As a young nation that had the luxury of cherry-picking the best bits of other democracies around the world, Australia has been blessed with governments that have been some of the most representative of their respective populations in the world.
That’s not to say that our system is perfect; we’ve been tinkering with it almost since the moment of federation. Some alterations were made in response to changing times and attitudes, and some were made to correct fundamental injustices, such as the original disenfranchisement of women and Indigenous Australians. And just like any reflective and self-critical organisation, Australia Inc. should continue to look for ways to fine-tune its democracy to ensure that it remains as representative of Australians as possible.
Although it has already been mooted at various times in recent history, a proposal to lower the voting age to 16 will be considered by the Rudd Government later this year.
One of the most frequent arguments against lowering the voting age is that 16-year-olds are not capable of making informed decisions about which of the candidates on offer in their electorate they think best represents them; which candidate most closely shares their values, their priorities and their vision; and which of the candidates will most likely spend their taxes in a manner which is agreeable.
Sixteen-year-olds deserve more credit. They are capable of doing just that — with guidance and support.
There is no magical age at which a person suddenly becomes capable of voting responsibly, although most countries around the world have currently selected, rather arbitrarily, 18 as the age of suffrage. Most people "feel" that 18 is the correct age for voting, although 50 years ago 21 "felt" like the correct age. But there are many inconsistencies in the age at which our society deems a person to be ready for certain risks and responsibilities. For example, two 16-year-old Australians are allowed by law to have consensual sex and give birth to a child, but they are not permitted to have a formal say in the running of the society into which that child is born.
Then there’s taxation. The main role of government is to collect taxes and spend the money on behalf of those who worked to earn that money in the first place, responding to the electorate’s wishes as expressed at elections. According to 2006 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, about 38 per cent of 16-year-olds are either working (casual, part time or full time) or looking for work. If these young Australians are expected to contribute taxes to the government’s coffers, shouldn’t they have a say in how their hard-earned is spent?
Despite all this, most opposition to lowering the voting age seems to be based on the anecdotal stereotype of young people being inexperienced, thoughtless, apathetic and anti-intellectual. As with all stereotypes there is a seed of truth along with a whole bunch of over-simplification. If you were to put 30 year eleven students and 30 randomly selected adults in a room, the spread of inexperience, thoughtlessness, apathy and anti-intellectualism would be far less age-dependent than most people think. For every teenager who conforms to the stereotype of nihilistic, thoughtless and uninterested, you can find at least one voter over the age of 18 who puts just as little critical thought into their reluctant tick of a box every three years.
There’s no denying that experience or worldliness is an important factor in the making of informed, outward-looking decisions. As humans grow older our accumulating life experiences force us to view our pure ideals and principles through the harsh context of reality. The world is not an easy place to make run smoothly, and the glorious diversity of opinion and perspective that makes life such a fascinating experience also causes a lot of friction. The lumbering mechanics that we have built to govern human societies require us to learn to live with compromise, and it’s not an easy lesson to learn. But we have to start learning this lesson sometime — and in my experience as a teacher, the earlier this lesson is learned the better.
During my career teaching primary-aged and teenaged children I have witnessed debate and analysis of a quality which rivals that displayed by most adults, featuring mature and responsible young Australians with a strong sense of ethics and morality. Contrary to popular opinion, young people can think, and think well. Teenagers still have a curiosity about the world that has been extinguished in most mature-aged people, and they largely possess open minds in contrast to the stubbornly closed attitudes that are common in older generations.
The only additional thing that these kids sometimes need is an adult to facilitate their thinking, providing guidance on information gathering and the wider-world context in which decisions should be made. If anyone doubts this they should get along to a high school and watch a debate. They should also be prepared to have their mind blown by the standard of thinking on display — it makes the House Of Representatives look like big lunch at the local pre-school.
With this in mind, a move to lower the voting age should come with a concerted push to better educate and engage youth in the political process to offset their relative inexperience. Civics and citizenship subjects already exist in the country’s various curricula but a disappointing proportion of high school graduates still enter the real world with a tenuous understanding of how the nation’s democracy functions. Schools need to pick up their act — and it must be matched by our politicians giving teenagers a reason to care. Our democracy deserves young Australians who feel empowered by the system, know how to use it, are aware of their place within it, and are equipped to fully participate by the age of 16.
Of course, there are some who believe that the Rudd Government’s desire to discuss this issue is directly linked to a boost in votes it would almost certainly enjoy. If a voting age of 16 was introduced right now, and all other things remained equal, poll analyst Possum Comitatus has calculated a boost to the ALP’s two-party-preferred vote of at least 1 per cent, while the Greens would experience "minimal benefit".
On the face of it, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote would result in a boost to the fortunes of the current government and a shock to the Coalition (as if they didn’t have enough to worry about already), but a better analysis of this situation would focus on the fact that the "progressive" parties have so far tended to explicitly target the youth demographic while the "conservative" parties have not. Nothing’s stopping the Libs and the Nats from talking to young people, and a whole demographic of Australians shouldn’t be disenfranchised simply because one side of politics can’t be bothered engaging it.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we as a nation decided to put the call out to the members of our next generations, show them some trust, hand them some responsibility, and ask them to do the right thing in return? Imagine the optimism of such a move. The youth of Australia are up to this challenge — we should give them a chance to prove it.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.