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Can International Students Vote in Australia? How You Can Contribute to Australia’s Democracy

As international students, it can be daunting to understand Australia’s electoral system and what rights we may have.

How can we, as international students, make an impact and contribute to the communities we live in? Do we possess voting rights?

Government in Australia

To understand that, we first need to have an understanding of Australia’s levels of government. Australia has three levels of government, and therefore holds three separate elections. These elections are the federal, state/territory, and local elections.

The roles and responsibilities of each level vary, but each of the three levels of government has its own executive that puts laws into action.

Federal government

The federal parliament election focuses on electing leaders that make and implement laws for the whole of Australia. Some examples of the type of areas the federal parliament covers are foreign policy, immigration laws, and trade and commerce laws. 

State/territory governments

The state and territory elections (there are six states and two mainland territory parliaments) focus on electing leaders that make laws that guide each individual state and territory. The state parliament is the decision-making body of the state/territory government.

Local government

Finally, the local council (also referred to as city council) elections focus on making local laws or by-laws for that specific region, suburb or district. There are more than 500 local councils across Australia, established by state/territory governments to look after the particular needs of a city or local community. 

Can international students vote in Australia?

We’ve all seen posters and received pamphlets in our mailbox about candidates for local city council elections, and we’ve seen news about state/territory and federal parliament elections. However, as international students, we generally do not pay much attention to it, as we are not citizens and we can’t vote. But have we been approaching this the wrong way? Could we potentially be missing out on opportunities to make a difference in our local areas, and to contribute to local democracy? 

According to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), the eligibility criteria to vote in Australia are: 

  • You are an Australian citizen, or eligible British subject;
  • Aged 18 years and over, and;
  • Have lived at your address for at least one month.

This effectively rules out the option for international students to vote in Australia. However, there may be certain situations where we are actually able to vote – but because it is rare, we don’t actually know about them! 

It appears that international students who reside in the city of Melbourne region may have voting rights in local council elections. In some articles, under current Victorian electoral criteria, non-Australians aged 18 and above who reside in Melbourne for at least a month are eligible to enrol for the elections. Although we are not able to find confirmation of this theory on the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) website, Danielle Hartridge, an Australian citizen residing in Victoria and an active international student advocate, shared with us that “international students residing within the city of Melbourne are indeed allowed to vote in local city council elections”. 

“To my knowledge, this is only applicable to the city of Melbourne. I have not heard of such opportunities in other Victorian local councils and cannot comment if this is applicable in local city council elections in other states and territories,” she says. 

How you can contribute to Australia’s democracy

So, what if you do not possess voting rights as an international student? Does that mean there’s no point in getting involved in local city councils? Or are there potential benefits of getting involved regardless of voting rights? 

Manfred Mlestin an international student from Estonia, who has been residing in the Northern Territory for the past five years. He is also a current local business owner, as co-owner of SAMAF Accountants & Consultants. He shared his experience about how rewarding it can be to get involved in the local city council. Manfred was recently heavily involved in campaigning efforts for the local city council elections.

Although to his knowledge he is unable to vote as an international student, Manfred says that involvement in campaigning efforts allowed him “to be part of the community and to get to know the candidates in a more personal manner”.

“Similar to how being a voter allows you to make a difference by choosing the best candidate that supports the community interests, campaigning for a candidate that you strongly believe embodies the best interests of both locals and international students is a way for you to be involved on a deeper level, and to have your voice and concerns heard despite being unable to vote,” says Manfred.

Manfred strongly believes that his participation in campaigning and his involvement with local council have resulted in “greater support for international students from the Northern Territory Government”.

Kasun Kalhara, an international student leader, has been living in Brisbane for the past five years and has been volunteering his time with the Brisbane City Council. Similar to Manfred, Kasun believes that he is unable to vote in local city council elections due to being an international student. 

Kasun shared with us that “despite being unable to vote, being involved with the local city council has provided me with a sense of belonging and a greater understanding of the local activities and culture”. 

“All international students [should] be involved with local councils,” says Kasun. “Voting is not the only way to have your voice heard. Being involved is a two-way street: while you learn more about the city and the people behind the scenes, they learn more about you and your experiences as an international student. This goes a long way in making a positive impact on how local city leaders place value on international students.”

Overall, it seems that getting involved is definitely a way of having your voice heard, despite not having voting rights. If you are keen to know more about how to get involved with your local city council, reach out to them directly or check out their websites for volunteering opportunities. So, get out there, get involved, and be the voice of international students within your local area!

All pictures sourced from Parliamentary Education Office

Originally published in 2020, authored by Varsha Devi