Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Electoral Matters Committee; Report
If you are 16 or 17, you can work full time, you can pay taxes, you can have superannuation paid on your behalf and you can own a car and drive that car, but you can't vote. If you're 16 or 17 you can make autonomous medical decisions about your body. You can join the armed forces, and in most states around Australia you can have sex, but you can't vote. If you are 16 or 17 you can sometimes find yourself, through circumstances that are not of your own choosing, out looking for a house and living by yourself out in the rental market in places like Richmond in my electorate, where recently a flat was being rented for $450 a week and the kitchen was in the garage—the result of crazy laws and policies that have pushed up the price of housing in this country. You can experience all of that but you can't vote.
If you're 16 or 17, you can watch as political leaders sell out your future by creating a climate for you where you'll be going into every Christmas holidays wondering where the next bushfire's going to hit, how many people are going to die from heatwaves and what level of sea rise will affect your suburb, but you can't vote. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds, especially as a result of digital technologies that are available and the amount of news that is available, are probably more politically literate now than they have been for a very, very long time. As we saw with 50,000 people marching down the streets of Melbourne—most of them students—they are very, very politically engaged. I think everyone in this chamber would, if they were to be honest, accept that when they've gone into schools and had discussions with year 11s or year 12s, or spoken to 16- and 17-year-olds in their electorate who are out doing apprenticeships, they've done so with people who are having an impact on the world, who are impacted by the world and who understand the world. In many instances they understand it better than many people who are older than them, but they can't vote.
The decision to restrict voting to people above the age of 18 is an arbitrary one. We have to make a decision in society about where that arbitrary line lies. In other countries they say you can't drive a car until you're 21 or can't have a drink until you're 21; here in Australia we say it's much younger. These things change around the world based on what the society, at a particular point in time, says is appropriate for that society. In Austria they have lowered the voting age to 16, and it's resulted in much, much higher levels of political engagement.
If ever there was a time that young people deserved a say, it is now. We are entering a critical decade where, according to the world's scientists, we could see global warming hit 1½ degrees as soon as 2030—in just over 10 years time. It's not going to be all of us who, in 20, 30, 40 years time, are going to have to clean up the mess as a result of decisions that we and our forebears have taken. It will be the next generation, and they are watching, they are paying attention and they are demanding a seat at the table. And because they're sitting watching politicians make decisions on their own behalf, they're doing things like going on strike because they feel that that is the only way that they are able to express their rage—to take parliament by the scruff of the neck and say, 'You have to be doing better.'
Giving young people the right to vote is one of the ways parliament might start making decisions that don't sell out the future for young people and that don't keep screwing young people over, through climate change, through rising insecurity of employment, through rising housing costs and through lower wages. One of the ways that we might end up in a world where we don't saddle young people with debt just because they choose to go to university, and where we don't put homes out of their reach, is to give them a say and the right to vote. We need to reassess whether or not we got it right to limit voting only to people who are above 18. I and the Greens say, 'No, we haven't.'
The step that we should take now is a simple one. It is to say that people who are 16 or 17 should have the right to vote but not yet be compelled to. They should be able to enrol a bit earlier but then, as they are 16 and 17, they should have the right to vote if they so choose. I want every member of this place to think about this: the next time you have a conversation with a 17-year-old in your electorate, ask yourself, 'Why is it that they are not entitled to vote but someone who is 18 or 19 is?' Have that conversation with a 17-year-old and ask yourself, 'Can you really, hand on heart, say, 'Here's a person who isn't engaged with politics in our community or with the issues that affect them?' Ask yourself, when you talk to the 16-year-old or the 17-year-old next time, 'Why is it that they have the right to work, pay taxes, join the Defence Force, own and drive a car—all of those things—but they are denied the right to representation?'
A simple, simple change which the Greens are advocating for would be to give 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds the right to vote if they so choose. And, as I say, you can enrol earlier. The evidence and the international experience suggests that it is the right thing to do. I'll reiterate: 18 is an arbitrary age. Any cut-off age is arbitrary—we accept that, of course—so we therefore have to have the discussion: is it the right one? It's not, and perhaps students wouldn't have to go on strike in massive numbers to demand that their governments do better if they had a say in our democratic institutions in the first place. I'm disappointed and the Greens are disappointed that the committee has not chosen to take this opportunity to make the reforms that are needed, but hopefully, if we keep pushing, it's an idea that will have its time come, and hopefully it will come soon.