The Italian election last weekend has produced a cliff-hanger result which appears to have signalled the end of the reign of Silvio Berlusconi – at least for now. While that seems like a good thing to me, the aspect of the election I have been much more interested in has been the innovation of Italian citizens living abroad being able to vote for their own expatriate or ‘diaspora’ representatives. 12 deputies (lower house MPs) and 6 senators, all living outside of Italy, will represent four constituencies (Europe, North & Central America, Latin America, and Africa/Asia/Oceania).
There have been a few suggestions made in recent years about Australia considering a similar type of thing. I can see the benefits of such an approach, although I am yet to be convinced and I think it is a bit soon for the (locally based) Australian public to accept. None the less, I think it is worth more public debate.
Andrew Leigh from ANU suggested something similar in a paper he wrote in 2004. His variation, which I think is better, was to have Australian expatriates register separately and be able vote for a specific expat Senate representative, but not have any vote for a House of Representatives member (on the basis that that “overseas electors who, for the most part, do not pay Australian taxes, (should be) denied the right to influence the formation of the federal government.)”
The current situation for Australian citizens residing offshore is that they are entitled to vote in elections for up to six years after leaving Australia, and must reapply every year thereafter for permission to remain on the electoral roll. Overseas electors continue to be enrolled and vote in the electorate in which they lived prior to their departure. Voting for overseas based Australians is voluntary, although failure to vote may result in a cancellation of enrolment.
There was a Senate Committee inquiry into the Australian diaspora which reported in March 2005, which hasn’t got as much attention as I believe it deserves. As is customary for the current government, they haven’t yet bothered to reply to the report or its 16 recommendations. In amongst many other things, the inquiry considered the issue of voting rights for Australian citizens living overseas. Their views on this are covered in this chapter, from paragraph 5.78 onwards. However, they didn’t cover the issue of specific representation for expat Australians. In short they recommended that:
• 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.
The recent report of the Electoral Matters Committee into our electoral system doesn’t seem to have considered the issue at all.
As I said above, the idea of specific expat representation in our national Parliament needs more public debate before it is likely to be accepted in Australia. However, as the Senate Inquiry report acknowledged, we grossly undervalue our expat community, and this would certainly be one very significant way to keep people linked to Australia during any extended time away from the country. In addition, having a representative specifically focused on the issues and views of expats would give them much better representation that is received by the small number who are enrolled and vote. (according to the Australian Electoral Commission, in 2001, there were 10,636 Eligible Overseas Electors registered on the electoral roll. Only 5,822 (54.7 per cent) of these voted at the 2001 federal election.)
According to Andrew Leigh’s paper
Relative to our size, Australia boasts one of the world’s largest diasporas. The Australian
diaspora is currently estimated at around 1 million people, or about 5 per cent of the
population. This is equivalent to the population of Perth or Adelaide, and it is a greater
number than the combined populations of Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the
Australian Capital Territory.
My own view is it may be better for overseas based Australian citizens to be enrolled in their own discrete category. It may be desirable for them to have representation in the House of Representatives as well as the Senate, but as a member who does not have a vote. There is some precedent for this. When Australia’s Territories were first given representation in federal Parliament, they were as non-voting members and Senators.
This would also give Australians (offshore and onshore) time to get used to the idea before it directly affected the outcome of decisions on legislation or who formed government. This is probably a good idea, especially as Italy’s first experience with this experimental idea seems to have ended up with the diaspora vote being crucial in giving the new government a majority in the Senate!
The incoming government coalition appears to have won 158 Senate seats to 156 for the opposition, plus 1 independent, but only because they won 4 of the 6 Senate allocated to voters outside Italy. It will be interesting to see if the offshore voting experiment survives, especially as the ability of the new government to pass legislation may depend on these Senators traveling all the way to Italy whenever Parliament is sitting.