognised.) But the issue will also be important to Australians overseas indefinitely who are opposed to the Voice.

I am overseas because of my work; I research and teach philosophy at the University of Barcelona. No one can predict the future, but I cannot say I intend to return to Australia in the foreseeable future. While I would love to be able to vote in Australian elections and referenda, I cannot in good conscience remain on the electoral roll, so I have had my name removed.

Why can’t Australians overseas indefinitely vote?

It might surprise some that the answer is not in the Constitution. Although the Constitution establishes a representative democracy, many questions regarding how this representative democracy will function fall to the federal parliament to be determined. (Australia’s first federal election was conducted in accordance with the laws of the states, as no federal parliament had yet convened to make laws on any matter.)

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth) provides for the establishment of the Australian Electoral Commission and for the keeping of a Roll of Electors. It also requires that enrolled citizens who are overseas indefinitely inform the Commission of this fact, so they can be removed from the Roll. The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 (Cth) allows only those who are on the Roll to vote in a referendum.

This means Australians overseas indefinitely cannot vote in federal elections and referenda. It also means it is within the power of the parliament to re-enfranchise this group. It can do so whenever it chooses, including before the Voice referendum.


'A citizen’s connections to their political community can remain robust long after they depart physically.'


Should Australians who are overseas indefinitely be able to vote? This takes us to a problem in political philosophy known as the ‘boundary problem’: Where should we draw the line in deciding who can vote?

The answer cannot be that everyone who lives in a particular jurisdiction, and no one else, should be allowed to vote. There are many resident non-citizens in Australia and, although they should be entirely welcome in the community, they are not yet full members of the polity. In many instances, their primary loyalty is still to another country, and they may not either hope or intend to become Australian citizens.

The answer cannot be that only those who are obliged to help fund a government’s actions by paying taxes, at least when they are employed, should be afforded the right to vote. This, again, would extend franchise to resident non-citizens. It would also have the perverse consequence that a government could disenfranchise groups of citizens if it also relieved them of any obligation to pay tax.

And it would be wrong to insist that only those who keep themselves informed about political matters should be allowed to vote. Even if some people should place greater value on their franchise, it would be undemocratic to exclude them.

The influential political theorist Robert Dahl thought anyone whose interests were affected by the decisions of a government or a political community should be allowed to vote. He pointed out that the interests of people who cannot participate in political decisions are inevitably disregarded, as the experiences of women and ethnic minorities have shown. But this approach is thought to be problematic as well. People who have no direct connection to Australia at all are significantly affected by decisions on many matters. Farmers in Europe and North America are affected by decisions on trade; citizens of Pacific Island nations are affected by policy on climate change.

The boundary problem is an open question. The best answer might combine many considerations. Critically, though, no reasonable set of criteria would automatically exclude Australians living overseas indefinitely. Many still have tax obligations in Australia, as they remain residents for tax purposes. Technology makes it possible for citizens living overseas to be entirely up-to-date on Australian news. And the interests of Australians overseas are affected by the country’s political decisions in many ways.

Australians abroad never cease to be impacted by the government’s foreign and military policy. Just ask any Australian living in Hong Kong or Taiwan if they are affected by the government’s relations with China.

Citizens living abroad cannot take with them any superannuation they may have accrued in Australia. They must wait until they meet the usual criteria before accessing it, which usually requires reaching retirement age. So they are affected by laws made in this area. For a citizen who worked in Australia for a part of their adult life before moving abroad, this could be a large part of their assets, critical to their long-term security.

Perhaps the main reason that citizens are interested in aged care policy is not for their own sake but for the sake of aging parents and relatives. This is true for Australians abroad who still have family in the country as much as it is true for citizens living at home. Perhaps aged care matters even more to Australians abroad, who cannot provide care for aging loved ones directly.

And citizens abroad were certainly affected when the government prevented them reentering the country during the recent pandemic.

Why might one think that Australians overseas should lose the right to vote after a period of time? Perhaps because the connections which citizens abroad have to the country must fade over time, especially as they become established in a new community. But Australians overseas never cease to be affected by the country’s foreign, military, financial and social policies. And, as an Australian living overseas since 2017, I can attest that one does not soon begin to feel less invested in the country’s affairs. I certainly don’t.

It made more sense early in the 20th century that Australian citizens should lose the right to vote upon moving abroad indefinitely. Someone living abroad then would have been almost entirely separated from the country’s affairs. But we are not bound by geography as we once were. A citizen’s connections to their political community can remain robust long after they depart physically.

Many other countries have much more permissive laws with respect to overseas citizens voting. Last year, the United Kingdom extended the right to vote to citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years. It is a rare case of Australia being less progressive than other nations in extending franchise.

Though it hurts that I will not be able to vote in the Voice referendum, it must be much more painful for some others. Indigenous Australians who are living overseas indefinitely will also not be able to vote, and will have no voice on the Indigenous Voice. That, surely, is not right.




Daniel Gregory is an Australian philosopher based at the University of Barcelona in Spain. 

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration  

Topic tags: Daniel Gregory, Expats, Australia, The Voice, Referendum, Vote



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Existing comments

On the single most important subject in your article, Daniel, although you do mention others like aged care, I am unsure whether, if Australians resident long term abroad could vote in the referendum on the Voice, whether it would carry. There is vigorous debate on the issue, which I consider a sign of a vibrant democracy. From my perspective, the more visible proponents of the Yes case appear to have simultaneously shot themselves in the foot and sunk their case. It was an atrocious performance. Where to from here? That is a practical, not a philosophical question. The silent voters in outer suburbia are yet to be convinced.

Edward Fido | 10 August 2023  

If someone nominally Australian, chooses not to live in Australia, work in Australia or pay tax in Australia, why should such a non-participating persons be allowed to vote in Australia?

John Frawley | 11 August 2023  

The Pope wants bishops and priests to smell their sheep and, presumably, the reverse. What does this mean?

Can constituents outside the country smell their representatives, and the reverse, as directly as those within? Does the Internet qualitatively replace the actual and potential informational proximity that exists between domestic residents?

Jurors are physically present at proceedings. Could we countenance the empanelment of juries some of whose members follow the proceedings and participate in discussions within the jury room by Zoom from home or abroad?

Humans, like their mammalian subordinates, "read" a situation by taking in all kinds of signals, not necessarily only the formal signals. The formal source of the signal may be a minister speaking at the dispatch box or an MP speaking at a town meeting. Informal signals may be emitted by responders to the formal sources (overheard chatter in the supermarket).

But, for expatriates living outside context, are there domestics living inside echo chambers? Decisions can be derived from principle only if the applicable principles don't negate each other. If they do, the default is a rebuttable presumption that those who live at home have more means to be better informed about home than those living away.

s martin | 11 August 2023  

The usual ballot is mostly, but not necessarily totally, about competition over how resources are allocated. Referenda tend to be more about philosophy (eg., republic). Even the Voice referendum, is, for the overwhelming majority who are non-Indigenous, a philosophical ballot as the ballot isn't about competition over resources within the majority. The non-Indigenous will decide the referendum because the Indigenous are a very small voting cohort.

Should we treat referenda as special exercises of the ballot which are different from the usual election and allow Australians intending to remain abroad indefinitely to vote in them?

Would the issue be easier to resolve if Australia did not permit multi-citizenship?

Does it matter which level (federal, state/territory, municipal) is voting?

Is every vote in a general or by-election not about principle?

If a missionary who has been overseas for a very long time because that is required by the nature of the vocation, wants to vote against a state government which proposes to bring in, say, a law expanding euthanasia, should s/he be allowed to do so? What if the council within whose area the missionary owns a house and pays rates wants to introduce transgender storytellers for children to libraries?

s martin | 12 August 2023  

Good article and it's an emergent issue backgrounded by nativism and voter suppression by precluding offshore voting.

Like Brexit referendum precluding British from voting if resident elsewhere, but foreign residents in Britain could vote.

Last election a form of bizarre voter suppression went on via the AEC with a minority voters having papers sent by courier, vs. most by post, and the latter did not receive papers, at all (in one Central European nation); VEC does it more practically by sending does by email to download and print, then post back; too easy.

I do not understand why so many onshore citizens have issues on voting i.e. patronising and condescending attitudes towards fellow citizens voting from offshore, often making false allegations e.g. claiming they don't pay tax, have no linkage with Australia and never visit; popular nativist trope but not true.

As we become more open and mobile, especially middle and younger generations, the right calls to restrict the citizenship responsibilities, of offshore, hardly democratic?

Andrew Smith | 15 August 2023  

Of bigger concern should be the number of people living here that are denied the right to vote. Prisoners, for example, serving a sentence of three years or longer are not entitled to enrol and vote and over one third of all prisoners in Australia are First Nations' people. Furthermore, around 40% of the roughly 3 million permanent migrants who have arrived since 2000 still cannot vote presumably because they have not chosen, or not been able, to take up citizenship. These are the people whose inability to vote should concern us all.

Ginger Meggs | 16 August 2023  

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