I was reading the 24th Amendment of the United States Constitution on a Saturday night (doesn’t everyone read comparative international tax for a big night out on Saturdays?) and found that Congress and the states cannot stop people voting in elections if they have not paid “a poll tax or other types of tax”.
Southern states run by the Democratic Party adopted these poll taxes voting rules as a measure to prevent African Americans from voting in the first third of the 1900s.
I looked in our Constitution and could not find any equivalent specific rule stopping the Australian government from stopping people who don’t pay their taxes from voting… But why would 21st century Australia want to bring in this type of rule?
If tax is not theft (as some will argue) and it is not a payment for services (which it is hard to argue it is) then it is a payment we make to the government under some form of social contract. We get to vote for who decides how to use the money that we collectively agree we all should pay. And if this is the case, then a rule like this makes sense.
If you don’t make your payments, you don’t get to decide who get to work out how to spend it. Put simply, if you don’t pay your taxes you don’t get to vote. While you have a tax debt of a certain amount you are unable to vote.
But what is the High Court going to say if this law was brought in? To answer this we can look at the felony disenfranchisement rules we have had in Australia – the rule that convicted felons cannot vote.
We have had rules in Australia since 1902 that have denied voting for certain felons (either all felons or longer than 5 years). In 2006 this ban was extended to all prisoners, but in 2007, the High Court of Australia in Roach v Electoral Commissioner found that the Australian constitution enshrined a limited right to vote. Therefore, citizens serving relatively short prison sentences (generally less than three years) cannot be barred from voting.
Chief Justice Murray Gleeson held that the right to vote was constitutionally protected as the constitution states that our politicians will be “directly chosen by the people of the Commonwealth” (sections 7 and 24). But he agreed limitations could be put on this as long as the reasons were worth of such extreme consequences. The law that he was considering stated it wanted to remove the right to vote for serious misconduct. This was acceptable. However, the law identified what was serious criminal misconduct by saying where any prison sentence was given. The Chief Justice stated that short-term sentences could be imposed for arbitrary reasons, such as location or homelessness, that were unrelated to the seriousness and so this rule was not valid. He argued that a term of three years would be appropriate.
What guidance would this give us for our “unpaid tax, no vote rule”? Just like the Roach case, as long as the bar is set high enough, I would expect the High Court to accept it. If the bar was $10,000 of debts, not under a payment agreement and outstanding for 6 months, this may be enough. And what if an individual has not lodge say three years of tax returns?
So how about this as the new tool for the Commissioner to get people to lodge their outstanding returns and pay their tax? An I kidding myself that anyone would care enough about their chance to number some boxes and eat a badly cooked sausage to change their tax practices? Probably…