Second Reading - Lowering Voting Age Amendment

Senator Farrell has just offered no real position from the opposition on the issues raised by the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering Voting Age and Increasing Voter Participation) Bill 2018 and has instead decided to spend his time sledging the government on a range of matters not truly raised by the bill itself.

I'm going to afford this chamber the respect of dealing with the issues raised by the bill. Senator Steele-John's proposals are well intentioned. The desire to engage young people with democracy is exceptionally important. It is a principle the government supports wholeheartedly, and it's why we see so much support from the government for the programs already in place to raise the profile of civics in the education system. It is an important part of the curriculum that is taught within Australian schools. The AEC's National Electoral Education Centre at Old Parliament House provides face-to-face education programs for about 90,000 students each year. There is the Democracy Rules resource provided by the government, also through the AEC, to help with education on these issues. The ABC provides a wonderful resource, with materials for primary and secondary educators to use, to share the story and the rules of democracy with young people. The AEC provides classroom resources and student education, and the Museum of Australian Democracy hosts thousands of students a year, not to mention the many schoolchildren who come through this parliament every day, learning about the electoral system. There's the National Indigenous Youth Parliament, hosted by the AEC to help improve electoral participation by young Indigenous people. All of these programs have in their heart the importance of engaging young people with democracy.

But, if we look at what is proposed by this bill, we need to ask quite sincerely whether or not it is going to achieve that important end, and it doesn't. Let's start with some of the data. A study that was conducted on behalf of the ACT Legislative Assembly in 2007, released in September, researched the level of interest of young people in a lowering of the age of receiving the franchise. It observed that, when young people are first entitled to enrol to vote, which is at the age of 17—that doesn't give them the vote, of course; it just gives them the opportunity to join the roll in preparation for their ability to vote at the age of 18—only 27 per cent of young people seize that opportunity. Now, it is an optional measure at that age, and that does affect the data. We must take that into account and look at it fairly. That study noted that the Democratic Audit of Australia saw that there was no clear demand evident from young people for a lowering of the voting age to 16 and that young people do not seem to consider the franchise to be among their top priorities at present.

If we turn to some of the other research that's been conducted on this subject, in the study by Professor Ian McAllister in The politics of lowering the voting age in Australia: evaluating the evidence, the arguments for and against the lowering of the voting age were canvassed and, importantly, data examining the support in the community and among young people for such a measure was given some scrutiny. We start with this: among the voting population as a whole, what appetite was there for the lowering of the voting age? Well, three per cent of voters thought it would be worthwhile to lower the voting age to 16, and a further three per cent were softer on that point. They thought it probably would be worth lowering the voting age to 16. That contrasts with 22 per cent of people believing that it should probably stay at 18 and 72 per cent of people saying it definitely should stay at the age of 18.

We need to examine the reasons behind those strongly held views in the Australian community. Arguments about equity were front of mind the last time the issue of whether or not to lower the voting age in Australia came to the fore—and, of course, resulted in the lowering of the voting age to 18. In that circumstance, there was the historical context of many young Australians having gone to war and fought at ages younger than that at which they would have been able to vote. Similar equity arguments have been made to justify lowering the voting age now to 16.

Let's look at some of those comparative measures. In Australia, the age of appearing in an adult court, the age at which one is regarded as criminally responsible as an adult in most circumstances, and the age at which one is free to marry without requiring any special permissions are 18 in almost all circumstances. There are some other government regulated activities that have a lower minimum age. One can obtain a driver's licence earlier, and one can seek to engage in some military service at 17. There are very few activities which have a minimum age of 16, with the exception of the age of consent and, in some circumstances, the holding of a firearms licence. So there really isn't the same weight behind the equity argument at present.

If we look to the argument that suggests it might enhance political participation, the evidence doesn't really support the proposition that political participation by young people would be enhanced by such a measure. If we compare it to countries with voluntary voting—and I note that that's slightly different to Australia's circumstances—there are arguments to suggest that lowering the age will increase voter turnout, because the earlier in life one forms the habit of voting, taking an interest in the electoral process, the more likely it is that that habit will continue throughout life. But none of the voter turnout information from those other jurisdictions supports that proposition. A study of 324 national elections across 91 countries shows that, when everything is equal, turnout is reduced by almost two points every time the voting age is lowered by one year. So, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18: reduced turnout by five percentage points. That is supported by studies by Blais, Dobrzynska and Franklin—all of those analysed in Professor McAllister's report. All of that indicates that political participation would not be enhanced simply by a measure to reduce the voting age. In every jurisdiction where that proposition has been tested it has failed.

Of course, a turnout test is not a perfect analogue for the Australian system, because we have a system of compulsory voting. But we can model the effects of age on electoral participation by using a question that has been asked of young people: whether they would vote if it were voluntary. Again, those surveys demonstrate that the opportunity simply would not be seized by any significant proportion of young people. So we need to find other ways to make sure we are consistently and effectively engaging people in the democratic process from a young age so that they are ready to seize the opportunity to vote and to do so with enthusiasm when they reach the age of 18.

The government doesn't support lowering the age at which one begins to vote from 18 to 16, simply because the evidence does not support the idea that it would enhance participation by younger people. Given that 18 is the age at which a person is considered to be an adult in Australia and it's a legal age for the purposes I've already identified—but also the age at which one can conduct other matters of responsibility, like purchasing alcohol, engaging in gambling and becoming a company director—it is consistent to maintain the voting age at 18. When one enrols in the Australian Defence Forces at an age younger than 18 they can do it only subject to special conditions, and it must be approved by a parent or guardian, to reflect the fact that that person, despite the honour of their intention to serve their country, is still of a young age and is still developing maturity.

The same principle stands behind the requirement that one obtain permission to marry between the ages of 16 and 18. The same principle stands behind the limitation on criminal responsibility of young people until they reach the age of 18. They are not treated as adults before the courts until they reach that point. When aged under 18, a person has a limited ability to enter into contracts—and, in the narrow circumstances in which they can, they're afforded additional legal protections, because they have not yet reached the stage at which they are expected to have the maturity to take full responsibility for those decisions. The good news is that younger Australians do have some outstanding opportunities to engage with the political process and to participate in important national debates should they wish to. And they do have the opportunity to join political parties and political activity groups so that they can start to have their say in the process if that's their desire. For all of those reasons, the government maintains that 18 is the appropriate age at which a young person should gain the opportunity and the responsibility to vote in Australian elections.

There is a second component to the bill that is before this chamber. That is that the arrangements for the close of rolls should be changed to allow a person to update their enrolment or make their enrolment right up to and on the day of an election. The government supports the existing arrangements in place for the close of rolls. They close at 8 pm on the seventh day after the date of the issue of the writ. The suspension period between the close of rolls and polling day has been a really important part of Australian electoral law since federation, and that's for good reasons. It ensures the orderly and efficient conduct of elections. It ensures that there is accuracy, integrity and certainty in the electoral rolls produced for polling day. It minimises voter fraud by having a settled and verified roll in place in advance of polling day. Very importantly, given the volumes of people who poll on election day, it ensures that there aren't delays both at polling booths and in the declaration of results following election day.

Of course, technology has made it so much easier for voters to enrol or update their enrolment. There are information campaigns run by the AEC around election time to ensure there is an awareness of the responsibility to enrol, and internet-based means of enrolling and updating enrolments have made it much easier for citizens to discharge these responsibilities. The AEC has worked with ABC's triple j on the Rock Enrol campaigns to ensure that young voters are particularly targeted in the efforts to ensure enrolment occurs in the lead-up to elections. All of these are targeted measures designed to ensure that young people who have reached the age of 18 have a maximum presence when it comes to electoral processes.

Another reason that the government does not support the bill that is before the chamber is that it appears that none of the changes proposed by the bill have been costed. It does also appear that the implementation of the changes, and ensuring that there was public awareness of them, would impose additional burdens on the AEC that could be expected to have additional cost.

For all of those reasons, the bill that is before the chamber is not supported by the government. That said, the government remains steadfast in its support of young people's education in the importance of democratic processes and the making available of resources for teachers and citizens to be able to find out all they need about the democratic process. We remain extremely enthusiastic about the role that young people play in democracy from the moment at which they seize the right to be able to vote in elections at the age of 18.