The 2022 federal election should be the last to exclude 16- and 17-year-olds from voting,
The 2022 federal election dominated our mainstream media for two months and we were bombarded with news polls, debates, policy and budget promises. But young people and their concerns remained largely absent from the campaign.
At 16 years old you can do paid work, pay tax, apply to join the military, drive a car, consent to confidential health care and be charged with criminal offences. Yet, young people in Australia are being denied the basic citizenship right to vote. My hope is that we have seen the last federal election in which 16- and 17-year-olds are excluded.
The age-old, yet persistent stereotype of young people being apathetic or politically disengaged is unfounded. Those of us who work with young people know they are a very politically engaged social group and lead advocacy on many issues in Australia, such as climate action and challenging gendered violence. But research demonstrates young Australians are also disillusioned by mainstream politics and, like in many other Western democracies, they have a general distrust of government.
Young people report having many concerns about the political status quo and their future prosperity in Australia, including the impact of issues such as climate change, mental health, education, housing, job prospects and the digital environment.
The decisions made by governments today will have long-term consequences for the current generation of young people, yet they feel their concerns are not being listened to. In 2019, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report to the United Nations highlighted that young people under the age of 18 feel that they do not have a voice in Australia.
A key issue is at the ballot box: those under 18 have no say as their voices are silenced and their ability to affect change is non-existent.
Many other countries have lowered their voting age to 16 or 17. For example, at 16 you can vote in Switzerland, Brazil, Malta, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Jersey and some German states. At 17, you can vote in Cuba, Greece, Indonesia, Israel, Nicaragua and South Sudan.
“Lowering the voting age would be a positive move for democracy in Australia.”
Lowering the voting age also has a long history in Australia. Change at the federal level came in 1973, when the Whitlam government lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. In 2015, then Labor leader Bill Shorten promised to lower the voting age to 16 or 17, and in 2018 the Greens proposed voluntary voting rights for those aged 16 and 17. The defining moment was certainly 1973 and subsequent discussions and proposals have not yet led to further concrete change.
Recently, the debate about lowering voting age has seen a renewal at state and territory levels. The Greens’ proposal in the Australian Capital Territory to lower the voting age to 16 led to a parliamentary inquiry. In New South Wales, a bill to lower the age to 16 and introduce optional rather than compulsory voting for 16- and 17-year-olds has been proposed.
One major stumbling block to this reform has been Australia’s compulsory voting system and financial penalties for non-voting. However, other countries that have similar compulsory voting systems, such as Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador, have lowered their voting ages.
Extending voting rights to more young people is in line with their rights to participate in and be heard on matters concerning their lives. These rights are promoted by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989. Australia signed up to this UN Convention in 1990 but has not embedded it into its domestic legislative frameworks.
Lowering the voting age would be a positive move for democracy in Australia, encouraging more young people to have and exercise a crucial citizenship right. Voting would provide an avenue for young people to directly influence political representation and might make politicians more inclined to genuinely engage with the next generation and ensure policies serve their interests.
Lowering the voting age in Australia would be one way older generations could demonstrate to young people that their voices, opinions and concerns do matter.
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