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The Italian Expatriate Vote in Australia. Democratic Right, Democratic Wrong or Political Opportunism?

Bruno Mascitelli and Simone Battiston, Ballan (Australia), Connor Court Publishing, 2008, pp. 290, $ 29,95 

A reform of voting practices between the years 2000 and 2003 allowed expatriate Italians residing all over the world an unprecedented level of engagement with mainstream Italian politics. This voting system has raised crucial questions about dual citizenship and national loyalty, as well as migration rights and responsibilities. A variety of studies published in the U.S. and Italy have discussed these questions in the past few years. The Italian Expatriate Vote in Australia is at the moment the only comprehensive analysis focusing specifically on the Italian-Australian political scenario in the course of two rounds of Italian elections. Italians in Australia voted for the first time in Italy’s 2006 general elections, and chose two representatives in the Rome Parliament. Following the fall of the short-lived Romano Prodi government in early 2008, they had their second important opportunity to exercise their right to vote.

In the book, co-authors Bruno Mascitelli and Simone Battiston provide a history of the Italian community in Australia; an analysis of the Italian elections held in that country, set within the wider context of the Italian political scene at the time; an account of the profiles of the Italian-Australian candidates and their policies; and a survey on the Italian expatriate vote in Australia. Mascitelli and Battiston effectively start from the premises that diaspora communities have become a phenomenon of global mobilization and that diasporic identity processes pose a set of normative challenges and concerns. More specifically, they investigate whether the Italian emigrant vote represents a step towards a new political «expansive citizenship» (Bauböck, 2005), a resurgence of Italian nationalism, or a system merely driven by political opportunism. They successfully argue that the extension of the vote to Italian expatriates «was a furthering of nationalist Italian feelings rather than altruistic globalisation or world citizenship sentiments» (260).

In thematically-organized chapters, the book assesses the origins of the expatriate vote, its drivers, and its evolution in the homeland as well as in the host country. More importantly, it offers a political collocation of this new right to vote within the Australian political context.

In the chapter «Italians in Australia», the authors explain how the political role of Italians in Australia has traditionally been minimal. The lack of recognition of their qualifications and their poor knowledge of the English language prevented them from fully participating in many spheres of society for a long time. Interestingly, some Italians engaged in politics in their bid to assimilate into mainstream Australian society in the 1950s and 1960s. However, after the 1970s, Italian emigrants were increasingly encouraged to engage in Italian public life and political processes thanks to the creation of Italian structures and institutions, such as the Committees of Italians Abroad (comites). The introduction of these new spaces paved the way to Italian-Australian participation in Italian elections.

In the chapter «The Italian Elections of 2006 and 2008 in Australia», Mascitelli and Battiston argue that the results of both elections revealed a pattern of voting behaviour few had been able to predict. In particular, these results shattered the myth of the Italian-Australian community as being fundamentally right-wing. In so doing, they disappointed the expectations of the conservative forces in Italy. The low participation rate in both elections also shows that the new generations of Italians who were born overseas and acquired citizenship as descendants are not interested in Italian political affairs. This lack of engagement on their part opens a debate on the meaning of active citizenship. While Italian citizens residing abroad fail to exercise their right to vote, granted by a blood-based model of citizenship acquisition, Italy-based residents who were born abroad or in Italy from immigrant parents are denied the vote in Italy, unless they have been naturalized. Ultimately this conundrum raises the question of what really constitutes the Italian community and why and how civic rights are guaranteed within it.

In the chapter «The Australian Candidates and their Policies», the authors demonstrate that in the debates and election campaigns preceding the 2006 and 2008 votes, a large portion of the discussion was reduced to nominations, jobs, community representation and, ultimately, political power. The programs of the centre left and centre right in the electorate made up of Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica showed little or no policy differences between the two major contending coalitions. In the end, according to the authors, Italian political campaigning in Australia was rudimentary and poorly representative of the Italian party system as it involved individuals more than parties. Moreover, some of these personalities «were more inclined to jump at the opportunity for an important position or status» (p. 262) than being really interested in participating in the consideration of political and social issues.

The most original chapter of the book is «Survey of the Italian Expatriate Vote in Australia». In the absence of other studies on the political views of Italians in Australia, this chapter explores their views about homeland Italian politics. Additionally, this closing chapter does not simply express the Italian community leaders’ point of view – as too often happens with studies related to the Italian-Australian community – but gives space to the opinion of a statistically significant sample of voters. It is based on the findings of a survey called «Questionnaire for Overseas Italians Voting in the Italian April 2006 Elections» offered both in Italian and in English, which was circulated in the Italian community between June 2007 and March 2008. The answers to the survey highlight a general dissatisfaction with the role played by Italian institutions in Australia, and in particular by the Consulates and Embassy. The respondents saw themselves as barely sufficiently prepared for the elections in terms of information flow and stated that the best way to learn about the candidates was through the Italian press, followed by the radio. Interestingly, only half of the respondents thought that Italians abroad should have voting rights in the Italian political elections; and the vast majority felt that Italians in Italy would not agree with giving the vote to Italians overseas. While this chapter presents an interesting analysis of the community’s attitudes towards the expatriate right to vote, the conclusions could have been more effective in highlighting trends and outlining hypothesis on the future of the Italian-Australian vote.

This book is a valuable research resource in the field of both Italian and Migration Studies. It provides useful insights for studies on the elusive topic of Italiannes and complements Simon Bronitt and Kim Rubenstein (eds.),Citizenship in a Post-National World: Australia and Europe, Annandale nsw Federation Press, 2008, Mario B. Mignone (ed.), AltreItalie: Cittadinanza e Diritto al Voto, New York, Forum Italicum Publishing,2008, and Catherine Dauvergne, Making People Illegal: What Globalization Means for Migration and Law, Cambridge, University Press, 2008, for a discussion on nationalism and expansive citizenship in an increasingly globalized world.

 

Barbara Pezzotti (Victoria University) 

 

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