A bill to lower the voting age to 16 was introduced to federal Parliament by Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John. (Pic: Rebecca Le May/AAP)
A bill to lower the voting age to 16 was introduced to federal Parliament by Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John. (Pic: Rebecca Le May/AAP)

Giving 16-year-olds the right to vote is inevitable

THINK back to when you were 16 years of age.

Were you sufficiently aware of political issues and party positions to cast an informed vote on polling day? Or were the only parties scheduled for your Saturday of the dance and disco variety?

The question of whether 16-year-olds are intellectually mature enough to have a say as to who sits in parliament has been kicking around since eighteen year old Australians won the right to vote in 1973. In recent months, the issue has found real traction, especially after Western Australian Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John introduced a private members' bill this year to lower the franchise to 16 years. Expect even more debate when that bill comes out of committee in October.

Despite the inevitably of Steele-John's bill being defeated - there's no immediate appetite for change among the major parties - the case for 16-year-old enrolments is here to stay. After all, most 16-year-olds already work part-time and pay tax, and many will soon embark on the costly adventure of higher education - a policy issue fraught with funding issues of the highest political order.

Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John would like to see the voting age lowered. (Pic: Gary Ramage)
Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John would like to see the voting age lowered. (Pic: Gary Ramage)

Moreover, 16-year-olds currently vote in the regional parliaments of Scotland and Wales, and in many Latin American countries such as Argentina, Ecuador and Brazil. It's also under seriously consideration in New Zealand, and is receiving strong support in the United States where high school students - sick of loose gun laws threatening their very lives in schools - are demanding a vote on gun control.

The arguments against lowering the voting age are well known. The first, of course, is that 16-year-olds' cognitive powers are too underdeveloped to make reasoned, rational vote choices. (Excuse me while I roll my eyes). They might even make be swayed by the superficial qualities of a telegenic party leader. (A "mature" voter surely wouldn't do that, would they?)

A second is those under 18 know too little about the "real" world of bills, taxes and mortgages, while a third is that 16-year-olds, obsessed with Instagram and other instant gratification, are simply uninterested in politics. A fourth argument is that under-18s will only vote the way their parents and mates tell them to anyway.

But these arguments are weakened by the fact the same criticisms can be levelled at any uninformed voter aged between 18 and 88. I've met plenty of middle-aged Aussies who can't manage a budget, who take endless self-obsessed selfies, who listen to their mates' drunken rants rather than read the news, who don't know the difference between parliament and government ("Pauline Hanson is doing a good job in government"), who think Annastacia Palaszczuk should do something about immigration, and who think MPs are on holiday when parliament doesn't sit.

Senator Pauline Hanson might work in Canberra as a politician, but she’s not “in government”. (Pic: Kym Smith)
Senator Pauline Hanson might work in Canberra as a politician, but she’s not “in government”. (Pic: Kym Smith)

Yes, these people vote, too.

The problem, then, is not the age of the voter but the level of civics education that voter receives before casting their first ballot. In that sense, I would trust the vote choice of a 16- year-old who's completed a high school history unit - covering the functions of parliament, cabinet, the High Court, the electoral system and the news media - before the vote of a 26-year-old who hasn't.

Moreover, and contrary to popular perception, many if not most 16-year-olds do hold strong opinions on a range of issues - from same-sex marriage to asylum seekers; from penalty rates to higher education costs - even if those opinions aren't expressed in traditional party political forums.

Yes, a generation raised on "clicktivism" is still an engaged generation that, under the right circumstances, can be steered toward the polling booth. Indeed, the enrolment surge of 100,000 new voters (almost all of whom were under 24) leading up to last year's same-sex marriage plebiscite is evidence of this. And, given most of those new voters are still on the electoral roll today (despite the notoriously transitory domestic arrangements of young Australians), this suggests "catching" young voters early - and enthusing them with the voting "bug" - can habituate young electors to a lifelong habit of news-watching, civic engagement and voting.

A lowering of the voting age is inevitable as young Australians mature - physically, intellectually, emotionally and, in an entrepreneurial digital world, professionally - earlier than their parents. The pressure to expand the franchise will simply prove too much, just as it did in the early 1970s when voteless 18-year-olds risked their lives in Vietnam.

The issue, then, is what the Palaszczuk Government will do to improve civics education in Queensland. Over to you, Minister Grace Grace.

Dr Paul Williams is a senior lecturer at Griffith University's School of Humanities.



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