Chasing the youth vote

Melbourne climate change rally, photo by John Englart

Some of you may remember Federal Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s bid for the youth vote last year, proposing a voting age of 16. There was a hue and cry about this (in the meaning of a loud public outcry…from the French huer or loud cry). Shorten’s gambit coincided with his worst-ever polling (17%) in the preferred leader stakes.

The nation’s voting age should be lowered to 16, he said, because young Australians do not see their views reflected in Parliament. Shorten told the New South Wales Young Labor conference in Sydney that if people aged 16 and 17 could drive, work, pay taxes, join the military and make choices about medical treatment, they should be allowed to vote.

As the law stands, you can apply to be on the electoral roll at 16 or 17, but cannot vote until you turn 18.

The magic age of sweet sixteen triggers the legal right to say yes or no to some interesting things without asking one’s parents.

This notably applies to consensual sex (careful, the sex has to be with someone who is also 16 or older). If you live in South Australia or Tasmania, the age of consent is 17, and in Queensland, the law differentiates between homosexual sex (18) and carnal knowledge (16).

In most states and territories, a 16-year-old can move out of home without their parents’ consent and unless they are at risk, child welfare authorities are unlikely to force the youth to return home. Teenagers with a need to know about their rights, wherever they live, are often referred to

Shorten wisely stayed away from the issues that provoke family brouhaha (a state of agitation over something relatively minor) like consensual sex, the right to leave home and the rights of (a girl) to be prescribed contraceptive pills.

He hedged his bets by including 17-year-olds because, for example, the Australian Defence Force only admits people aged 17 and over, although they can apply at 16. You can get a driver’s licence at 17 in all states and territories except the NT (16 and a half) and Victoria (18). At 16 you can leave school, work full-time, join a union, join an industry super fund, pay taxes, apply for legal aid, consent to medical and dental treatment and get your own debit card without involving Mum and Dad. You can get married, but Mum and Dad have to sign off, likewise if you apply for a passport. A 16-year-old can’t buy cigarettes or alcohol, although their peer group will smoke and drink if someone else buys it for them and it is consumed in private.

Shorten talked about other jurisdictions where people get the vote at 16, naming Austria, Scotland and Brazil. There are eight other countries where people get the vote from the age of 16. But there are just as many jurisdictions which cling to a voting age of 21.

In Australia, the latter was dropped to 18 in 1973, just one more major reform by the far-sighted Whitlam government.

Shorten’s big play for approval to drop the voting age was to tell us that more than 17,000 Australians under 18 paid $41 million in taxes (2012-2013 data). But his admission that 400,000 people aged 18-24 are absent from the electoral roll was not a great selling point. And it’s a bit early to say how many of them signed up for the 2016 election by the time the roll closed on Monday, May 23.

Kids are too immature to vote, aren’t they?

Many of the online replies to the ABC’s report panned Shorten’s youth vote idea, although Treefrog said if 16-year-olds were disadvantaged by policy (education cuts in the 2014 budget), they should get a say. Some wanted the voting age raised to 30 because ‘anyone under 30 was too immature to make the right choice’. Oh, and some correspondents wanted optional voting for the over-60s because ‘they have too much influence on public policy’. The public reaction to Shorten’s suggestion seems in line with an Australian Election Study in 2010 in which  94% of respondents opposed any change.

An analysis of Newspoll data by the Whitlam Institute, updated in 2013, suggests the youth vote may have determined the outcomes of the last four Federal elections. Director Eric Sidoti says of the research he did with Dr Chris Brooker that the collapse of the youth vote for Labor between 2007 and 2010 among 18-34 year olds and their intentions to switch to the Greens went a long way to explaining the hung parliament.

Despite a relatively high level of non-enrolment, many young people (15-24) are now directly engaged in big issue politics – human rights, racism, the economy and the environment. The Sydney Morning Herald said organisations like GetUp! And the Australian Youth Climate Coalition provided a glimpse of this changing political landscape.

Those who doubt the ability of youngsters to make informed political decisions should check out this elegant piece of research forwarded by Mr Shiraz. It tests voter turnout and the quality of choice in light of Austria’s decision to lower the voting age to 16 in 2007.

This is a weighty document but worth reading to reach the authors’ conclusion that: “a key criticism of lowering the voting age to 16 does not hold: there is little evidence that these citizens are less able or less motivated to participate effectively in politics.”

Smart kids with important things to say

The Whitlam Institute’s What Matters essay competition reveals more reasons why the youth vote is important. Overall 2015 winner Amelia Browns of Sutherland Public School (Grades 5 and 6) wrote a touching essay “Ben Matters’’ about losing her baby cousin to Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA).

Runner-up Madeleine Sylvester of St Agatha’s Catholic Primary School (also in grade 5/6), urged Australians that “Watts Matter,” explaining how our households squander electricity. Other category winners wrote about refugees, climate change, endangered species and the importance of physics. So tell me again why teenagers are not ready to vote at 16 or 17? These students, aged 10-14, are already putting together lucid prose that demonstrates they have a handle on the world and ideas to make it a better place.

Sunshine Coast songwriter Karen Law brought her family band to our lounge room a couple of week ago. The repertoire included a song about Nauru, written by Karen’s 13-year-old daughter Hazel. “What will they do with the island, in five years,” the writer putting herself in the asylum seeker’s sandals.

“Why do I keep living when no-one throws a thought my way?

So is something wrong with me, or something wrong with you?

Do you feel pain, or are you just oblivious

To the world you’re standing in?

There could be a hidden message in “What will they do with the island, in five years” – ostensibly about the government’s promise to process everyone on Nauru within five years. In five years Hazel Law, who shows a capacity at 13 to think and feel deeply about social issues, will be 18. If Bill Shorten gets the keys to the Lodge, she might even be eligible to vote at the next election, circa 2020.


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