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In this country, voter education often comes too late. But what if we were to lower the voting age, the youth of today would be better educated for the challenges of tomorrow.
In 2015, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, speaking at an International Youth Day event, observed that “young people are proving to be invaluable partners who can advance meaningful solutions”. This is especially true when empowered to participate in the formal institutions and structures of a community. Recent research in post-conflict countries demonstrates the importance of substantive institutional engagement with youth, but the sentiment also resonates here in Australia where young people are actively engaged in politics in a range of ways.
The Australian government is currently considering a bill that proposes lowering the voting age in Australia to 16 and allowing enrolment from 14 years old. The bill also proposes allowing 16 to 18-year olds to vote on a voluntary basis before becoming compulsory at 18. Lowering the voting age to 16 has been adopted by a variety of other democracies around the world, including Austria, Scotland and Brazil. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is undertaking an inquiry, and members of the committee held a public hearing in Brisbane on the 30th of October.
The 2016 Census demonstrates that youth – those aged 15-24 – represent 12.8% of the population or 1 in 8 Australian residents, of whom over half a million reported that they had spent some time in the 12 months prior to the Census doing volunteer work. This figure has been steadily increasing up from 450,000 in the 2011 Census and 395,000 reported in 2006. Young people are also increasingly contributing to social justice within their communities, as the 2016 Census indicated 151,000 people aged 15-24 reported that they had provided unpaid support to an individual with a disability in the two weeks prior to the Census, a figure which has also increased from the previous two censuses.
While young people have shown a heightened interest in participating in politics and public life by helping to ensure a more inclusive Australian society, not all those within this demographic are able to engage meaningfully and substantively with the primary institutional structure that determines the provision of these services, due to the current voter registration age.
The proposed amendments would ensure current governance structures align with current levels of youth engagement and our previous vision for the youth of Australia.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Western parliamentary democracies around the world saw a groundswell of support for a lowering of the eligible voting age from 21 to 18. The central argument that propelled this movement was the acknowledgement that young people “pay taxes, drive cars, and served their country during times of conflict”, and thus should be allowed a voice in the process which decides the composition of the government. In 1973 the Australian Parliament passed an Amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, which lowered the voting age to eighteen and in doing so acknowledged the agency of these individuals, as well as the importance of providing them with a say in who represented their interests and values.
While the issues and interests of young people in 2018 have evolved since the 1970s the underlying justifications of civil engagement and political participation remain important considerations with respect to questions of voter eligibility. A central theme of the submissions to the inquiry is an acknowledgement of the importance of reframing how we understand political engagement and “youth issues”. Amongst the central claims acknowledged at the public hearing and in the submissions is the notion that young Australians actively participate in the social, political and economic life in this country. As noted in our written submission and at the public hearing, young people under 18 can enter employment, drive cars, undertake higher education and accumulate HELP debt, they are primary carers for family, and one of the largest consumer demographics across Australian society. Despite this, youth remain excluded and silenced in the formal policy-making that decides the conditions under which this social and political participation occurs.
Alongside ideas about engagement sits a recognition of how we understand political interests more broadly. As former Australian Youth UN Representative, Paige Burton writes in her submission, framing “youth issues” as distinct from “adult issues” is problematic as it suggests that their interest exist in a vacuum and are distinct from the needs and values of older Australians. While the interests of youth may diverge at times from those of other Australian citizens their needs and the challenges they face intersect with adults due to the fluid and complex nature of politics and civic engagement. For example, healthcare and education policy, unemployment, climate change, penalty rates for casual workers and housing affordability are significant concerns for all Australians who engage and participate in their communities. As Burton observes, “all issues affect young people, and young people influence all issues”. Given this, it is important to consider the proposals in this bill as part of a broader dialogue on how formal institutional structures engage with youth as citizens with agency and a stake in the policies and practices created by governments.
The popular perception, that young people are disengaged and uninterested, is sustained by perceptions about who youth are rather than a reflection of their willingness to participate.
Young people are invested in their communities in unique and practical ways, yet their agency and voices remain largely invisible due to an absence of formal mechanisms for communicating with youth and investing in their needs and interests. While the Office of Youth still exists, the absence of a Minister of Youth in the current cabinet and in cabinets since 2013 has rendered youth engagement static at the Federal level. This is further evidenced by the absence of an up to date National Youth Strategy, which engages substantively with the voices and interests of young Australians. As explained by a student from Runcorn State High School at the Joint Standing Committee’s Brisbane public hearing on October 30, “because we don’t have the right to vote, our thoughts and ideas aren’t considered because we are not key constituent and there is no accountability”.
While young people acknowledge that they are listened to, they observe that their voices and ideas are rarely heard. This leads to perceptions among young people that their interactions with the formal systems and structures of our society are “tokenistic” rather than substantive and meaningful. The proposed amendments go some way towards facilitating this engagement, while also ensuring that Australia fulfils its commitment under Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to acknowledge the evolving capacity of young people.
In 2010, the government released the National Strategy for Young Australians. In it was a commitment to ensuring that young people “have the opportunities and skills they need to learn, work (and) engage in community life and influence decisions that affect them”. The proposed amendments to the voting and registration ages would ensure that our current governance structures align with current levels of youth engagement in society and with our previous vision for the youth of Australia.
The increased civic participation indicates that the popular perception, that young people are disengaged and uninterested in politics and their communities, is built upon and sustained by perceptions about who youth are rather than a reflection of their capacity and willingness to participate. As highlighted in several submissions to the inquiry, Australian youth often engage with an “issue-oriented” focus. Youth are politically engaged yet it is often in ways that our formal structures do not recognise. Organisations such as UN Youth Australia, Oaktree and Youth Without Borders are just three in an expansive list of organisations which demonstrate young peoples’ capacity and willingness to politically engage with the issues and ideas that significantly impact their lives now and into the future. Given this, claims that youth are apathetic need to be placed in the context of structures that limit young people’s opportunities for participation. Lowering the voting age could be one step the government could take to open up those structures that exclude young people from meaningful participation in our democracy.