The Bill proposes to:
introduce voluntary voting for 16 and 17 year olds ; and
allow enrolment for 14 and 15 year olds.
Little longitudinal research has been undertaken on the community’s attitude towards lowering the voting age to 16. However, the research that has been undertaken indicates limited community support for lowering the voting age. Professor Ian MacAllister writes:
94 percent of the respondents in the 2010 Australian Election Study opposed any change, with 72 percent saying that the age should ‘definitely stay at 18’. Indeed, if anything, Australian public opinion is more emphatically opposed to lowering the age than is found elsewhere. Overall, just 6 percent of the electorate favour any change.
However, when young people were polled in the ACT, Young Women Speak Out found that more than 60 per cent supported lowering the voting age. While this is only one survey, the results do indicate a need for further investigation. National data would be useful to determine the degree of community support in Australia.
The Law Council of New South Wales agreed with the need for further study:
The contention that early enfranchisement is a means of increasing voter participation merits further consideration, but an evidence-based approach must be adopted in pursuit of such electoral reform. We consider that further investigation is warranted before we could properly consider a proposal to lower the voting age…
When the voting age was lowered to 18 through a 1973 amendment to the Electoral Act, the imperative was clear. Several recent wars had been fought and the number of 18 to 21 year olds who lost their lives or were seriously injured was significant. Asking someone to give their life for their country yet not allowing them to vote was a pivotal part of the argument for lowering the voting age to 18.
Even so, there was resistance to extending the franchise to 18 year olds, as polls in the United States reflected:
A national opinion poll conducted in the United States in June 1939 showed that just 17 percent supported a lowering of the voting age to 18; by June 1943 that proportion has more than doubled, to 42 percent, with 52 percent opposing the change.
Since then, there have been attempts to extend the franchise for both Australian elections and postal surveys through the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (16 And 17 Year Old Voluntary Enrolment) Bill 1996, and an amendment to the Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Bill 2017.
The arguments both for and against lowering the voting age centre on equity and political participation. There are passionate views on both sides.
Many submitting to this inquiry argued strongly that lowering the voting age would improve political engagement. However, the Committee found little empirical evidence to support this argument.
Arguments for and against lowering the voting age
In his 2012 paper on the politics of lowering the voting age in Australia, Professor Ian McAllister outlined the arguments for extending the franchise, being:
political participation; and
These arguments have been reflected throughout evidence to this inquiry. Equally, arguments against lowering the voting age focus on these same three issues. This chapter considers these issues from both sides.
The evidence presented to the Committee through both submissions and public hearings expanded the inquiry from simply lowering the voting age, to a broader discussion of voluntary versus compulsory voting, and the rigour and accessibility of civics education. These are also discussed below.
The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in Australia in 1973. The post-war arguments for lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 centred on the equity of 18 year olds being old enough to fight and die but not vote. This argument gained traction internationally in the 1960s with the rise of civil rights and the mass youth casualties of the Vietnam War.
The modern equity arguments centre on taxation–that 16 and 17 year olds pay tax and therefore should have equal rights to representation. The Youth Action and Policy Association (NSW) (Youth Action NSW) notes that ‘a large number of young people take on tax obligations, with those under 18 years generating almost $51 million in direct income tax revenue annually’.
Dylan Storer argued:
I am currently employed, because of this as with any other Australian I am subject to Australian taxation laws, it is part of my civic responsibility to pay taxes so that the government can provide essential services to other citizens and I am happy to do my part. My taxes help bankroll this government yet I am not entitled to help decide how a government spends my money.
Submitters also argued that as young people engage in activities that are regulated by the government–education, healthcare, taxation–they should be given a voice. Equally, the age of consent means that young people can become parents from the age of 16. Lowering the voting age would align with these responsibilities.
Chief Executive Officer of Inala Youth Services, Lisa Evans, explained that:
At the age of 16 you're allowed to get married, pay tax, work full-time and learn to drive. At this age young people can also give consent for medical procedures, serve in the military and, in some cases, be charged as an adult. If young people can do so much at the age of 16, why should they not also be allowed to engage in democracy?
In their submission, Youth Action NSW also highlighted the many decisions young people can make as well as the advantages of lowering the voting age to the health of Australian democracy:
Young people aged 16 and 17 are active and contributing members of Australian society, who hold considerable decision-making powers regarding their own lives and who are required to meet a number of legal requirements. Extending the voluntary vote to 16 and 17 year olds would be an instrumental step in assuring that young people are funnelling their political motivation into traditional civic avenues, that relationships between young people and politicians are strengthened, and that young people are treated as valued citizens. These outcomes would be positive for Australia’s democracy as a whole.
Many other submissions argued that 16-17 year olds are subject to public policy decisions that they have no capacity to influence, and that lowering the voting age would improve young peoples’ engagement in civic and political groups, as well as improve accountability of governments to young people. The Youth Coalition of the ACT argued:
Lowering the minimum non-compulsory voting age to 16 will increase young people’s engagement in political and policy processes, and strengthen the mechanism of accountability that politicians and governments have to young Australians. Currently, young people are unheard and underrepresented in Australia's policy decisions. Young people are frequently excluded from policy discussions in a range of domains affecting their lives, such as employment, education, housing, tax, the environment, welfare and support services. Due to their ineligibility to vote, young people aged 16-17 are unable to hold politicians and governments to account through electoral processes, resulting in youth affairs seldom being a priority for the government. Consequently, the challenges that young people experience frequently go unaddressed.
Sara-Jo Scott also presented the view that young people’s needs and opinions were frequently misunderstood or misrepresented:
I think they listen but they don't hear. They can hear the words we say but they can go through one ear and out the other. They see the problems they see, not what we see. It does push us to the point where we think, “What's the point of trying to tell you something if you're not going to listen to what we have to say?” It's like our opinion is being silenced. The opinion of 16-year-olds, who don't have the right to vote, can be expressed to people of higher power, but they don't hear it. If something is put in place, they think it is something we have expressed but it is not at all.
Also of note was that there was a sense of pessimism expressed about the future which many felt could be ameliorated through an extension of the franchise:
Young people have a powerful vision for the world, and have a vital role to play in shaping our future, especially in this critical time for addressing climate change. The tired rhetoric that young people are apathetic is so out of touch with a generation of young people who feel scared about the future they’ll grow up in.
Referring to a 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA) echoed this sentiment: ’young Australians are not optimistic about their futures, or the prospect of being happier and better off than previous generations’.
Danny Dickson from CYDA explained that:
Children and young people with disability in Australia experience significant disadvantage. Common experiences for children and young people with disability include: exclusion; low expectations; poor and discriminatory educational experiences and outcomes; limited social and recreational opportunities; poor employment outcomes; and bullying and abuse. These shameful and typical experiences clearly demonstrate that young people with disability have a strong stake in the direction and outcome of political decision-making processes. Furthermore, young people with disability have consistently demonstrated to CYDA a desire to participate in political discourse and to have a say in the policy matters which impact their lives. It is the experience of CYDA that many young people with disability want the opportunity to participate in decision-making and effect change.
The Committee heard evidence from the federal Young Liberal movement that, given the predominant age of majority, there is a strong argument that voting should remain at the age when youth are most often considered to be able to make adult decisions. Significantly, major decisions like a commitment to marriage and joining the armed forces cannot be made under the age of 18 without parental consent (see Table 2.1).
On taxation, submitters argued that taxation laws apply broadly to groups that cannot vote so this is not adequate justification for extending the franchise. James Murphey submitted:
The taxation-representation nexus is not and should not become absolute. Corporations pay tax and, except for the Cities of Melbourne and Sydney, do not get votes, nor should they. Or, sticking to individuals, the working age in Victoria is 15. I am not aware of any advocates for lowering the voting age talking about giving votes to 15-year-olds. The fact of taxation alone is evidently not considered adequate for enfranchisement.
Aligning the franchise with adult responsibilities such as taxation, parenting and medical consent is a compelling argument. However, while 16-17 year olds do take on significant responsibilities, in most cases this is under parental guidance and most social and legal norms do not apply full responsibility until the age of 18–even young parents remain under the guardianship of their parents until they reach the age of 18. Every state and territory has legislation relating to the age of majority and this is set at 18 in each jurisdiction.
Table 2.1: Age of majority for selected activities
Age in federal adult court
18 (16 with parental consent)
17 (requires parental consent)
16 (17 in some states)
17 (18 in Victoria)
Consent to medical treatment
18 (16 in NSW and SA; no age restrictions in Queensland and Tasmania)
Leave full time education
17 (in some states 16 if working, in WA until 17.5 or completion of year 10)
Source: Adapted from Ian McAllister, 2012
It is vital that young people feel heard and optimistic about their future, however, the Committee is not necessarily convinced that extension of the franchise is the appropriate avenue for this. While there are certainly some activities for which the age of maturity is 16, the equity arguments against lowering the voting age point to the fact that the age of majority–the ability to give consent–for a range of government regulated activities is still 18.
It is argued that lowering the voting age will improve political participation by raising voter turnout and encouraging participation in elections through the formation of the ‘habit’ of political participation at an early age. This argument in the Australian context is problematic because of compulsory voting–there is no way to assess whether early voting would have any particular impact on later turnout.
Current evidence shows that voter enrolment is lowest amongst those aged 18-24, at 86 per cent. This is compared to a national average of 95 per cent. Methods to redress this discrepancy are clearly needed; however, the Committee heard conflicting evidence as to the utility of extending the franchise.
Young Women Speak Out suggested that enrolment should be incorporated into civics education at school. Another advantage of this would be to allay the anxiety expressed by a number of young people who felt they were poorly prepared to vote when they reached 18.
Mr Dickson articulated this fear during an appearance before the Committee:
… as things stand right now I have yet to vote myself, but I haven't received any information—what the voting process is, how to vote. It's made me very nervous about my first time voting. If we lower the voting age we may actually include some educational material with instructions for people like myself on how to vote.
Mr Dickson further described this uncertainty when asked about guidance on voter registration: ‘the only thing I got was one birthday card from the Electoral Commission’.
The Youth Network of Tasmania acknowledged the importance of recent international examples, citing research on the Austrian youth vote, which demonstrated that 16-17 year olds were more likely to vote in regional elections than those aged 18-20.
Conversely, with regards to increasing political participation overall, the Committee was presented with evidence by the Law Society of NSW which used international examples to show conflicting results in terms of increased participation and voter behaviour among younger enfranchised voters. They concluded:
The evidence currently available suggests that it is likely that early enfranchisement alone (without other factors such as civics education, parental socialisation and so forth) will not be a panacea to youth engagement.
While there were conflicting views concerning the impact voting would have on youth engagement, the evidence showed a declining trust in political institutions and poor political participation rates among young people. Mr Spencer Davis from the Victorian Student Representative Council explained that:
… people who are politically engaged but perhaps disadvantaged are more likely to become more engaged in non-institutional politics and perhaps why they aren't engaged at say 18 to 24 is because they have lost trust in the institutions which could instead be built upon in 16 to 18.
Katie Acheson from Youth Action and the Youth Affairs Coalition also presented to the Committee evidence that young people are ready and eager to engage despite growing distrust:
Politically we're entering into a new territory in which a young voter today has never seen a single prime minister complete a term, and research shows that distrust in the system is increasing.
At the same time, we have more young people invested than ever before. There was a six per cent increase in voting enrolments last year. We had 65,000 young people aged 18 to 25 added to the roll upon the non-compulsory same sex survey. We also have a momentum in Australia. We're here today, on the back of 20 years of preparation and debate about the merits of lowering the voting age, which has primed public interest. Right now is our chance. We can stem the distrust in our system and capitalise on enrolment momentum, and we have a community that is prepped. Lowering the voting age and adding a potential 600,000 young Australians to the electoral roll can only strengthen Australia's democratic system.
Swathi Shanmukhasundaram from the Centre for Multicultural Youth (Victoria) told the Committee that a combination of voting, education, and proper engagement between young people and political representatives was called for:
It's not just about continuing education and putting it into practice and having it stick. It's also not just because a lot of young people are entering the workforce and starting to pay taxes. It's also the age of consent and where a lot of real-life decisions start to take form. When it comes to young women, and especially health, 16 is also the age of consent; you can get your own Medicare card and start to see the doctor and make a lot of different decisions by yourself. Not being able to have a voice in that process and feel like you're being represented is something that we're really letting a lot of young people down on. So recognising that it's not just about learning something and then saying, 'Yes, I can do this, not just because I'm paying taxes but because this is about my life,' and being able to put that into a vote is what this is about. It's not just about viewing young people as something that's tokenistic that we can appeal to; it's about actually believing in their voice.
The dangers of presuming to speak for young people were also raised by Mr Ryan Ewington, a student at Applecross Senior High School:
We do think that occasionally adults, and in the campaigns, do assume what young people think and what they want, when, in reality, we've never really had as much of a say in our democracy as we will have soon, hopefully, if this is passed. Yes, what you said is true. Some adults often underestimate us. They think they know what we're thinking and they think they know what we want, when, in reality, we often have different views to what they think they know.
Dr Helen Berents expressed a similar call for legitimate engagement:
I think it's really important that we, collectively but also particularly politicians sitting in Canberra, think about how to build those meaningful connections and things. I think one of the words that gets talked about a lot when we talk about children and youth political participation literature is this question of tokenistic participation, like having one young person come and talk and somehow speak for all young people. Then we go on with this listening not hearing issue. Thinking about strengthening those kinds of conversations and pathways, so it isn't tokenistic but there are actually meaningful ways. And there are mechanisms and things that exist that could be taken advantage of too. I'm thinking about a lot of the youth peak bodies at state level and at the federal level, many of which I know have submitted to this as well, who regularly survey and talk to the young people that they speak for and often have really great information and things that politicians can make good use of in informing those kinds of decisions as well.
The Committee is cognisant of declining levels of political trust among young people and welcomed the opportunity to engage directly with those who would be affected by the Bill. However, the conflicting evidence as to whether political trust or participation would increase with the introduction of voluntary voting for 16 year olds indicates the need for future research before a legislative change is made.
Voluntary vs compulsory voting
Most controversial was the question of compulsory versus voluntary voting, with the Committee receiving mixed evidence as to the risks and benefits of creating a two-tier system.
The Bill would introduce voluntary voting to those aged 16-17; a proposal which received enthusiastic support from many of the young people providing evidence to the Committee.
Charlie Dawson felt that:
I think that for 16 to 17 it shouldn't be compulsory, because some people just don't have opinions on this this early on. I've got friends at the bench who, although I've told them not to, have told me that when they're 18 they'll probably just donkey-vote because they don't really have an opinion on it. So I think forcing them into it now would be a bad idea.
Similarly, Sienna Johnston of Applecross Senior High School said:
We just think that it being non-compulsory gives them the option to vote. If they haven't learned about it in school or if they don't know about it or if they think, “I don't have the knowledge to properly vote,” they can skip the vote and not do it at 16 or 17. Then they can think, “Okay, I need to learn this for when I'm 18, when it becomes compulsory to vote.” It's almost like a transition phase to compulsory voting and knowing that they have to vote. At 16 and 17, they might not be educated or they just don't feel like they want to vote at that time. They might think, “I'm not mature enough.” In that way, it's a trial period because they're not ready for it. They might think they're not ready for it and want to vote when they are ready for it, at 18. They might not be ready at 16 and 17.
Conversely, Dr Elisabeth Taylor, Director of Research at the Australian Christian Lobby, expressed one fundamental challenge:
There's a rights and responsibilities balance here. The suggestion that the vote should be voluntary seems to tap into the idea that this is a right that young people ought to enjoy without having that sense of responsibility, a period of grace in which that responsibility is not expected of them, yet they're participating the political process. I think one without the other is problematic. It skews things. The whole point of participating in the wider democratic process is that you don't just have your own self-interest, your own rights at heart; you have a vision for a flourishing society.
Zsaskia Nanai felt compulsory voting lead to a more educated democracy:
With lowering the age and making it compulsory, when it's compulsory people tend to do more research on our government. So I think that if it's voluntary they won't really put much interest in it, because they know: 'I don't have to'. But by making it compulsory they will know who their Prime Minister is, at the end of the day. They will know who's running and who's in the race for it. So I think compulsory voting, overall, makes our country more educated in politics.
The NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) further warned that voluntary voting could lead to increasing inequality in voting patterns. NSWCCL noted that this may prove a particular issue with regards to young working-class and Indigenous voters.
Similar concerns were presented by Dr Gabrielle Appleby, of the Law Society of New South Wales, that:
Introducing voluntary voting, even if just for one demographic, 16- to 18-year-olds, introduces the very real possibility that cohorts within that age group will not be voting, and there is a possibility of policy distortion to flow from that.
Darcie Weaver likewise felt there was a danger that non-compulsory voting would weaken the power of the newly enfranchised voices:
For me, I believe that for us to be able to vote we need to be on the same grounds as everyone else. You can't permit special treatment for some people, otherwise that could create a way for us to be drowned out. If not everyone votes, not everyone has a say; if not everyone is heard, then there was no point in the beginning. If we begin voting now that education will begin a lot earlier and we get basically into a better habit as we continue on later in our life.
The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), though making no recommendation either way, acknowledged the controversy surrounding compulsory voting. While cognisant of the dangers of compulsion when dealing with 16 year olds, the HRLC also recognised that there is a danger that voluntary voting will undermine the compulsory voting system that is vital to Australian politics.
Citing a similar concern in regards to the compulsory voting system, Associate Professor Luke Beck rejected the introduction of voluntary voting:
First, it treats one class of voters differently to all other voters for no reason other than their age. There is no material difference between a 17 year old and an 18 year old that could justify the law treating a 17 year old voter differently to an 18 year old voter. Treating 16 and 17 year old voters differently to other voters simply because of their age is inconsistent with the values and purposes underlying the Commonwealth Age Discrimination Act 2004, which states as among its purposes: “ensur[ing], as far as practicable, that everyone has the same rights to equality before the law, regardless of age, as the rest of the community”, and “promot[ing] recognition and acceptance within the community of the principle that people of all ages have the same fundamental rights.
Secondly, and most significantly, making voting for 16 and 17 year olds voluntary poses a risk to Australia’s very successful system of compulsory voting. Any arguments that could made in support of making voting for 16 and 17 year olds voluntary are equally applicable to voters who are 18 years old, 28 years old or 88 years old. Making voting for 16 and 17 year olds voluntary would put a hole in Australia’s system of compulsory voting. That system of compulsory voting has served Australia very well. Putting any holes in that system is dangerous because it would provide ammunition for those who wish to see Australia’s compulsory voting system replaced with a voluntary voting system.
Amos Washington, 2018 Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations, recommended voluntary voting in his final report, following national discussions with young people. He further expanded his personal view supporting compulsory voting, but with no fines for young voters:
The first is that in my role as youth representative, I'm not here to represent my own personal opinions; I was chosen to serve as a conduit for youth perspectives. I had informal conversations and straw polls with thousands of young people last year, and there was an appetite for optional voting amongst the 16- and 17-year-olds that I spoke with. So there's that.
Secondly, I am a big fan of compulsory voting personally. I believe that compulsory voting is one of the best aspects of our democracy. We're one of the only democratic countries in the world that has compulsory voting. That's fantastic. I think that we need to encourage a culture of compulsory voting. We already have that culture. We even saw in the non-binding, non-compulsory marriage equality postal survey that we still had quite a high turnout. So we have a culture of compulsory voting and political participation in Australia.
What I would suggest is that we continue to have compulsory voting; we don't fine 16- and 17-year-olds for not voting. That is the difference that I see, in practical terms. I think we place very restricted autonomy over 16- and 17-year-olds, and sometimes 16- and 17-year-olds aren't actually able to control where they are at a particular time, perhaps because they're beholden to their parents, teachers, guardians or schools. By fining young people for not showing up to vote we're actually doing a disservice to 16- and 17-year-olds, I believe. So I would be proposing a culture of compulsory voting and not fining 16- and 17-year-olds.
It was widely argued that lowering the voting age would introduce the ‘habit’ of voting, and reduce threats to compulsory voting. Young Women Speak Out noted:
Australians rate our system of compulsory voting as a core democratic value. Notwithstanding significant gaps, it affords near universal suffrage. Chronically low enrolment and turn out rates for the under 25 age group are a major threat to this system. Lowering the voting age could address this by engaging voters earlier at a traditionally less transitional and tumultuous period of life. Aside from the practicalities around getting on the roll and getting into the habit of voting, removing barriers to voting for 16-17 year olds would carry significant symbolic value. An unequivocal statement that the voices and views of 16-17s are not only important, but critical to the functioning of our democracy, could work to remedy youth disengagement in electoral politics.
Some considered voluntary voting a means of educating rather than forcing young voters. Youth Action & Policy Association (NSW) expressed the view that:
Ensuring that 16 and 17 year olds are granted voluntary vote is a necessary first step in including their voices in Australia’s democracy and increasing youth voter participation. A soft entry into the democratic process gives young people who are eager to vote a platform to do so without enforcing this on the whole cohort.
Similarly, Stephanie Gotlib noted a further concern:
I think it would be important, if we were to go to a compulsory vote, that there were a really good transition stage so that young people didn't feel—I suppose they are being ordered to do it. I think it's really important that we bring young people in with us on the process of whatever way we go—that they are contributing to it, helping inform it and feel knowledgeable around what is happening and why it's happening, rather than being dictated to. Because there is that developmental stage, too, at 16. No 16-year-old wants to be told what to do, regardless of what the situation is. We need to work out how to be aware of that and, if this is to happen, make it a process that's going to work as well as it can and be as informative as possible.
This notion of a transition period was popular among many of the young people appearing before the Committee. Zahra Moinkhah from Young Women Speak Out advised the Committee that:
I think that, if there is a transitional period, that would be really important. It would give a positive meaning to voting for young people, because they'd be making the decision to do it, and I think that that would help them. Obviously, when you're 18, a lot of laws change and a lot of things are different for you. But a lot of 18-year-olds probably don't know how to vote, because they haven't had that transitional period. So I think it's really important to have that in place so they understand what's going on and they can engage with it if they would like to. Then, when they're 18 and they have to engage with it, they at least have an understanding of how to do it and what's going on.
Ms Moinkhah further suggested that:
I think what we were looking at is having it voluntary for a couple of years, and then seeing what the outcome of that was. If it is quite successful, then we could take it further, and have it compulsory. But I think a reason that a lot of people over 18 aren't passionate about it is because they don't really know what's going on. So I think setting the education there for 16- to 17-year-olds, and voluntarily giving them the choice, and then, when they are adults, they can make their own informed decision.
Professor George Williams AO agreed:
I think it's a smart way of approaching it. It's certainly been in my mind that at some point this would become compulsory. It's a matter of time though, but I can understand the concerns that others are putting about compulsory elements. So, yes, it may be to say that, let's say for two electoral cycles, we have a voluntary process to implement this, then it becomes mandatory. Something along those lines may be quite sensible and would emphasise that the voluntary aspect is really about logistics, education and the like rather than seeking to undermine a value within our democracy.
Josh Manuatu, Federal Young Liberal President, offered a diverging view, and made the case for voluntary voting across the full spectrum of the voting cohort. Mr Manuatu noted that such a change would rectify concerns about ‘two classes’ of voters, while also pointing out that it would create far greater consistency for the Electoral Act to apply equally to the entire cohort of electors.
The conflicting evidence presented to the Committee on the matter of non-compulsory voting suggests that further evidence is required, particularly with regards to youth participation in the few international jurisdictions with compulsory voting.
Further, the danger that lowering the voting age, particularly on a voluntary basis, could potentially create a ‘habit of abstention’ should be critically considered given the potential ramifications.
Brazil presents a rare example of a dual-system of compulsory and non-compulsory voting, with voting being voluntary for 16 to 17 year olds and 70+ year olds and compulsory for those between the ages of 18 to 69. Longitudinal research has indicated that voluntary voting in under 18s had a strong effect in depressing turnout.
This would seem to be supported by findings of the Electoral Knowledge Network, which states:
In a mandatory registration system, citizens understand more fully that voting is a civic duty and responsibility. The implication of a system of mandatory registration and voting is that each citizen has an obligation to vote both for himself or herself and for the community as a whole. In other words, citizens have an obligation to vote for the health of the democratic system, not only for the chance to have their personal preferences represented.
Despite the thoughtfulness of some of the arguments put forward in favour of voluntary voting and while members of the Committee individually hold views about voluntary versus compulsory voting, the Committee as a whole does not believe it would be of any benefit to the electoral system to create two classes of voters.
The third argument both for and against lowering the voting age is political maturity. Those for the proposition claim that young people are politically mature enough to be trusted to vote, those against argue the opposite.
The Committee was not surprised to hear protestations from young people when it came to questions of maturity.
Hamish Lewis argued:
At 16, individuals are allowed to drive, leave school and pay taxes, providing them with many responsibilities that require a significant degree of maturity. It seems arbitrary at best to say that 16 and 17 year olds are mature enough to do these things, but not mature enough to vote.
Similarly, the Youth Coalition of the ACT refuted the idea that young people should not be recognised as fully-capable citizens:
This mischaracterises young people as politically inept and fuels a narrative that they are not ready to participate in democratic activities. Though 18 years was previously an appropriate voting age, as the roles, responsibilities and expectations of today’s young Australians have evolved, so too should the legislation.
The Committee was presented with substantial evidence of youth engagement and maturity at each public hearing, with Mr Davis, outlining a number of key issues in this respect:
Before today I spoke with the people [that] I hope to represent, young people and students, and the resounding response from everybody that I spoke to was that it's not only a logistical possibility but a moral must that we include the voices of young people in parliament, at an institutional level, through voting. Time and time again, we as young people are told that we are too immature and uninformed to properly engage in an election. To put it simply, that's just incorrect. Never before in human history have young people had such wide and diverse access to information, through the internet. Never before in human history have young people been given such a social and moral responsibility to engage in society. Our government must reflect this new reality through lowering the voting age. In fact, by not lowering the voting age, we are harming the possible future of our democracy. When young people feel our voices are not heard, we can be disenfranchised and alienated, instead turning to more polarised and radical special-interest groups through, say, social media or the internet, which obviously can have both positive and negative impacts on our democracy. By encouraging and allowing voting at a young age, we are engaging young people in institutions and building trust between the government and young people at a time when it’s most critical.
Similarly, Wren Gillett, also from the Victorian Student Representative Council, raised an important distinction before the Committee:
I would like to start off by making a distinction between age and maturity. I believe that they are two disparate things. I think people quite often tend to view them as parallel from an objective standpoint, where age equates to a subsequent level of maturity. People generally tend to look at youth as a collective where the common denominator is causally made to unjustly reflect the collective as a whole. I personally believe that, from an objective perspective, a lot of people tend to view the generation of people of my age in accordance to the lowest common denominator or, as you could say, as probably those most disengaged in politics. That tends to be what generally reflects our entire collective as an entire group.
I would like to also make another distinction between the fact that there is such thing as an uninformed vote but I do not believe that there is such thing as a wrong vote. Due to the subjectivity of moral frameworks, and what might be viewed as right to me might not be viewed as right to another person, that equates to definitely moral inconsistency. With that being said, I don't think that we can necessarily say that there is such thing as a right vote and a wrong vote. With that being said, I don't think we can necessarily say that young people have the capacity to make a wrong vote. I would extend that, though, by saying that we can definitely make uninformed votes. But I would also then say that I think that is the reality for everyone who is casting a vote. It seems quite unjust to dismiss 16-year-olds on the basis that they are uninformed if we aren't actually looking at the people who are currently voting and looking at their common denominator as well.
A number of submissions also noted that a maturity argument is not limited to the 16-17 year old age group. The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth noted:
Commonly cited reasons for exclusion of children from voting include political knowledge and maturity. Yet Australians who are currently eligible to vote are not required to demonstrate their political knowledge or capacity.
This was echoed by the HRLC:
Opponents of lowering the age often cite a lack of maturity, cognitive ability or ‘life experience’ as a reason for denying 16 and 17 year olds an entitlement to vote. It is important to recognise at the outset that neither knowledge nor cognitive ability is a precondition for suffrage.
The Committee did, however, hear some support for the other side of the argument. Calvin Teo contended:
At 16, teenagers are still basing decisions off on their emotions, and impulse rather than logic and reasoning. Moreover, as teenagers, they are prone to peer-pressure and may vote accordingly to their friend group’s votes. Teenagers at this age may not take it as a serious matter of the country, and may regard it as an annoying, compulsory chore. They are likely to be swayed by influential people in their lives, as they have little political view and are likely to adopt those of the people around them.
Similarly, Jaysen Cubilla spoke forcefully against the Bill:
According to the Senate, the purpose of this bill is to increase voting participation and encourage youth to put forward their opinion towards politics. However, this would be a mistake. At this age many factors contribute to the influences on a teenager's mind. Hence we are not capable of making wise choices. Scientists have proven that the brain does not develop until the age of 25, and even at 18 years of age people still tend to act on careless decisions. So why should we allow even younger citizens to participate? Moreover, Australia's educational system does not provide students the insights of today's political news. Therefore, a majority of students are highly uneducated in our political systems, and allowing them to vote would be an insult to our democracy.
The maturity of the young witnesses before the inquiry, and their thoughtful examination of the issues, was excellent, however, these engaged young people may not be representative of their wider cohort. While the Committee acknowledges that there are strongly held views on both sides of the debate, these arguments are emotive and do not provide a good foundation on which to base a change to the franchise.
Rights of the child
The Committee heard evidence concerning Australia’s responsibilities under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC), Article 12:
States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
In their submission , the Australian Human Rights Commission stated:
Lowering the minimum (non-compulsory) voting age in Australian federal elections from 18 to 16 years would provide opportunities of genuine civic participation to children under the age of 18 years. It would directly involve young people in the democratic process, and would be a measurable way for Australia to demonstrate its commitment to children’s participation rights and meet its obligations pursuant to Article 12 of the CRC.
This was echoed by Megan Mitchell, the National Children’s Commissioner, at a public hearing in Melbourne:
… when I talk to young people about their rights: their right to have a say, their right to participate—and I talk to kids from all sorts of different backgrounds: kids in juvenile justice, kids from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and Aboriginal kids in remote communities—and especially their right to have a say, it's incredibly empowering for them, because they recognise that a country has said that they value these children and young people so much that they've given them their own set of guidance and promises. It's a way of holding us all to account for the decisions we make for and about children.
The question of CROC was also raised by the Human Rights Law Centre:
… we consider that setting the minimum voting age at 16 is a reasonable and proportionate restriction that Australia may impose on the right to vote, while allowing due weight and recognition to be given to the views of 16 and 17 year olds. A minimum voting age of 16 years of age is an appropriate way to meet Australia’s obligations with the ICCPR and CROC, consistent with contemporary understandings of maturity and cognitive development.
The Committee is aware of its obligations under international agreements, however, does not believe that lowering the voting age is essential in ensuring conformity with Article 12. Internationally, there is no prescribed voting age and, while measures may be taken to better understand the concerns of young people, the Committee does not believe that lowering the voting age is the only means of achieving this goal and agrees with the Law Society of NSW that there must be additional measures put in place.
One issue consistently presented to the Committee was the importance of civics education and the need to re-evaluate its content and delivery.
Youth Action & Policy Association (NSW) presented evidence of the low standards of civic knowledge and argued that:
Lowering the voluntary voting age to 16 should be seen as an opportunity to improve voter participation through education. A large majority of 16 and 17 year olds are enrolled in Australia’s secondary education system, making them a captive audience for politics and civics education. Improved education in schools will ensure that young people are ready to actively participate in Australia’s democracy.
It is imperative that civics education is taught in ways which are interesting and relevant to school students.
Further calls for civics education came from young people themselves:
…lowering the voting age would not happen overnight. Most young people have strong opinions they just don't know what to do with them. The first step would be to educate. With more education in schools; lack of maturity, experience and disengagement would be out the window. Young people will understand how important their vote is and treat it such.
Of particular note was the minimal understanding of political parties. When asked about their understanding of the party system, young people responded that they had no real knowledge or opinions of parties’ work or policy positions.
While responding to questions concerning general knowledge of the voting system, Tracey Woodward, a Youth Support Worker with Inala Youth Services, noted the broader principle:
… it's a real privilege to be able to vote. There are a lot of people in a lot of countries who don't have that privilege or who aren't safe to vote. It is a wonderful thing. If we can inspire our young people to really appreciate what a wonderful right we have here in Australia, it would be a wonderful thing.
One option in strengthening civics education was to adopt a co-design approach. Dr Lesley Pruitt provided the Committee with an explanation:
As part of the so-called citizen-centred revolution in public administration and service delivery, the practice of ‘co-design’ (and also ‘co-production’) has become increasingly popular among government agencies seeking to improve service provider–client relationships. What underpins this shift in policy practice is the notion that those who are most affected by a decision or policy should have the greatest say during the design, production and implementation phases.
Specifically in regards to young people, Dr Pruitt argued that:
… whereas the practice of co-design has seen widespread application in various public sectors and services, the key problem is that to date it remains underutilised with respect to young people and youth-related services. Where it has been applied to youth matters, such as civics education, it continues to involve only adults as partners. This needs to change, we argue, because young people are uniquely placed to offer up the best knowledge and understandings of issues affecting their daily lives.
With respect to civics education, Dr Mark Chou said that:
… co-design might be a principle or a practice that we can explore, particularly with how we implement civics education in Australia. There's good research to suggest that young people should not only be consulted but also actually take a leading role in deciding how and in what ways the civics education that they receive is conceived and put into practice. That's because there is good evidence to suggest that many young people are already politically active, but it's in ways that are hard to categorise from conventional perspectives, because we understand political participation still rather formally and narrowly. When we're teaching young people how to be better citizens from that perspective, it often implicitly creates some sort of a civics-deficit discourse. Circumventing that and getting them involved at the very beginning helps broaden our notion of the political and what political participation can mean.
In addition to co-design, the Committee heard evidence that lowering the voting age could be conducive to strengthening political understanding. Professor George Williams AO highlighted that ‘one key advantage of allowing them to vote is that joining the electoral roll and voting for the first time can be combined with civics education’.
Professor Williams AO elaborated on this further:
I certainly see often in the students that I teach but also in public debate and in talking to community groups the poor state of civics education in Australia, and this is harmful to us as a democracy and it's further corrosive of the values that we're trying to adhere to in terms of respect for institutions and having a strongly and effectively functioning democracy. I think there are a few elements that we have a problem with. One is that it's just not working at the high school and primary level as it should. There is knowledge being imparted, but it's not being retained. So, when they get to university, my own students often disclaim any knowledge of these matters, even though I know that there has been some civics education. So it's not cutting through and being effective in the way it should, and that's an educational problem.
Another aspect that relates to voting is that, for education to be effective, it needs to be reinforced. There needs to be action and activity connected with it. One of the reasons I support voting at 16 and 17 is that I believe it will reinforce civics education and make it more effective in forming habits and building the sort of community we're looking for in terms of respect for our democratic processes.
This coordination of voting and education was also mentioned by Katie Acheson:
We invest billions of dollars in making sure that our young people are educated. We have, essentially, a captive audience, where we can talk about things and educate and participate in a different way, whereas that's not possible at 18. By giving the two extra years and having the option of civics classes being connected to, or having the capacity to the choose what they've learnt enacted in, federal, state or local elections adds a whole different weight to the education process. At the moment, civics education exists in our schools, but it is not as strong as it could be. By coupling this with the bill, the ability for the Electoral Commission and all the education departments in states and territories to utilise this momentum to strengthen the civics education in our schools will only have a positive effect on our democratic system, I believe.
Similarly, Leo Fieldgrass, also from Youth Action, said that:
I would consider lowering the voting age and civics education to be part of the same answer to the question: how do we ensure young Australians are fully engaged in our electoral process from an early point in their lives right through their adult lives? I think, from the comments and the feedback that we've received from young people themselves, they feel that there isn't enough civics education, in Victoria specifically, around the electoral process—and the wider education around life skills and understanding what it's like to actively participate in the community, transitioning from being a young person to being a young adult and an older adult. So civics education and the ability to have the franchise go hand in hand with increasing young people's understanding and active participation in our democratic process.
The Committee repeatedly heard from both young people and educators that the subject matter needs to be afforded more time and needs to be more engaging and applicable to modern political processes. Dr Pruitt explained that:
It's about being more interactive and engaging where people get the chance to practice. For us as educators, a strong indicator of effective educational practice is generally when people can actually practice what they're doing. As I said, we love theory, but we also love practice, so it's like, 'How can you apply that, test it out and engage people?' In the university classroom, there are teaching issues with politics. I do check-ins with my students to have that participatory feedback at segments throughout the course and to ask, 'What are we not covering that you're interested in?' so that I can bring in some of those issues to the classroom and then people can have discussions and debates. So you have some curriculum that's already created, and there are key issues that people need to do, but it's about making things relevant and accessible to engage people further as well.
Mr Fieldgrass also provided the Committee with possible direction:
We could have a graduated, incremental approach from primary school through to high school of engaging young people within the idea of politics within civic life. Returning to your question around civics education: we would argue that civics education needs to be embedded across the school curriculum, not simply segregated to a single class on civics, and that integration across the education system could happen from a primary age.
Of similar interest to the Committee was hearing where young people sourced their news and information about politics. While social media was frequently cited, also mentioned were traditional news sources, as well as friends and family.
Internationally, 87 per cent of countries set the voting age at 18 for national elections. Three per cent have a legal voting age of 16 and one per cent has a legal voting age of 17.
In comparable democracies–New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States–the voting age for national elections is 18.
Those countries with a legal voting age of 16 include:
Those countries with a legal voting age of 17 include:
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
A small number of countries have a voting age of 19 or over, including:
United Arab Emirates (25)
Internationally, the call to lower the voting age has gathered momentum alongside a perceived voter disengagement and lack of trust in democratic institutions.
Arguments for and against lowering the voting age are the same as those raised in Australia, being equity, political participation, and political maturity.
The below outlines the status of some of the debate occurring internationally.
At the 2018 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, a WEF paper presented as part of the ‘Renew Europe’ initiative argued for lowering the voting age across the European Union (EU) to revive democracy through engagement with voting. The paper argued:
Youth participation has been a problem in mature European democracies for decades; the problem was highlighted at the UK’s Brexit referendum, where younger cohorts were more pro-EU but less likely to vote. Citizenship education on its own has had only a minor impact. However, Austria and Scotland have both had successful experiences with lowering the general voting age to 16 – evidence suggests that 16–17 year olds are more likely to vote than 18–24 year olds, and that those who begin voting early are more likely to carry on doing so over time.
The EU’s voting age could be reduced to 16 ahead of the European Parliament elections in 2019 – coupled with a push for citizenship education in all schools across the EU. Citizenship education needs to start in primary school, but should particularly be aimed at 16-18-year olds to enable them to understand what is at stake in elections and to vote in a more informed way.
Sixteen year olds may vote: in Slovenia if they are in employment; in Hungary if they are married; and in Norway, Germany and Switzerland in local elections in some municipalities.
Pressure in the United Kingdom to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 has grown in recent years. Several parliamentary and government reports have been issued examining the merits of the proposal. In November 2014 the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, in a report on voter engagement, called on the Government ‘to lead a national discussion on reducing the voting age and to allow the House of Commons a free vote on the issue’. Two Private Members’ Bills are currently before the House of Commons but both are unlikely to progress past the second reading state.
Scotland reduced the voting age to 16 for the referendum on Scottish independence held in September 2014. The Scottish Parliament broadly agreed that on constitutional questions, franchise should begin at 16. The Committee report on the referendum bill noted ‘we believe that the Parliament should apply the principle of votes at 16 when it has the opportunity to do so – and particularly in connection with the historic choice the country faces in September 2014’.
Following the referendum, a range of powers were devolved to the Scottish Parliament, including the right to make provisions for the conduct of its own elections. The Scottish Parliament passed laws reducing the voting age for local council and Scottish Parliament elections to 16 in April 2015.
This has created a disparity in the United Kingdom where Scottish 16-17 year olds are able to vote in Scotland, but not able to vote in UK general elections, pivotally, the 2016 European Union referendum. Survey results released after the successful ‘leave’ vote indicated that had 16-17 year olds been able to vote, the result would have been to remain in the EU.
Since that time, support has grown in Wales for extending the franchise to 16 year olds and, after the devolution of certain powers to the Welsh Assembly commencing 1 April 2018, the Assembly now has the power to make this determination.
Austria was the first country in the EU to extend the right to vote to 16 year olds in national elections in 2008, after all provinces had enacted this right over preceding years. It was reported that extending the right to national elections was ‘designed to offset what is seen as a demographic imbalance caused by [Austria’s] rapidly aging population. [In 2007] Austria’s 65-year-olds exceeded the number of 15-year-olds in the country.’
Academics now argue that lowering the voting age in Austria has demonstrated that there is little risk and much to gain in the way of political engagement and civics education.
A 2012 survey of young Austrian voters found that their voting choices were of similar quality to older voters.
In early 2018, Malta became the second EU country to extend the vote to 16 year olds in a unanimous vote of the Maltese Parliament. Debate in Malta followed similar lines to that in other countries with the National Youth Council arguing ‘no taxation without representation’.
Voter turnout in Malta hit record low levels (albeit with 92 per cent turnout rate being comparatively high on international standards) for the 2017 general election, prompting the move to lower the voting age to reverse this trend.
The campaign to lower the voting age in the United States has been gathering momentum in recent years with several municipalities having already lowered the voting age for local elections. Electoral reform advocacy group FairVote advocates for lowering the voting age for local elections posing equity arguments, as outlined above, but also to get young people to form the habit of voting to combat the low turnout and engagement levels in the United States.
The youth movements that have arisen in response to school gun violence in 2018 have been used as examples of youth political maturity in calls to lower the voting age.
Brazil lowered the voting age from 18 to 16 in the 1988 Constitution.
Voting is compulsory for those between 18-70 years and voluntary for those aged 16-17, those over 70, and illiterates.
Lowering the age of enrolment
The Bill proposes changes to allow the age of enrolment to be lowered from 16 to 14.
The Committee heard from the Youth Parliament of Victoria that:
Receiving enrol to vote information at the age of 14 will encourage more young people to have conversations about voting at an earlier age, where there are, for a majority of young people, stronger connections to family and the community.
One rationale behind this is that it is easier to encourage enrolment when young people are at school. Comparisons were made with the Australian Tax Office’s ‘School Education Program’ which provides information regarding tax and superannuation. Similarly, until 2015 the ATO helped school-age children apply for Tax File Numbers. In this way, the AEC could supplement its efforts to reach young people.
However, while this proposal deserves consideration it could be implemented without any lowering of the franchise or age of enrolment. Such a program could instead target senior school students.
The privacy of under 16 year olds is also an issue of concern, given that the electoral roll is a public document. Any changes to the enrolment age should respect the need for young people’s details to be kept private until they reach an appropriate age.
This raises questions concerning extra, unnecessary administrative burdens for the AEC. Associate Professor Beck raised this concern, stating:
I have no special objection to lowering the enrolment age to 14, but whether that's necessary and whether that creates unnecessary administration for the Electoral Commission—that it's not cost effective—I don't know.
Despite trends in Europe and Latin America towards lowering the voting age, the Committee is not convinced that it is warranted in Australia.
While the Committee did receive a large volume of submissions in support of lowering the voting age, it does not feel that this necessarily represents the community as a whole. The Committee has seen no evidence that there is a significant concern or trend towards non-voting that justifies extending the franchise. In addition, the Committee takes seriously the views put to it by young people that the Bill should not be passed without much wider consultation, so that it is done in partnership with young people and not imposed on them.
Therefore, the Committee will not be recommending any change to the franchise in Australia.
The Committee notes that there are many ways for young people to engage in the political system and in policy debate–including through participation in committee inquiries such as this one.
The Committee also notes that there are many more avenues to political participation than voting. The Committee encourages young people to participate in more parliamentary committee inquires on wider policy issues, join a political party, or be engaged in the many youth leadership forums run by local, state and federal governments and schools.
Given the evidence presented to the Committee, including from young people themselves, reform of civics education deserves serious consideration.
The Committee has seriously considered the views put to it by the young people who took the time to make a submission or appear before it. They have amply demonstrated that there is a group of well-informed young people who would value the opportunity to participate in Australian politics and the Committee welcomes their participation now and into the future.
If the Parliament supports the Bill
While the Committee is not recommending passage of the Bill, the Parliament still may pass it. Therefore, if the Parliament chooses to lower the voting age, including opening enrolment to young voters, some safeguards should be put in place.
A special roll for 14 to 16 year olds
As the electoral roll is a public document, any enrolment details of those under the age of 16 should be kept on a special roll for young voters and kept confidential until the age of 16.
Strengthened electoral education for 16 to 17 year olds
A concerning number of young people argued for voluntary voting on the basis that they would find compulsory voting ‘too stressful.’ While the Committee does not accept that the extension of a right would impose this level of stress, this view points to the need for strengthened electoral education for senior high school students so they understand their new voting obligations.
No voluntary voting
If the Parliament chooses to extend the franchise to 16 year olds, this should be on the same basis as Australians aged 18 and above. While the Committee respects the arguments made by a number of submitters about additional responsibilities being placed on young people, it considers that the right to vote should come with the responsibility to vote.
The Parliament may wish to give the Australian Electoral Commission the discretionary power to automatically waive fines for non-voting for those under the age of 18.