In response to suggested reforms in the recently released Green Paper Strengthening Australia’s democracy, Ken Wiltshire writes (in The Australian): “Does anyone seriously think that 16-year-olds have the maturity to vote on matters that will materially affect the nation?
While the premise posed only requires one person to say “yes” in order to be negated, that’s just the sort of simplistic smart-alec response you’d expect from a young critic like me. So let’s start with Wiltshire’s red herring response to his own question:
“Not the rest of the world, apparently, because in almost all countries the universal voting age is 18.”
This is fairly simple to dismiss, while he writes “almost all”, the implied “no one of significance” is simply untrue. Austria passed just such a law, lowering its voting age to 16, in mid 2007, following Brazil. Germany, Slovenia and Switzerland are all also currently experimenting with such a change. And while obviously not a bastion of democracy, even Ahmadinejad is seeking to return the Iranian voting age back to 15 years (it was raised to 18 in 2006).
Ultimately though, even if no other country had undertaken this reform, the case for lowering the age would remain exactly the same. Given that we’re the first (and only) country in the world to be borne of separate states that peacefully voted themselves into a greater Commonwealth, it would be a shame to suggest that we now become shadow seeking relativists when it comes to progressive democratic reform.
Given Wiltshire’s impressive biography, the next point is also surprisingly intellectually blasé. It’s the old “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” line which saw voting ages lowered around the world post World War II, except Wiltshire uses it for the anti-lowering side. A simple fact check shows Australians can join the army when they’re 17 and can go on some pretty intensive cadet training programs at the age of 16, provided they’ve completed grade 10 (Note that grade 10 is also the final year of compulsory education in Australia). Admittedly they’re prohibited from frontline deployment, but then, so are women and presumably Wiltshire isn’t also an anti-suffragette. The point is, you can commit yourself to defending Australia before you're 18.
So to Wiltshire’s meatier points; there is a possibility that such a reform could lead to wavering attempts at reducing long-established age restrictions on alcohol, pornography, gambling and similar vices. The key argument in this case being; “well I can vote can’t I?” But this is really just the logically fallacious “slippery slope” argument that you traditionally hear from people hesitant to actually speak their mind (usually heard on the issue of gay marriage): “Sure this might be in and of itself a noble action (read: I HATE IT) but my real concern is that it will eventually lead to “bad thing X” (pigs marrying goats, women marrying trees, people marrying people they love and so on).
Can you actually imagine anyone seriously hoping to be or remain elected by running on the platform of “More Porn and Texas Hold’em for 16-year-olds - vote 1 Jim Beam!”? (Despite the fact that even the most inept of teenagers could easily access all three anyway … and I know this to be true). The only supporters of such terrible legislation would be the respective industries of vice and - I’ll concede - some deviant proportion of the 16 to 18 cohort. However without getting overly Aristotelian, the virtue-less argument of stimulating the goonsack sector is simply incomparable to the virtuous expansion of Australia’s pool of electors. Besides, when did you last hear such causes advocated on the arguably far more legitimate grounds of “Well I pay tax don’t I?”
There is a concession to be made about the appropriateness of lowering the age within the context of compulsory voting. There’s little value in claiming that every young person is totally engaged, let alone aware, of how the Australian political process functions. Indeed, this is a point raised within the Green Paper itself (Section 4.42), which leans more towards a compromise reform (if there is even to be any reform) that involves optional voting up until the age of 18 as an incentive for in-class modules on electoral education.
Ignoring the possibility of optional voting, Wiltshire refuses to even entertain the notion that age reform might improve Australian civics courses (which seem to be generally accepted as a good thing, hence their inclusion in the newly proposed national curriculum), because - spot the circular argument - Australia’s current civics program “is so poor”. Wiltshire makes this observation before a loose comment about our inability to educate “even migrants” about the values of our democratic system.
Australians participate in elections at least every two years (varying between state, federal and local) so it’s somewhat pessimistic to assume that discussion about the process of an election at school (potentially encouraging such discussions into the lunch period) and then proceeding to vote, all in the same year, would in no way improve a young Australian’s holistic understanding of what elections are all about. Indeed, having in-class arguments about politics and then acting on those in-class discussions would arguably leave a far more meaningful imprint in the mind of any student on the value of contemporary social criticism and political theory than a scouring of 17th century British literature for obscure traces of feminist marxism.
Sure this is a demographic that might be more skewed on the political spectrum, but since when has the concern that “they might not vote like the rest of us so they shouldn’t get to vote” been a decisive point against democratic reform? The increasing disinterest and non-voting behaviour from younger voters (18-30 years) in Australian politics demands a radical rethink in our education of Australian democracy and this is a good place to start.
Those under 16 are not at an age of independence, either biologically, mentally or as defined by our current education system. But young adults over 16 years increasingly have work experience, get taxed, have sex, write and share more ideas, are better informed and are more savvy with technology than any previous generation. Wiltshire can bemoan our “throwing of young people in the deep end” all he likes but the days of shielding young teenagers from “adult realities” are over, I’m afraid the internet and television inevitably won that bout.
But the best reason for lowering the age barrier is that the senior years of high school are the best, and possibly the last, opportunity we have to sit future generations down, promote collaborative discussion on issues they feel are important; explain why every vote matters; why it’s worth filling out an enrolment form; and above all, and if they choose to do so, the value of walking down to the ballot box that weekend with their peers and participating in Australia's democracy. Why shouldn’t that be worth believing in?