Awareness of voting rights for internationals questioned

By Wing Kuang

Having resided in Melbourne for over two years, Archit Agrawal, an international student at the University of Melbourne, believed he knew Melbourne well. But he didn’t know he could vote in the upcoming council elections. 

With COVID-19 restricting international travel, thousands of international students are still living in Melbourne. However, many of them are uninformed of their rights to vote at the City of Melbourne council election on October 24.

Under current Victorian electoral criteria, non-Australian citizens aged 18 and above who reside in Melbourne for at least a month are eligible to enrol for the elections. However, they were required to have enrolled with the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) by August 28 in order to participate in this election.  

“Most international students, including myself, would not even assume that we would be allowed to vote in the Melbourne City Council election,” Mr Agrawal said, who completed his term as the president of University of Melbourne Student Union’s International Department in July.

“If we are given the opportunity, the first step to actually involve us is to raise awareness about how we can get involved.”

The Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) said it had translated election information in 20 languages available online, while running a state-wide campaign to raise awareness of enrolment entitlement for non-Australian citizens eligible to vote in local council elections. 

The City of Melbourne also said it had reached out to the Melbourne-based international communities to inform them of the upcoming election and their eligibility to vote. 

But some campus-based international student communities, including UMSU International, and Australian Federation of International Students (AFIS), the largest Melbourne-based international student organisation, told CBD News they were unaware of the enrolment entitlement before it was due for registration.  

Kalyana Vania, the president of AFIS who has lived in Melbourne since 2018, said the studying and living conditions of international students during COVID-19 might make them less interested in voting at the council election, as they had to prioritise their employment and studies ahead of their political rights in a foreign country. 

However, both Vania and Agrawal stressed the importance of engaging international students voting in the student council, particularly at this extraordinary time. 

“All these different demands that we have heard during the COVID-19 crisis, international students asking for the City of Melbourne to step up and do more things around supporting students housing … the one thing that I have felt throughout the community, there’s a disappointment their voice is not being heard,” Mr Agrawal said.  

“If international students want to involve themselves in an electoral process, they will feel that they have a role to play in how policies are made in this city,” he said. “And they will not be just inherently disappointed in everything that is going on around them.”

Mr Agrawal said having international students to vote at Melbourne City Council elections also contributed to improving Melbourne. “As an international student, when I came to Melbourne, I fell in love with not just the buildings and sunsets, but also the diversity that I saw around me,” he said.  

“Today, as a city, as a community, everyone who comes from different cultural backgrounds and assimilates themselves into the city contributes to the culture of the city,” he said. “And it is only right and appropriate that international students and other people who call Melbourne their home, have a say in how the city is governed.”

This was supported by Kalyana Vania. “There is [also] a correlation to their votes, their ability to vote and their sense of belonging,” she said.  

While all Victorians who had enrolled in the last state election automatically enrol in the local council elections, the City of Melbourne’s chair of the international engagement portfolio Cr Philip Le Liu said the VEC and the Council should have a more active campaign to ensure the enrolment message was reached to international students and other groups that were eligible to vote. 

“This [the right to vote at local councils] is not new for people who are eligible and have been here for a long time,” he said. 

“We shouldn’t make it so hard for people to have the right to vote, and also to voice their opinion because that is what undermines democracy.” •

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