I’ve been reading Fair Borders?: Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century, recently released by Bridget Williams Books in their BWB Texts series. It is a collection of nine fairly short chapters by New Zealand authors on various aspects related (more or less loosely) to immigration policy. Being from the BWB stable, it is a pretty left-liberal collection. I’m hesitant about recommending it, as many of the chapters don’t offer much insight or analysis, but (a) there isn’t much being written in New Zealand on immigration policy, (b) it is pretty cheap ($14.95 from memory) and (c) the publisher (in the cover blurb) does recognise that the interests of actual or potential new migrants and the interests of New Zealanders aren’t necessarily the same.
I will come back another day to the chapter by a young economist who has recently completed a PhD on “the macroeconomic effects of immigration” at Cornell. But today I wanted to focus on the one chapter that really caught my attention, by Kate McMillan, a senior lecturer in politics at Victoria. Her chapter bears the title “Fairness and the borders around political community”, and isn’t really about immigration, per se, at all. Rather she focuses on something I’d never known before, that New Zealand is very unusual internationally in when we allow new arrivals to vote.
Only five countries in the world have provisions allowing resident non-citizens to vote: Malawi, Chile, Ecuador and Uruguay – none known these days for taking many immigrants – and New Zealand. In most countries, only citizens get the right to vote in national elections (there is a much wider range of rules for local elections in many countries). The United Kingdom also allows residents who are citizens of the Republic of Ireland or “qualifying” citizens of Commonwealth countries to vote in parliamentary elections, but there is no general entitlement for non-citizens residents (including those from EU countries other than Ireland).
New Zealand’s rules seem to have evolved from something very like the British system. Until 1975, “the right to vote in New Zealand local and national elections was granted only to British subject adults who had been resident in New Zealand for at least a year”, and similar provisions had been in place in Canada and Australia. McMillan reports that Canada and Australia at around this time shifted to a citizenship-based voting rights model, the same choice that had been made by most new states as they decolonised in the post-war decades (Malawi presumably being the exception).
New Zealand made a different choice. We dropped the “British subject status” requirement, and opened the franchise to any permanent resident who had been resident here for a year or more. And, as McMillan points out, in the Electoral Act “permanent resident” doesn’t mean what it means in the immigration administration. To become a permanent resident under that system, you need to have been on a resident visa first for two years. But in the Electoral Act, anyone on a visa without an expiry date counts as a permanent resident. In principle – although it won’t be common – someone could have arrived on 22 September last year, and be voting on 23 September this year. The same provisions apply to Australian citizens living here (a year’s residence suffices to get the right to vote).
McMillan highlights further how unusual our voting rights rules are. In those other four countries that allow non-citizen residents to vote in national elections all require residents to have lived in the country for at least as long as they would have to have lived there to be entitled to take out citizenship before they are allowed to vote. (Unless you are Peter Thiel or Gabs Makhlouf), people have to spend five years here before they are entitled to apply for citizenship. But new arrivals can vote when they’ve been here for only a year, even if they have no real intention of staying.
That doesn’t seem right to me. It is certainly a long way out of step with international practice, including in the democratic societies we typically compare ourselves to. To be clear, McMillan herself does not favour material changes in the rules, although she does suggest bringing the Electoral Act’s definition of “permanent resident” into line with that in the Immigration Act (which would increase the practical residence requirement from one year to two). She suggests this change for administrative clarity (including for migrants and others on just who is entitled to enrol/vote) and because ‘the current one-year residency rules leave too much room for populist opposition”. That seems an odd argument both because (a) her own chapter highlights just how out of step with international practice the New Zealand rules are (even compared to liberal beacons like Sweden, Canada, or Norway), and (b) because it isn’t at all clear why a shift from a one year to a two year residence requirement would satisfy the dreaded “populists”. In almost all countries, non-citizens can’t vote in national elections at all.
A change along those lines would be a big step for New Zealand. But in a sense it would be a step away from our colonial past. The very liberal franchise provisions are clearly a legacy of the days when (a) almost all our migrants were British, and (b) when there was only a hazy line drawn between Britain and New Zealand (or Canada and Australia) – there wasn’t a separate New Zealand citizenship until 1948. These days we are our own country, and it seems right that only those who have made the step of becoming citizens of this country should be able to vote, and thus directly influence how we are governed. It isn’t an argument about immigration numbers at all. And if and when immigrants (in large or small numbers) become citizens they should, of course, be free to vote.
There are counter-arguments, of course, One relates to paying taxes. If one pays taxes in a country, shouldn’t one be able to vote there? I don’t think so. I’ve lived and worked in three other countries, and it never once occurred to me that I should get a say in their future. It was their country – the citizens of those countries – not mine. Clearly, almost every other country in the world takes the same view – and the handful of others who don’t also don’t receive very many new people anyway.
Taking up citizenship is an act of commitment. It means different things to different people of course. When the 1975 rule change was made, there was a concern about not putting pressure on people to become citizens who might have been here for decades, and barely recognised a difference between British and New Zealand citizenship (McMillan quotes from Hansard a speech by then backbench MP Michael Bassett). Perhaps that was an argument that had some validity 40 years ago (I don’t find it very persuasive even then, as existing rights could readily have been grandfathered, imposing a citizenship-based franchise for anyone arriving after the law was changed). These days, it seems a very weak argument. If you aren’t prepared to go to the modest effort of becoming a citizen, and swearing allegiance to New Zealand and its sovereign, we might be quite happy to let you live here permamently, but why should you get a say in how this country is run or governed? You’ve chosen to remain at arms-length from us.
As McMillan reports, the select committee that considered the 1975 legislation (a) amended the initial government proposal to allow only citizens to stand for Parliament, and (b) recommended “that the issue of franchise rights be considered again the following year and that some thought be given then to whether citizenship might be the appropriate measure”. There seems a lot of merit in an argument that if you can vote you should be able to stand for Parliament, and I don’t expect there would be many supporters for removing the requirement that only citizens can be MPs. McMillan and a colleague sum up the 1975 changes as a product of “interplay between idealism and pragmatism, theoretically informed and ad hoc decision making, and quick-fix measures that, whether by accident or design, became a permanent and extraordinary feature of the New Zealand constitutional landscape”. It is a quick-fix that is now well overdue for reform.
How important is the issue? In numerical terms perhaps not too large. As McMillan notes, the proportion of newly-eligible non-citizens who vote in the first election they are eligible for is relatively modest, and the number of new residence visas granted each year is just under one per cent of the existing population. Most of them will be eligible for citizenship two elections afterwards. Perhaps in some constitutency seats it might be a bit more of an issue, but the overall composition of Parliament is largely determined by the nationwide party vote.
I think it is more about taking New Zealand citizenship rather more seriously than we seem to. Whether it is abuses like the grant to citizenship to Peter Thiel (nine days in the country and no intention of ever living here), or allowing full voting rights to people who’ve been here for as little as a year, and may have no intention of staying, we seem to treat too lightly membership of this polity. Some of that is about our colonial history, but Canada and Australia had similar histories and they’ve moved their franchise provisions back into the international mainstream. Perhaps part of it is the sheer numbers of New Zealanders who’ve left permanently? Whatever the reason, reforming the voting rights provisions, to a citizenship basis – and perhaps something like five years residence for local body elections – would seem to make sense. I’d be comfortable with protecting existing voting rights for anyone who has lived here for more than, say, 10 years, but for anyone else, if they want a say in the government of this country, first make the step of becoming a citizen of this country.
On another topic, many readers will be aware of Radio New Zealand’s new podcast series on immigration which started last week. I was one of the many people they interviewed as part of putting the series together. The series is presented by an immigrant (non-citizen) and is sponsored by Massey University and so, as you might expect, the overall tone is pretty favourable to New Zealand immigration. And there is a slightly de haut en bas tone to it all. Having said that, it is a fairly serious-minded attempt to look at a wider range of perspectives on the New Zealand experience than one often finds. It called to mind the line Boswell recorded in his 18th century life of Samuel Johnson
I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
For anyone interested in the subject, you could do worse than download the series as it released over the next few weeks.