MELBOURNE City Council has seen heated debate over proposed reforms to electoral procedure that could disadvantage many international students.
In a Future Melbourne Committee meeting in early September, councillor Jackie Watts encouraged the Council to ask the Minister for Local Government, Jeanette Powell, to conduct a review of election procedures, including those governing voting eligibility.
Under the relevant legislation, a person need only be over 18 and an owner or occupier of a rateable property in order to apply to vote in municipal elections.
That means many international students and temporary migrants are currently eligible to vote.
But included in the proposed review were recommendations from Cr Watts to increase the minimum time a voter must live in an eligible property before being able to vote.
This followed submissions from a number of community groups who argued that voting should be limited to those people with a sufficient connection to Melbourne.
In an address before the Council, Bill Cook of the North and West Melbourne Association said voters should have “some knowledge of the city or intelligence with respect to issues facing the city.”
Despite this endorsement from community leaders, the Council voted against the review, with Lord Mayor Robert Doyle concerned that any changes to the voter qualification criteria could be unconstitutional.
The motion also attracted severe criticism from fellow councillor Ken Ong, who issued a ‘personal statement’ at a subsequent Future Melbourne Committee meeting describing the proposed changes as unfair and discriminatory.
“Whether you are a permanent or temporary resident in our city, a worker or a student, local or international, and you own or rent a rateable property, by the rules of the electoral system you are eligible to vote,” he said.
Cr. Ong, himself a migrant to Australia, also refused to accept the assumption that international students could not exercise an “intelligent vote”, noting that the majority of those concerned are university undergraduates, while others are completing masters and doctorate degrees.
“Maybe the new arrivals and international students are an easy target,” he said.
“Maybe there’s an underlying bias against new arrivals threatening the balance of power in some people’s eyes.”
Cr. Watts hit back with her own ‘personal statement’ earlier this month, claiming she is a victim of innuendo and misinterpretation and defending the constituent groups who had supported the reforms.
“Others may seek to stifle debate and cling to the demonstrably flawed status quo, which delivers electoral advantage to some. We do not,” she said.
“The business and residents groups that expressed support for the notice of motion did so because they understand that electoral reviews lead to electoral reforms, which will lead a return to equitable and proper electoral representation in the municipality of Melbourne.”
When drawn on the subject of international students, Cr. Watts vehemently denied targeting any particular group and insisted she was calling for a general review of the system, nothing more.
“For reasons that escape me, Councillor Ong found some sinister intent in my proposals. And that’s simply not the case,” she said.
“To press for a review of Melbourne’s uniquely flawed electoral system, including of course voter eligibility is not sinister, and it is certainly not ‘unconstitutional’.
“A review is, by definition, an exploratory process, making no immediate judgements. It is absurd to assert otherwise.”
Cr Ong dismissed Cr Watts’ personal statement as a political stunt.
Council elections are to be held in October next year.
Attempts were made to contact Bill Cook to confirm his statements as recorded in council minutes, but no response was recieved before deadline.