Could Australia swing the UK’s EU vote?

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Vote card for the EU referendumImage source, Julian Lorkin
Image caption,
1.2 million British nationals live in Australia and many are eligible to vote in the UK referendum on EU membership

Australians sending in postal votes for the upcoming UK referendum on European Union membership could have considerable influence on the result, writes Julian Lorkin.

Fresh from Australia's success at Eurovision - when contestant Dami Im came in second - many Australian residents are about to cast a much more important vote on Europe and its future.

Anyone with a British passport who lives Down Under is eligible to participate in the UK's referendum on exiting the EU if they have registered to vote in the past 15 years.

With 1.2 million British nationals in Australia, and 250,000 in New Zealand, both the stay and leave camps are in full campaign mode half a world away from the UK. Southern hemisphere votes have the potential to swing the knife-edge referendum.

Posters supporting both sides have sprouted in areas popular with UK residents. In some locations, such as Perth, up to 15% of the population was born in England.

The referendum vote is optional. As a result there has been a strong campaign just urging voters to post their ballot slips back from Australia.

"Expat conversations swirl around it," says the Guardian's cartoonist David Squires. He is a household name in Britain, even though he migrated to Australia several years ago. "I'm just overloaded trying to work out the issues and the timing is woeful - the vote comes right after Eurovision, just before the Australian general election - and with all the noise of the US election too."

He feels that it's odd to have a postal vote when he has essentially left the UK behind. "I really shouldn't have a vote. I'm an ex-pat who has migrated - almost the opposite as to what the vote is about. It's great for comedy though."

Some expats have been incorrectly told they need to pay to return their postal vote, which uses the free International Business Reply Service (IBRS).

Post offices have asked for up to A$68 (£32) to courier votes. The UK's Electoral Commission told the BBC in a statement it was working closely with postal operators to correct misunderstandings.

A pounding for the pound?

Expats are also closely watching the sterling and the Australian dollar, among the world's most-traded and most-volatile currency pairs. The value of the pound has recently veered between A$1.50 and A$3. At its last meeting the Reserve Bank of Australia deferred changing interest rates ahead of the Brexit vote, calling it a "near-term risk" with considerable implications for the Australian dollar.

"Sterling could take a pounding with a Brexit," confirms Australian business commentator Ross Greenwood. He has spoken to many business leaders in the UK about the impact of a Brexit.

Image source, Julian Lorkin
Image caption,
A campaign poster hangs on a pole in the beachside Sydney suburb of Maroubra, where many British expats live

"Mind you, the pound dropping would make the UK's exports more competitive, giving a boon to UK tourism. Aussies would queue at Kingsford Smith [Sydney's airport] keen to get a cheap trip back," he says.

"Hundreds of Australian companies are champing at the bit to get access to Britain. They want a UK Free Trade Agreement on much better terms than Europe.

"Many farmers have been enviously eyeing up their traditional British market for Australian milk, beef and wool. It would build an economic relationship that used to be the cornerstone of the Australian and British partnership."

'Considerable influence'

However, he thinks Australian banks would be very cautious. "Australia's NAB had an ill-fated adventure into UK regional banking, losing millions on Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank. Once bitten, they'd fight shy of jumping in feet-first again."

Although the UK might eye-up Australia, he says, "Down Under is linked now to Korea, Japan and the US. But make no mistake; a newly independent UK would be welcomed with open arms by trade delegations from Canberra."

However, Annmarie Elijah, from the ANU Centre for European Studies, urges caution. "The UK and Australia cannot dig the UK-Australia Trade Agreement [UKATA] out of the bottom drawer, dust it off and carry on."

Creating a new trade agreement would take time. "There is no reason to think that Australia would be top of the UK's prospective trade partners."

Far more British expats live Down Under than elsewhere in the world. Only Spain, with 760,000, and the United States at 600,000 come close. As such they will wield considerable influence over whether the UK stays in the EU.

And Ross Greenwood, whose parents are from the UK, says one other thing might change with a Brexit - the EU passport queues. "It might also heal the small hurt that Aussies of British parentage feel, when they have to queue in the non-UK, non-EU passport line at Heathrow."