While further away than other popular destinations for the global Irish, Irish Australia enjoys perhaps some of the closest ties to Ireland, developed over many generations. We look north with a deep affinity.
Ireland and Australia share elements of cultural heritage, sporting, business, familial and other links. We have a common legal system, and a shared healthy scepticism of the excesses of authority. We share a commitment to equality and human rights. We were once both seen as unlovely parts of a former empire, but one of us has moved further down the road from that than the other!
But there are differences too.
Australia is home to the “democracy sausage”, a wonderful tradition where enterprising community groups set up a BBQ at polling stations and raise funds by selling a captive audience of voters queuing up to get their ballot papers a cooked sausage held in a folded over piece of sliced bread. The democracy sausage is taken very seriously by some, with online forums on polling day sharing tips as to which station has the best offerings, and the pros and cons of sauce or onions. I know many Australian friends who choose which polling place to attend based on the quality of that humble snack. It could be argued that for some, the lure of the democracy sausage is a bigger incentive to get out and vote than the fear of a fine if they don’t.
Yes, you read that correctly, a fine. You see voting is compulsory here. The Australian Electoral Commission states, “An elector may be guilty of an offence under section 245 of the Electoral Act, or section 130 of the Referendum Act, if the elector fails to vote at an election or a referendum, as the case may be, without a valid and sufficient reason for that failure.”
That’s about as seriously as you can take voting.
I’ve been in Australia for more than 12 years now and am a dual citizen. However, before I achieved that status I was, like thousands before me, here on a temporary visa. I existed in the nothingness as a person who had economic and emotional ties to two countries, but for several years, had franchise in neither.
I was born in Ireland, grew up and went to school in Ireland. I held an Irish passport. My future in Australia was far from assured, and I could have been returning to Ireland at any point, with only 28 days’ notice from the Australian government. Yet I had no voice, no agency to support or oppose decisions in the land of my birth that had the potential to have significant impacts on me.
Contrast that experience with an Australian in Ireland. Had this been me, I could register as an overseas elector and vote in Federal, State and Council elections, on the proviso that I reasonably believed that I would return to Australia within six years.
Through my work, I’m in the fortunate position that I get to engage with a great many Irish in Australia. I’ve seen many come here, and I’ve seen many go back to Ireland. “Circular migration” is a reality for the global Irish, but we are quickly forgotten.
As far back as 2014, I’ve been involved in researching the views of the Irish in Australia.
When writing this piece, I went back through my papers from that first attitudes survey, conducted to inform our submission to the Diaspora Strategy Review. A strategy review that, believe it or not, I found out about through a contact in Hong Kong, not through communication from the consular corps in Australia at that time. And yes, I was CEO of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce then, so wasn’t exactly hard to find, but I was a bit hard to control, I speak my mind and I sometimes say things that challenge the status quo.
But, to the point, respondents to that 2014 survey continued to strongly identify themselves with Ireland; with culture, heritage and “being Irish” featuring prominently in comments submitted. 93% identified themselves as Irish citizens living in Australia; yet 81% also had Australian citizenship or permanent residence.
There was significant interest in engaging with the Government and understanding opportunities to return to, or otherwise engage with Ireland, but current channels were not reaching or engaging these parties.
Respondents strongly felt that they were disenfranchised due to the inability to vote in Irish elections and referenda.
72% responded yes to the question “should Irish citizens who are abroad have the right to vote in Irish elections?”. Only 16% said no, with the balance being undecided.
I suspect that 72% has only grown in recent years, particularly with the debacle of Brexit and the challenges of the pandemic, but how much has been done to address the issue?
We are a long way away, but we are still Irish citizens.
How long will it be before we can line up for an Irish democracy sausage?
Barry Corr is CEO of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce.