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Thursday, 21 June 2018
Page: 73


Senator STEELE-JOHN (Western Australia) (16:31): I must say I am thrilled to speak to the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering Voting Age and Increasing Voter Participation) Bill 2018 this afternoon. For far too long, politics has failed to properly represent young people or the issues we care about. There are many within this place and beyond who think young people don't care about our world or haven't earned the right to participate in our society from a perceived lack of experience or maturity. There are those who do not or cannot look to the future and, for that reason, see young people as a threat. In fact, many in this place see the disengagement of my generation from politics as politically convenient, even ideal. Young people need some political capital. Young people need some leverage.

There are almost 600,000 of us who are, by and large, deemed to be adults by our society and yet cannot participate in the decisions being made about their future. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds can work full time, pay tax, contribute to superannuation, drive a car and own a car and therefore pay stamp duty to contribute to maintenance of our roads and public transport infrastructure. They can legally have sex and make medical decisions about their bodies. They can join our political parties, all except, of course, the absent Ms Hanson's party. In many cases, they can be treated as an adult by our criminal justice system. In short, they cannot vote although they are treated in many ways by our society as adults.

The rise of digital media means that my generation is plugged into the 24-hour news cycle and is taking part in actions and activism to shape their world. They care deeply about the issues and they care deeply about the future of all of us. They don't see politics as representative of them at this current time, but this is our problem as legislators, not theirs as citizens. In the last few years there has been a surge of young people making their voices heard about issues that matter to them. The marriage equality plebiscite and Justice for Elijah are just two key examples from the Australian context. From a global perspective, March For Our Lives and the Black Lives Matter movements have been led from the front by young people.

My generation will have to live with the consequences of the decisions made in this place for the longest time. The fact that I am the youngest person in this place by close to a decade, and that I am the only person under the age of 30, speaks volumes about the lack of representation of Australia's young people in our political system. It is time we recognised 16- and 17-year-olds and their contribution. It is time we recognised they should have the right to a vote and that they make an enormous contribution to our society.

This a matter of importance not just for my generation but for everyone in this place who has a child or has grandchildren and is concerned about the world they will inherit—the world that we are crafting here. Your children and grandchildren will live with the consequences of the decisions we make in this place. On some days, that is a rather terrifying thought. It is true in Australia that young people aged between 18 and 24 are more disengaged from politics than other demographics, but they are not alone in their feeling of disenfranchisement, their feeling of frustration and their feeling that this place and the governments that reside in it can, should and must do so much better. Imagine if your life and your future were being shaped by others and yet you had no say? Young people care deeply about issues and they care deeply about their future. It is politics that does not care about them. It is our political system that is letting them down.

It is not hard to understand why, when you consider that the average age of a politician in this place is over 51 and when you consider that there are only three of us under the age of 35, and yet that same age bracket, the under 35s, represent more than 40 per cent of the population. This is not genuine representation. It is little wonder that young people feel ignored and shut out. Yet, the old parties—the Liberal Party, the National Party, and, sadly, Shorten's Labor Party—spend most of their time squabbling over who can give the biggest tax cuts, trying to buy votes for the next election instead of implementing policies to create a positive, fair future for the next generation.

What this bill seeks to do is lower the voting age to 16 in Australia, whilst leaving the age of compulsory voting at 18. This will serve as a grace period for young people, allowing us to familiarise ourselves with our electoral process without the fear of being penalised. It will facilitate greater civics education and allow teachers to bring the democratic process, not partisan politics, into the classroom in a tangible way. It will foster a culture of civic participation among young people, leaving them in good stead for the rest of their lives, as we know that voting is, in fact, a habit. We want them to form this habit early, so that it stays with them.

To give the chamber an example, in Scotland during the independence referendum in 2014 a decision was made to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote and to participant for the first time. Almost 80 per cent of that age group turned out—and the cohort now continues to turn out—at much higher rates than their predecessors, who weren't given an earlier opportunity. In Austria, the 16- and 17-year-old demographic has a higher level of participation than the 18- to 25-year-old demographic, proving that this kind of reform works.

Finally, this bill seeks to update our archaic electoral practices that say you are not allowed to participate on election day if you have not updated your details on the electoral roll. It is 2018, and we should be flexible enough in our system to allow people to do so at a polling place on polling day.

It is time to lower the voting age to 16 in Australia and show our young people that we here in this place hear them, that we care about their opinions and that we are working for their future. I thank the chamber for its time.