Should international students lose political rights?

One of the biggest changes to Australia migration this century, and through it to Australian society, has been the rise of long-term residents without the rights created by permanent residence or citizenship.

International students make up a large proportion of these restricted-rights residents, with more than half a million in Australia this year. While most international students go home after finishing their studies or convert to permanent residence, some stay on successive temporary visas for ten or more years. Other large categories of restricted-rights residents include New Zealanders and people on temporary work visas.

The total number of residents with limited rights varies depending on which visa categories are counted, but more than 1.8 million people are in this category.

As well as having no or limited access to social security benefits, often insecure tenure in Australia, and no right to vote in elections, restricted-rights residents are caught up in recent moves against ‘foreign’ political donors.

In Victoria, the current campaign finance bill links the right to make a political donation to eligibility under Commonwealth social security legislation, adding to the disadvantages that legislation already creates. (There is a loophole, as entities with an ABN can donate, and you don’t need to be a permanent resident or citizen to get an ABN. So ‘foreigners’ can donate via their business interests but not otherwise.)

With a very low donations caps in the Victoria bill – only $4000 over the four year electoral cycle to a political party – nobody could have much influence via donations.  Even if ‘foreigners’ are a bad influence the problem would be already solved another way.

The Victorian legislation’s one redeeming feature is that it only applies in a limited context.  It covers donations for political expenditure with the dominant purpose of attempting to influence votes in Victorian elections. So other donations to political parties, and donations to third parties campaigning on issues rather than directly advocating a vote, would not be covered.

In practical terms, that means that international students could donate to campaigns on state issues that are important to them, such as crime and public transport concessions.

By contrast, the federal bill that would ban ‘foreign’ donations of $250 or more covers a very wide range of political activity. It covers any public expression of views on a political party or candidate, and any public expression of views on an issue that is, or could be, an election issue. As it is hard to know what could be an election issue, a cautious approach would read this as covering any potential political issue.

Unlike the proposed Victorian law, the Commonwealth bill would allow small donations (except when they come from foreign bank accounts, ruling out help from friend or relatives overseas) but restricts donations for a much wider range of activities

On my reading, this could inhibit the capacity of temporary residents to politically engage on issues of particular concern to them. The most obvious of these is migration, which is very likely to be an issue in the next federal election. But long-term temporary residents face many of the same problems as permanent residents or citizens, and so may want to politically engage with these as well by donating to a group that represents their views.

In my view, proposals to restrict the political rights of non-citizens are misguided. ‘Foreign’ influence, even from people outside Australia, is a poor proxy for bad influence. Australian political culture is largely a local take on ideas originating elsewhere. Our political parties and interest groups mostly have rough equivalents overseas. This is as we would expect in a migrant society which has rarely restricted the flow of political material from overseas.

One of the most important ideas in our political culture is that the way to deal with bad ideas is not to suppress them with the force of law, it is to criticise, campaign, and vote in ways that diminish their influence.

Within campaign finance law, donor disclosure regimes let the political process judge whether a donation is problematic or not. Sometimes foreign connections will be seen as an issue, such as Chau Chak Wing’s alleged links to the Chinese Communist Party. (Chau Chak Wing would not be affected by either the Victorian or Commonwealth laws, as he is a citizen). But most foreign or foreigner donations don’t raise any issues, and I have seen no argument that donations from Australia’s temporary residents pose a threat to our political system.

There is no need to restrict the rights of some Australian residents to deal with the sub-set of foreign influences that are a potential problem, which can be debated and dealt with in the same way as questionable local influences. Political parties have long refused donations from tobacco companies and individuals with criminal associations.

As well as being unnecessary, restrictions on the political rights of non-citizens inflict substantial collateral damage on the political activism of people who are Australian citizens. While political parties have access to the electoral roll, there is no publicly-available register of permanent residents or citizens. This means that every donor has to provide evidence of their residence status, a hassle that would deter many donors and reduce the money available for political activity.

To ensure that there are no ‘foreign’ donors, political parties and third parties would have to divert scarce resources into compliance activities. Most people involved in politics in Australia are volunteers. These laws would waste their time and expose them to substantial legal risk. In the Victorian legislation, the maximum penalty for knowingly accepting an unlawful donation is a fine of nearly $50,000 or two years jail or both.  In the Commonwealth legislation the maximum penalty is a fine of $126,000 or ten years jail or both.

The Victorian legislation would also impose a maximum fine of nearly $50,000 or two years jail or both for people who knowingly make an unlawful donation.

It is unlikely that the courts would ever impose such draconian penalties for a victimless offence. But the fact that two of our parliaments are seriously considering criminalising ordinary political activity is another very bad sign for our democratic system.





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