Labor supported this inquiry, and moved that it proceed, because we believe the question of better involving young Australians in our democracy is of fundamental importance.
That’s why we have, for example, appointed a Shadow Minister for Youth and are committed to ensuring that the interests of young people are effectively represented at the highest levels of government.
The Committee heard significant evidence in support of the proposition that 16 and 17 year olds are as capable of participating in elections as older Australians. In principle, we agree with this.
However, Labor does not support the enactment of the Bill the subject of this inquiry. This is mainly on the basis that it proposes a different voting regime for voters aged 16 and 17 than for other voters, with the proposed extension of the franchise to be non-compulsory.
We note that many of the young Australians who gave evidence, and several advocacy organisations, argued before the committee for this extension of the franchise to be on a voluntary basis.
We have paid careful regard to these views, but were not persuaded by them.
To treat one cohort of voters differently from all others solely by reason of their age is not only incongruous, it is at odds with broad anti-discrimination principles. We are not persuaded that the right to vote should be varied when it attaches to younger voters.
While we heard from several impressive individual witnesses who in their evidence supported a voluntary approach, we did not have put before us any material which answered our main concern around a non-compulsory lowering of the voting age: that this would privilege the views of those young people who are most engaged, and generally most equipped with economic and social capital and so increase inequality in political participation.
This is a very significant matter, which goes to the heart of our support for compulsory voting and more broadly to our determination to work towards an Australian electoral democracy in which everyone has an equal say.
We also note that there was no reliable evidence before us going to the views of young Australians more broadly on this question.
We do appreciate the concern that the possible imposition of a fine (for failing to vote) could be regarded as a punitive element for young people, particularly from backgrounds marked by disadvantage, which might diminish involvement. This is a question that deserves careful consideration, and we note with interest the suggestion of some witnesses to lower the voting age on a compulsory basis, but that this be on the basis of a varied approach to the issuing of fines.
Building political trust and broadening and deepening political participation is of course not solely a matter of expanding the right to vote.
Accountability and integrity are crucial to ensuring that Australians feel confident in their government. Under the Morrison government, trust in politics and political institutions is at a nadir. We need to improve the faith of Australians in our political system, which is why Labor supports increased transparency of political donations and the establishment of a National Integrity Commission.
Of particular concern, on top of a number of measures effectively diminishing the capacity of young people to have their perspectives considered by government, is a disturbing trend towards support for US-style voter suppression.
Members of the Morrison Government have recommended changes that would require proof of identification to cast a vote, a move that risks disenfranchising some of the most vulnerable in our society. Having a strong and fair electoral system relies on ensuring that everyone has an equal say in the political direction of our country.
In this context, we support measures to facilitate effective enrolment, and note their significance to population groups presently underrepresented in our democracy, in particular First Nations Australians in remote communities and young Australians more generally. We believe that additional work needs to be done, and resourced, in this regard.
Finally, the Committee was presented with extensive evidence concerning the need to better prepare young Australians to be active citizens, particularly in the form of civics education. This is touched upon in the majority report. We believe more work is urgently required so that effective political involvement of all young Australians is better enabled, on their terms.
It was a great privilege to hear from so many impressive young Australians in the course of this important inquiry. We thank them for their interest and their engagement with this process and in strengthening Australian democracy.
1. That the issue of extending the franchise for younger Australians be further considered by this Committee in its review of the 2019 federal election.
Mr Andrew Giles MP
Senator Carol Brown
Mr Milton Dick MP
Senator Chris Ketter