Inside Story

Australia’s growing democracy gap

A little-remarked feature of New Zealand’s political system would help make Australia more democratic

Joo-Cheong Tham 2 October 2018 1074 words

Who’s missing? Dean Lewins/AAP Image

Australia’s impressive record of democratic reforms stretches back over a century. This country pioneered the secret ballot (known as the “Australian ballot” in a number of American states). It was among the first group of countries to extend the franchise to women (or at least white women). Its longstanding system of compulsory voting broadens electoral participation in a highly effective way. And its state and federal electoral commissions are widely respected for their independence and professionalism.

But Australia still has a significant democratic deficit. Not only because money is subverting political equality, or because media concentration is stifling pluralism, or because we’ve failed to properly provide for Indigenous self-determination, each of which is disturbing. The flaw I’m talking about is blindingly obvious once you see it, but often ignored. It is the fact that a significant minority of Australia’s adult population doesn’t have a meaningful say in the political process.

The people missing out are permanent residents — people who have made Australia their home but haven’t, for one reason or another, become citizens. To that group I would add people who have lived here, sometimes for years, on temporary work visas, as international students, or because they’re entitled to as New Zealanders. In 2016, non-tourist temporary visa holders numbered more than 1.5 million, or more than 6 per cent of the Australian population.

Some people might think that giving the vote to these residents is a ludicrous idea. They are not, by definition, Australian citizens, and some would say that, being non-citizens, they aren’t entitled to have a say in the country’s political processes.

This argument draws on the view that community is anchored in citizenship; in other words, that the Australian community is composed entirely of Australian citizens. But does that really mean that citizenship should be the exclusive basis for having a political voice? After all, “democracy,” by definition, is rule by the people, not rule by citizens. This deep truth is most clearly recognised in Article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.”

It might also be argued that democracies have a collective right to determine the composition of their communities — that they should be able to determine who is within their “demos.” Nearly three decades ago, in his classic book Democracy and Its Critics, the political scientist Robert Dahl pointed out the absurdity of this view. It would allow nation-states to call themselves “democracies” even when they exclude a significant proportion of their resident population from the demos. As Dahl argued, “If a demos can be a tiny group that exercises a brutal despotism over a vast subject population, then ‘democracy’ is conceptually, morally, and empirically indistinguishable from autocracy.”

There are alternatives to these narrow and distorted views of democracy. Of particular note is the theory of social membership proposed by another political scientist, Joseph Carens, in his book The Ethics of Immigration. According to this theory, it is not the legal status of citizenship or the nation-state’s say-so that determines whether an individual is a member of the community (and therefore entitled to a political voice). Rather, it is the connections a person has to his or her place of residence — “the relationships, interests, and identities that connect people to the place where they live.”

The implications of this theory are clear enough: permanent residents and temporary visa holders are members of the countries where they have ongoing residence, and that membership entitles them to have a say, and ultimately an equal say, in the political process.

Contemporary Australia might fall dramatically short of this ideal, but the notion that ongoing residents are entitled to a political voice is not entirely alien. Residents, citizens or not, are entitled to vote in local government elections, for instance. This entitlement has its roots in the property franchise, but it can also recognise the interests of residents with a stake in the local government area. In another field, industrial relations, there is a consensus that all workers should have a “voice” at work, including permanent residents and temporary visa holders.

History also supports the argument that ongoing residence should be the basis of membership. What is usually remembered about the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902 are its racist exclusions, particularly of Indigenous Australians, Asians, Africans and Pacific Islanders. What is less often recalled is that these groups weren’t excluded in the original Commonwealth franchise bills when they were introduced in 1901 and 1902. At the heart of those bills was a highly progressive principle of inclusion. In the words of Richard O’Connor, the NSW senator who had their carriage, they recognised “one ground only, as giving a right to vote, and that is residence in the Commonwealth for six months or over by any person of adult age.”

In his pioneering book Not Quite Australian, Peter Mares has proposed eight years as the threshold at which temporary visa holders should be given the option of permanent residence. Let me propose another principle to bring Australia closer to democratic justice: once migrants have resided continuously for twelve months in this country and intend to continue living here, they should be considered members of this country and entitled to a say in its political processes.

Why twelve months? It is the period underlying the concept of “usual residence” that determines the population estimates issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (more precisely, the ABS relies on the 12/16 rule, which only requires twelve months of residence within a period of sixteen months). These estimates have constitutional significance: under section 24 of the Constitution, they represent the number of the “people of the Commonwealth” that, in turn, determines the number of federal parliamentarians in each state.

For a living example of such a rule in operation you need only look across the Tasman. Permanent residents of New Zealand have the right to vote in elections after one year of ongoing residence, a rule that has been in place since 1975.

The disenfranchisement of permanent residents and many temporary visa holders is an affront to democratic principles; that it is not recognised as such only makes it more egregious. As John Stuart Mill wrote in Considerations on Representative Government, “It is an essential part of democracy that minorities should be adequately represented… No real democracy, nothing but a false show of democracy, is possible without it.” •