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Expat Briefing Editorial Team
12 August, 2015
Organizations representing the interests of expatriates have succeeded over the last couple of years in drawing attention to the issue of expat voting rights. However, while some people might have sympathy with those expats who are still be expected to pay tax in their country of origin, but can't choose which government taxes them, the ones who really matter – the politicians and legislators who decide who can and can't vote – don't, in the main, seem to be listening. At least, the UK aside, little seems to have in the countries where this is a hot topic since our last feature on this issue a year ago.
Increasingly, expats are being disenfranchised in the land of their birth, either by complex rules which inadvertently make it difficult for some expats to vote or by deliberate restrictions. Unfortunately, the situation doesn't seem to be improving very much for those expats keen to still have a say on affairs in their country of origin.
Some might argue that, if you have chosen to live permanently in another country, particularly for tax reasons, then you have also abdicated certain rights and privileges in the country of your birth, like voting. On the other hand, things aren't always that simple. For those of us born in democratic countries, the vote is one of our most precious rights, so why should this right be so easily extinguished the moment you leave for foreign shores? What's more, it is rare that an expat will have completely severed links with their country of origin, even if they are living abroad on a permanent basis. In most cases family ties will still exist, and they might, for example, be putting their children through school there too. There is also a fair chance they will still be paying tax to the Government in their former home, on income or other assets like property.
Therefore, the vote remains important to a lot of expats around the world. Governments, it seems, don't always agree.
This has been a particularly contentious issue in Canada, where a court of law recently confirmed as lawful legislation that removes voting rights for expats who have lived abroad for more than five years.
Canadian law states that a citizen who is non-resident for more than five consecutive years loses their right to vote in federal elections. This five-year rule was challenged in the case of Frank v. Canada (Attorney General) (2015 ONCA 536). The respondents originally received a favorable judgment from the Ontario Supreme Court of Justice, where the Judge held that the Government has no power to take away the voting rights of citizens. This has now been overturned on appeal.
Judge Strathy said: "Canada's political system is based on geographically defined electoral districts. The citizens living in each riding elect a Member of Parliament to represent them. Their representative serves the interests of the community, speaks for the community and participates in making laws that affect the daily activities of all residents of the community. The electorate submits to the laws because it has had a voice in making them. This is the social contract that gives the laws their legitimacy. Permitting all non-resident citizens to vote would allow them to participate in making laws that affect Canadian residents on a daily basis, but have little to no practical consequence for their own daily lives. This would erode the social contract and undermine the legitimacy of the laws."
In New Zealand, expats' right to vote has become an election issue. Indeed, so strongly do some kiwi expats feel about their democratic rights that they have formed a political party, Expatriate Party of New Zealand, in an attempt to get their views heard.
Currently up to 20 percent of expatriate kiwis are excluded from the democratic process by section 80(1)(a) of the Electoral Act 1993, which denies voting rights for New Zealand citizens who have not returned to New Zealand in the last three years. They are also urging the implementation of electronic voting, to simplify voting for non-residents.
The Party feels that expat citizens, particularly those in Australia, are not given sufficient support by their home nation. Particular issues raised include the NZ Government's perceived lack of commitment in representing their expat citizens over such issues as the denial of permanent residency in Australia and increased visa controls in the UK.
The rules for Australians living abroad aren't quite as restrictive as they seem for New Zealanders. However, it can be easy for an Australian expat to lose the right to vote in elections in the Luck Country, and difficult to get them back again, depending on the expat's circumstances.
Currently, an enrolled Australian who has been abroad for less than three years can register as an overseas voter, although they must indicate an intention to return to Australia within six years of their departure. After six years, voting status can be retained only on a year-by-year basis, and again an intention to return "at some time" must be expressed. Overseas Australians who miss an election may also be removed from the electoral roll. Those who lose their enrolment status can have it restored only by returning to Australia and taking up residence again for at least one month.
The Southern Cross Group, which lobbies for reform, argues that these restrictions are unfair, and compare unfavourably with the situation for expats originating from the United States, who retain life-long voting rights. Anne MacGregor, who co-founded the group, told the media that many Australians were surprised to discover they could no longer vote, and she described the Australian diaspora as a "big fleet of roaming ambassadors." She added that expat votes could have an important impact on marginal seats.
However, there are no signs that the Liberal/National Government intends to change these rules.
Encouragingly for Britons living and working abroad, the United Kingdom Government's position on expat voting rights may be softening.
Following the May 2015 general election, the newly-elected Conservative Government announced its intention to introduce a "Votes for Life" Bill, which may in the future expand upon the voting rights of UK expats.
In fact, UK rules on expat voting are already considerably more generous than the countries mentioned above, with British-born expats only lose their right to vote in UK elections after 15 years of residing abroad. Nevertheless, some British expats feel that this time limit is unfair, given that most still have strong ties with the UK and in many cases still pay tax to Her Majesty's Treasury.
For those who have campaigned against the 15-year rule, including Harry Shindler, a British army veteran who has lived in Italy for more than 30 years, and who recently had a challenge to existing legislation turned down by the European Court of Human Rights, the Votes for Life Bill may represent something of a victory for their cause.
Included in the Queen's Speech, which sets out the Government's legislative program for the year ahead, the Votes for Life Bill will scrap the current 15-year time limit on the voting rights of British citizens living overseas for UK parliamentary and European parliamentary elections. It is also intended that the Bill will make it easier for overseas electors to cast their votes in time to be counted and encourage larger numbers of British citizens living abroad to register to vote in UK elections.
The attitude of the UK Government towards expats and their democratic rights is a rather refreshing one considering the obstinacy of other governments on this issue, including Canada, New Zealand and Australia. On the other hand, a more cynical commentator might suggest that the British Government's motives aren't entirely honourable – i.e., would it be bothering with this bill if it didn't feel there were votes in it for the Conservative Party? If this is the case, then other countries under criticism for restricting expat voting rights might be of the view that changing the rules just isn't worth the hassle, and might even be counterproductive if expat votes are destined to flow to opposition parties. It's a rather depressing conclusion, but at least expat pressure groups have got the issue on the table, and, as has happened in the UK, their persistence could eventually pay off.
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