The other day I was speaking to a group of gynecologists from the USA. This is the kind of thing I get paid to do. They were a very political group, and as part of their conference program in Sydney, had requested a visit to the local legislature. That’s how I met them.
As we chatted about all things democracy, I realised they were still in shock from the result of their recent Presidential elections. So I mentioned compulsory voting. We have it. They don’t.
“Should you give it a go, considering that only 58% of the population turned out to vote in the 2016 elections?” I asked. “In fact, is it true that more people turned out to march in protest at the result, than actually voted?” I added.
“I suppose 100% of people turn out to vote at your Federal elections?” one of them responded rather sarcastically.
“Not quite,” I replied. “It’s about 95%.”
That answer seemed like a portal opening suddenly onto an alternate universe. There was absolute silence, followed by murmurs, and then exclamations. This group of highly qualified medical professionals, mainly male, with an average age of 60, were flabbergasted by the success of an electoral law.
Only 22 countries across the world have compulsory voting. We may whinge and grumble about politicians and elections but deep down we’re proud of our electoral system. We want to participate. We want to do the right thing. We value our civic rights. We’re a hopeful culture. That’s also, I believe, why we’re a very cynical culture; we’re often disappointed. But when our hearts and minds are engaged we’re capable of amazing things. We believe we can vote and eat our democracy sausage too.
This year is the 50th anniversary of one of those amazing things. In 1967, 90.77% of Australians voted YES to amend the Constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census, and allow the Commonwealth, rather than individual States, to make laws for them. This is the highest ever YES vote recorded in a referendum. Considering only 8 of 44 referendums since 1901 have been carried this was an extraordinary achievement. Apart from Federation, it has been the most successful civil movement in Australian history.
And so as we commemorate this wonderful event 50 years on, it’s a good time to reflect on all of the work still to be done. How do we close the life expectancy gap so that Indigenous Australians’ no longer die 10 years before the rest of us? What form should Recognition of our First Peoples take in our Constitution? These are questions of the moment in our democracy.
It’s interesting to note the number of Australians that believe the 1967 referendum gave Aboriginal people the right to vote. That actually occurred in 1962 when the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended. But the belief persists. I think this is an example of how much we value this practical and powerful function of citizenship. For so many Australians the 27th of May 1967 represents the day that we put away our prejudices and extended citizenship (and therefore justice) to Indigenous Australians. And so began the healing process.
Citizenship has been a fraught process in all democracies. And the right to vote, to have a say, to be represented, has been the marker of equality in civilized societies. When a government makes it harder for someone to become a citizen; not harder to live here, work here, pay taxes here, but harder to have a say, particularly in how those taxes are spent, then we revert to a very old fashioned type of democracy. It’s what the Ancient Greeks did to women and slaves. It’s what our government now wants to do to migrants. Not to “illegal migrants”, that convenient euphemism that has made asylum seekers the scapegoat of our most recent fears, but to migrants in general. They are the new evil.
If the recently announced government policy becomes law, migrants who become permanent residents will have to wait four years before they can apply for citizenship. They will have to demonstrate that they have integrated into Australian society. They will have to pass a stringent English language test. I oppose these changes. And not just because I’m a migrant. But because it goes against the spirit of 1967 and the spirit in which we commemorate that event 50 years on.
This year is also a much less significant anniversary. It is 40 years since my family migrated to Australia. We sailed into Sydney Harbour on the S.S. Ellinis on the 8th of April 1977. A few years later my parents, despite their limited English, were able to become citizens. And my, and my sister’s, names appear on my father’s citizenship certificate. We didn’t have to wait for years and years. We didn’t have to do a test. My parents had been accepted into the country as economic migrants. The assumption was that they wanted to be here, wanted to work, wanted to pay taxes; wanted to participate in this community. Perhaps good policy comes from a hopeful vision of the future not a pandering to bigotry. What kind of country will be created from a law that makes it harder for people like my family to become citizens? Migration is both the fundamental fabric and the great tragedy of our nation. It has always been contentious. Just ask the Gadigal people.
At the next Federal election we need to vote for those that represent hope, that have the capacity to lead, that help us heal the past; we cannot continue to elect those who fall into the easy habit of exploiting our fears about the future. I hope that ninety percent of us decide to do this at the next election.
Images; 1: courtesy of Wikicommons; 2: courtesy of State Library of NSW; 3: courtesy of ssmaritime.com; 4: courtesy of Cathy Gray