Young people–particularly millennials–face economic pressures that did not exist for the generation before them. The gap between rich and poor is growing wider, work has never been more insecure, and we’ve seen a sustained political attack from those in power on funding for, and access to, our tertiary institutions, on the divide between private and public schools, and on youth advocacy across the board. Ensuring that our economic, social and political systems maximise equality of access to education, work, support services and our democracy for young people is critical for their future, and also for Australia’s future.
The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering Voting Age and Increasing Voter Participation) Bill 2018 seeks to acknowledge that young people–through the rise of digital and social media platforms are more politically aware than ever before by expanding the franchise to allow 16 and 17 year olds the option to vote–and allowing teachers to bring civics education into the classroom in a more tangible way. It also seeks to lower the age at which young people can enrol to vote to 14 years old, ensuring that an understanding of Australia’s preferential voting system becomes more universal.
People who are 16 and 17 years old can work full time, pay taxes, contribute to superannuation, own and drive a car thereby contributing to other associated taxes and duties, join a political party, join the Australian Armed Forces, have sex and make autonomous medical decisions about their own bodies. More often than not, by the time young people reach the age of 16 or 17 they are making a significant contribution to Australian society and similarly are able to recognise the impacts government decisions have upon their lives. It follows, therefore, that 16 and 17 year olds should be able to have their say at the ballot box.
Lowering the voting age
The Committee’s finding that there was little empirical evidence to support the claim that lowering the voting age would increase democratic participation relied heavily on 2012 research by Professor Ian McAllister titled ‘The Politics of lowering the voting age in Australia: Evaluating the evidence.’ Whilst McAllister’s research strongly makes the point that traditional political engagement is in sharp decline amongst young people, his conclusion that there is little empirical evidence to support lowering the voting age was made prior to a number of democracies legislating for the change including Argentina, Malta and some elements of Scotland, Germany and the United States’ democracies.
Furthermore, whilst Professor McAllister’s research mentions the fact that Austria lowered the voting age to 16 in 2007, becoming the first European Union member and the first developed democracy to do so, it failed to analyse the empirical evidence available in the Austrian experience. Since legislating to lower the voting age to 16, Austria has seen a consistently higher turnout of first time voters than before the change. It is also currently ranked equal highest for electoral turnout of young voters aged between 15 and 30 years of age, according to the European Youth Flash Eurobarometer–a regular survey conducted on behalf of the European Commission since 1973. As of 2018, around 79 per cent of Austrian youth stated they had participated in local, regional or national elections in the last three years compared to the European average of 64 per cent.
What the Committee report fails to strongly articulate, or pay heed to, is the sheer weight of submissions to the inquiry that were in favour of the proposition instead leaning heavily on opposing submissions given by the Australian Christian Lobby, the Federal Young Liberal movement and a number of individual submissions. The conclusions drawn by the report are contrary to the overwhelming majority of witnesses heard during the inquiry, and of the 97 submissions made.
Evidence provided by the Federal Young Liberal movement and expanded upon in Table 2.1 does not include the full scope of responsibilities as heard by the inquiry, notably the application of taxation laws to 16 and 17 year-olds and other associated responsibilities. For instance, a 16 year-old can begin driving a car with a learner’s permit and can legally own that car, thereby paying vehicle stamp duty and registration which contributes to the upkeep of vehicle infrastructure such as roads. In most jurisdictions, a full-time apprenticeship may be deemed equivalent to full time secondary education and can be undertaken from age 16. An apprentice will earn an award wage and subsequently pay income tax on that wage. The age at which a person can be tried as an adult is also not consistent and there are many examples of 16 and 17 year olds being tried as adults. Whilst it is true that there is variation on the rights and responsibilities of 16 and 17 years olds nationally, it is disingenuous to claim that ‘...most legal and social norms do not apply full responsibility until the age of 18.’
The Committee also ignored the clear views expressed by both young people and peak youth advocacy organisations throughout the hearing phase of this inquiry which pointed clearly to the fact that there is a profound equity disparity. Aside from the arguments made above in 1.7 these groups argued strongly that as young people engage in activities that are regulated by the Government such as education, healthcare and support services they should be given a voice. Submissions made by the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition (AYAC) and the Tasmanian Youth Network are strong examples.
The Committee also ignored the views of Professors Howard Sercombe and George Williams AO, yet favoured the view of the Law Society of NSW to create a false narrative that there is debate on the equity question when in fact the inquiry itself heard of no such debate.
Political participation: voluntary vs compulsory voting
A minority of submissions and statements made to the inquiry have been cherry-picked and given weight on the point of voluntary versus compulsory voting for 16 and 17 year olds, should the franchise be expanded to include them. In particular, significant weight has been given to the Australian Christian Lobby in 2.45 and the NSW Council for Civil Liberties in 2.47 of the Chair’s report whilst counter arguments–such as from Professor George Williams AO who is one of Australia’s foremost constitutional experts–appeared much later in the report and appeared to carry considerably less weight in the report’s final verdict. This contrast in particular represents a false equivalence that has no place in a Parliamentary committee report.
Both of the previous two UN Youth Ambassadors–Amos Washington and Paige Burton–who surveyed thousands of Australian young people in their efforts to perform their fulfil their roles and responsibilities to the UN, made submissions in support of non-compulsory voting. A similar unequal weighting was given to those submissions in the report’s findings.
It was also the view held by every youth peak organisation that gave evidence to the inquiry, and it should be said the vast majority of young people themselves who were brave enough to appear before a panel of Senators and Members of Parliament.
There were only two individuals–Calvin Theo and Jaysen Cubilla–who took a view in their submissions to the inquiry that 16 and 17 year olds do not possess the political maturity required to comprehend our electoral system and processes, yet the Chair’s report arrived at this same conclusion. This is not a view supported by the evidence contained in the submissions, or indeed presented at the hearings. UN Youth Ambassador Amos Washington, Dr Leslie Pruitt and AYAC Chair Katie Acheson presented research in their submissions that clearly demonstrated 16 and 17 year-olds are more politically aware than ever before due largely to the rise of digital and social media platforms. Rather than engaging in traditional party politics, they actively seek out and engage with issues they feel strongly about. What is noted in this research is that young people engage differently with our democracy than previous generations, and are not as entrenched in political parties as they are engaged with issues. This distinction was not addressed adequately in the Chair’s report.
There is also a clear theme of failure by political leadership to properly include young people in discussions that affect them, identified in particular by Dr Leslie Pruitt. This sentiment has been incorrectly characterised by the Chair’s report as a lack of political maturity on behalf of young people, rather than a failure of political parties more broadly to engage young people in policy discussions.
Finally, it was repeatedly observed that political awareness and subjective notions such as ‘maturity’ are not a yardstick for the access of any other section of Australian society to the franchise, nor should they be.
This report cherry picks evidence given to the committee in order to support conclusions which bear little to no relation to the evidence heard either from legal and constitutional experts, from peak youth advocacy organisations or from young people themselves in order to create the perception of debate where none exists. The conclusions reached in the Chair’s report do not reflect the majority of the evidence presented.
Young people who submitted to the inquiry and gave evidence at the hearings made their arguments with an eloquence and intellectual depth that often far exceeded many of the discussions that take place within our parliament. They were supported in this effort and in their demand for the franchise by the overwhelming majority of Australia’s youth peak bodies, youth policy academics and constitutional experts, who spoke with a unanimity that is rarely seen in inquiries of this nature. The single recommendation contained within this report is almost entirely disconnected from the evidence that it heard and serves as yet another example of the failure of our political system to listen to young people, therefore reinforcing the urgency of the franchise to this cohort.
On the question of compulsory vs non-compulsory voting the Committee heard from the vast majority of young people, youth peak organisations and constitutional and legal experts that this would be the most effective way to implement this reform. It would balance the legitimate desire of young people to participate in our democratic process with the reality that there are many young people who do not yet feel ready to take this step forward. The idea of a democratic transition period from having neither a right or responsibility to vote, to having a right but not a responsibility, to finally having a right and a responsibility upon turning 18 was consistently endorsed and re-endorsed by evidence given to the committee. While we acknowledge that some–a small minority–expressed concern or opposition to the extension of a voluntary franchise, the Australian Greens remain of the view that this would be the most effective way to implement this reform.
This bill is a critical way to acknowledge young people’s contribution to society and allow them to engage fully in civic life, and the Australian Greens believe the bill should be passed.