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Australian Expatriate Voting Rights

The Voting rights of Expatriate Australians

The last Federal Election again demonstrated how difficult it is to remain an Australian voter as an expatriate, and in practice to exercise the right to vote - with it becoming apparent late in the campaign that the AEC made a decision in 2019 that they would be withdrawing overseas polling booths covering almost half the Australian expatriate population. This meant more reliance on postal voting and many expats will understand, but apparently not some of our politicians, just how problematic this can be in certain places - for example, in many parts of China during Covid 19.

On a more general note, the fact that most expatriates are unable to vote has almost certainly influenced Government tax policy over the last decade. We have seen significant, highly discriminatory legislation in terms of capital gains tax pursued by the Governments over the last 10 years - including disallowing the 50% CGT discount for non-residents and removing the CGT main residence exemption for non-residents.

Urgent reform is needed around the voting rights - particularly given the changes in the pipeline which will make it more difficult to break "tax residency". Then we will see even more situations where we have "taxation without representation".

Expatriate voting rights are a complicated issue, with many Australian expatriates disenfranchised by the current Australian electoral voting system. Electoral law prevents Australian citizens who are overseas from enrolling to vote if it is more than three years since they left Australia to live abroad. These expats, who have been deleted from the electoral roll by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), will remain unable to vote in Australian elections until they again become resident in Australia.

The rules in this area are poorly understood by most expats, and that is a reflection of their relative complexity and the fact that many expats presume that citizenship is enough to ensure a right to vote. The AEC does have a Q&A page on Australian expat voting which we would advise all Australian expats to read who have an interest in retaining their voting rights and a page dedicated to Australians overseas wanting to vote in a Federal election.

In short, if you are going overseas permanently or indefinitely then you must obtain from the AEC, and submit, an Overseas Notification Form, which will remove you from the electoral roll.  If you are going overseas for more than one year and less than six you can choose to remain on the roll by registering as an overseas elector - again by completing an AEC form.

Thus, you need to be proactive in protecting your voting rights by submitting the latter form.  This is not a well known or advertised requirement and most expats become disenfranchised out of (understandable) ignorance, rather than choice.

Interestingly, the AEC would seem to equate an intended stay overseas of six or more years as an indefinite departure – the facts of life are that many or perhaps most expats don’t know how long they will be overseas on first departure.

Historically, the Southern Cross Group (SCG) had been very active in arguing that the current arrangements were both unfair and potentially unconstitutional, but there appears little appetite for reform in either major political party. In fact, a June 2009 Joint Senate Committee Report concluded that the current rules, "form a valid method of measuring whether a continuing interest in Australian political affairs exists."

In practice, we think that the lack of enfranchisement encourages Australian politicians of all persuasions to ignore the interests of Australian expatriates and reinforce parochial attitudes in terms of tax, foreign relations and, more recently, repatriation. You can see a consistent pattern of legislation over the last decade which has eroded the tax position of expats as symptomatic of this disenfranchisement. Perhaps expats generally need to reconsider just how welcoming and helpful they should be when politicians come "visiting".

If you believe you are entitled to vote, and you can check your status through the AEC’s online enrolment verification process, then you will normally be able to vote at any Australian mission (eg. embassy, consulate) overseas and postal votes are available - applications are available from the AEC web site once an election has been announced.

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