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Thursday, 21 June 2018
Page: 82


Senator HUME (Victoria) (17:30): I rise today to speak on the bill introduced to this place by our parliamentary colleague from WA, Senator Steele-John. Senator Steele-John's bill, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering Voting Age and Increasing Voter Participation) Bill 2018, proposes a suite of very well-meaning but misguided measures. Senator Steele-John seeks first to lower the minimum age of a voter in Australian federal elections and referenda from 18 to 16 years of age. However, the bill maintains the minimum age of compulsory voting and eligibility to stand as a federal parliamentarian at 18 years of age.

I am genuinely heartened to know that Senator Steele-John as our youngest senator understands the importance of engaging young people in the political process. I too share his passion for nurturing young people who are politically minded. I too recognise that we in parliament ignore young people at our peril. That does not, however, mean that we need to lower the compulsory voting age.

Senator Steele-John is turning 24 this year, am I right?—

Senator Steele-John interjecting

Senator HUME: I understand that he is far closer to the eligible voting age that he is proposing than I am—no matter what I look like! Nevertheless, I would put to Senator Steele-John that, despite being nearly double his age, my rickety old 47-year-old self probably has far more exposure in my everyday life to the lives, the hopes, the dreams and the fears of 16-year-olds than Senator Steele-John does, because my life revolves around a 16-year-old.

I would like to at least verbally introduce the chamber to my eldest son, Harry, who is 16 years old. If Senator Steele-John has his way, my Harry will be given the right to vote. Harry is a terrific kid and I am very, very proud of him. If props were allowed in the Senate chamber I would be showing you photographs right now from when he was a baby right through to the age of 16. He was a beautiful, happy and easygoing baby. He was a charming and gentle toddler. He was a very enthusiastic and popular child. Now he is a teenager and adolescence is a role to which he has taken like a duck to water. While he's not eating he is, in fact, just staring into the fridge. He has a life within his telephone that I could not ever possibly fully understand. He has a cupboard full of clothes and yet he wears the same thing every single day, and most of the time it involves a pair of sports shorts even when it's practically snowing outside. He is no longer the chatterbox of his childhood. In fact, 16-year-old Harry is the master of the monosyllable, although sometimes on a good day I do get a full sentence.

I'm sounding very harsh on him, but I'm actually a very, very proud mother and I'm very proud of the man that he is growing into. Harry is a hero to his younger brother and his younger sister. He has an innate kindness and gentleness that shines through him when he is with his two young nephews. He is clearly aware of his emerging responsibility and his strength, and that is fully evident when he is with his grandparents, who love him fiercely and unconditionally. He is a keen and talented sportsman, whether it be rowing, football or tennis. He is lithe and graceful whether he is on the water or on the field. He is also an artist. He is quite the athlete and a perfectionist. He has an eye for detail and a rare sense of perspective for someone so young. He is popular and he has a lovely group of friends, which increasingly seems to include very attractive, happy and confident girls—I'm not sure how I feel about that just yet! It's understandable though, and I do speak with a mother's bias, because he is emerging from those gormless and awkward years of puberty as a very handsome young man—although, I'd just love him to cut his hair! For a 16-year-old he has a terrific sense of humour, and even as recently as a week ago he had me laughing so hard that tears were rolling down my face.

He is doing very well at school. He's not a naturally studious kid—I'll put that out there. Most of the time he has to be dragged kicking and screaming to his homework, but he's naturally curious and sometimes piercingly insightful. He's regularly stubbornly opinionated, most often about issues he knows very little about or that he's learnt about from Instagram or YouTube.

Harry studies politics at high school. It's a comprehensive course and it includes many facets of Australian and global politics. He's currently studying ideas, actors and power in politics. I did actually speak to his politics teacher this morning to find out exactly what it was that he was engaging in right now. So he has been introduced to the political spectrum—the Left and the Right—the radical views of all sides; political systems, including Liberal democracy, socialism, fascism, authoritarianism and theocracy; and the characteristics of the Australian political system. He is currently investigating a case study of a non-democratic system to compare and contrast the ways that political systems operate, to develop a much deeper understanding of the Australian democracy in a global setting. This is truly preparing Harry for his voting life. It's giving him a deep understanding of our systems and politics at play.

Despite being a wonderful young person with his own unique perspectives and opinions, despite learning about our political system, our democracy and its alternatives, despite being brought up in a house where politics is part of life and the inevitable topic of conversation, and despite having a mother who is a politician herself, Harry is not ready to vote. At 16 years old there are still so many aspects of life that he is yet to experience and so many that he's simply not ready for. Either by the laws of our land or as a matter of simple maturity and judgement, there are so many parts of adult life that a 16-year-old cannot do. A 16-year-old is not ready to marry. He's not ready to serve in the military. He's not ready for unvetted access to alcohol, although he gives it a good crack occasionally, I think. He's not ready for unvetted access to gambling. He's not ready for a credit card. He's not ready to sign a contract. He's not ready for a full driver's licence. He's not ready to enter licensed venues. He's not ready to donate blood without permission. He's not ready to rent a house. He's not ready to purchase a house. He's not ready to get a tattoo or a piercing. He's not ready to go skydiving. He's not ready to even buy a pet. He's not ready for jury duty. The list could go on and on and on. However, just because young people are not ready to vote or are not able to vote, that does not for one second mean that young people are not well represented in this place, because young people are represented. They're represented here every single day.

As every member of parliament will attest, just because I don't look like you or I don't live your life experience every day does not mean I cannot do my utmost to walk a mile in your shoes and represent your interests. At least everyone in this place can say they were 16 years old once. Moreover, what more could these people under 18 want from having a vote in this place that they haven't already got? What voice do they not already have? If it's climate change that they're passionate about, as Senator Rice attested, there are certainly members of this place that are there ready for them. If it's STEM and technology that they're interested in, again, there are members in this place that are there fighting for those interests already. If it is tax relief for those who need it the most that they are most interested in—I'd be surprised if that was their foremost interest, but if that was it—I can assure them that there are many members on this side of the chamber that are very keen to see that happen. We're happy to voice that opinion for them. Just because you're 16 or 17 years of age, it does not mean you don't have a voice; it just means you're not quite ready to vote.

This is not a new debate. A 2012 report entitled The politics of lowering the voting age in Australia: evaluating the evidencehas already been cited in this chamber this evening. The findings in the report suggest:

… that there is only partial support for lowering the voting age in order to bring it into line with other government-regulated activities.

That report said:

There is no evidence that lowering the voting age would increase political participation; indeed, the evidence points in the opposite direction. And despite the rapid expansion of university education, young people—

apparently—

are no more politically knowledgeable today than they were in the past.

The arguments for lowering the voting age simply don't stack up to empirical scrutiny.

So will allowing 16- or 17-year-olds a vote enhance political participation? There is an argument to suggest that in those countries that have voluntary voting, lowering the voting age will increase the voter turnout, that it establishes a habit of a lifetime and that the habit will be more likely to create an interest that will continue throughout their lives. Particularly as voter turnout has declined across all established democracies, one way of arresting that decline might be to introduce a lower voting age. However, that argument also does not stack up. It is simply not supported by the evidence. Many have shown, in fact, that turnout increases with age, so, all other things being equal, turnout should be higher if the minimum voting age is in fact 21.

It's interesting that Senator Rice referred before to the postal plebiscite and how we had an extraordinary turnout of young people in the postal plebiscite last year. That is absolutely true. It was a terrific voter turnout. However, what Senator Rice failed to mention is that the voter turnout in this non-compulsory plebiscite was in fact much higher for people over the age of 40 than it was for the people between the ages of 18 and 30. So that argument simply does not stack up. It's terrific to have more young voters on our roll. It's terrific to have more young voters participating in our democracy. But I don't think that it is going to establish a voter pattern of a lifetime.

In studies of national elections across 91 countries it was found that, everything else being equal, turnout is in fact reduced by almost two points when the voting age is lowered by one year. That potentially would suggest lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 reduces turnout by around five percentage points, so the argument simply does not wash.

Furthermore, the Australian public is strongly opposed to lowering the voting age. In 2010 an Australian election study found that a whopping 94 per cent of respondents were opposed to any change to the age of voting eligibility and 72 per cent said the age should definitely stay at 18. If anything, the Australian public opinion is emphatically opposed to lowering the age that is found elsewhere. In fact, overall, just six per cent of the electorate favoured any change at all. In keeping with public sentiment, in 2007 the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters rejected the proposal to lower the voting age. This is not a new debate. We've had this debate before.

It made perfect sense back in 1974 to change the eligible voting age to 18. When that change was made 43 years ago, it was bipartisan in nature and, on the matter of the principle of the legislation, both sides agreed. By lowering the age requirement from 21 to 18, the voting age became aligned with the age at which one becomes an adult in the eyes of the courts and the law. It is also the age at which we allow Australians to engage in other activities which require physical, emotional and intellectual development. We trust people at the age of 18 to be mature enough to get married. We allow them to engage in potentially dangerous activities like drinking and gambling. Even the brightest of young Australians cannot be a company director until they are the age of 18. In general, the Australian law recognises that individuals 18 and over have full legal capacity.

Under 18, people are generally considered minors and restricted in their autonomy and decision-making. For example, they can't serve in the Australian Defence Force if they are under the age of 18, subject to very special conditions, and potentially any participation must be approved in writing by parents or legal guardians. Those under the age of 18 attending school excursions or programs must receive written consent by parents or legal guardians. At one stage today, when I was talking to Harry's politics teacher, I said that maybe I could mention a couple of other kids in the class, but, no, I couldn't do that. I can't even mention the name of a child under the age of 18 in the Senate chamber to put on the Hansard transcript without the parents' permission. These kids are minors; it's important to remember that.

Just because those under 18 are not able to vote does not mean we don't want them politically engaged, and there are of opportunities to do so. Of course, the best example of that is the Liberal Party!

An incident having occurred in the gallery—

Senator HUME: Why do I hear laughter! When the Liberal Party was founded by Sir Robert Menzies in 1944, the role of the Young Liberal Movement was so important. It was a key priority and a pillar of the party's formation. I'm not talking about shrill student protests or activism on university campuses but about meaningful policy contributions flowing to the most senior ranks of the party. Young voices can, in the right party, be taken very seriously.

Outside of the party system there are other fora too. In my home state of Victoria, opportunities for youth political engagement abound. One example is the brilliant Victorian Youth Parliament, where every year over 150 young people aged between 16 and 25 from metropolitan areas, the suburbs, and regional and rural Victoria all come together for a week to debate the issues that are important to them in the houses of parliament of Victoria. The Youth Parliament doesn't stop at debate; participants gain an understanding of political history, why we have the systems that we have and what democracy is.

Another, more global, example is the UN youth summit program. In fact, UN Youth Australia is one of Australia's largest youth-led organisations. There is the National Schools Constitutional Convention and the National Student Leadership Forum on Faith and Values, which is now in its 22nd year. If a person below the age of 18 is seeking political engagement—the opportunity to be heard, to meet like minds and to test their arguments—there are fora such as these where they can do just that. When young participants do cast their vote for the first time at the ballot box, they can do so knowing that their opinions have been tested.

I do briefly want to draw the chamber's attention to the issues that are addressed in schedule 2 of the bill before us, which provides that Australians who are eligible to vote but who are not yet on the electoral roll or are not enrolled at their correct address can enrol to vote or update their address at a polling centre on election day, or at an early voting centre, and will be deemed to be enrolled at that address and eligible to cast a provisional vote at that time. This suggestion demonstrates a genuine absence of understanding of the administrative and logistical difficulties that are attendant on conducting an election. Our staff at the Australian Electoral Commission have a mammoth task in organising and administering an election in itself, as well as in reconciling the voting records after votes are cast. Perhaps it is Senator Steele-John's youthful enthusiasm—or perhaps it is simply his party affiliation—that renders him unencumbered by the practical concerns of government. However—

Senator Steele-John: Ooh!

Senator HUME: Ooh-hoo! Did you like that? However, it is no small task to add voters to the electoral roll, for it involves cross-checking many layers of data across multiple agencies. Enrolment currently is not done in real time because of the associated administrative burden. The administrative costs and the inconvenience to other voters already waiting in very, very long lines to fulfil their democratic duty would be simply too great. Enrolling even a small number of voters on election day, the best-case scenario for the AEC under Senator Steele-John's proposition, would place a completely unnecessary administrative and fiscal burden on the Australian Electoral Commission and other government agencies.

In the couple of minutes I have left, I would like to return to one of the most precious things in my life, my 16-year-old son, Harry, the master of the monosyllable. Despite a very worthwhile discussion, Senator Steele-John, for which I am very grateful and thank you sincerely, I do think that the chamber will eventually agree that my Harry, darling Harry, should not be allowed to vote. But I don't think Harry and his peers should be concerned with that outcome, because his voice and the voices of his generation, their needs and their futures are foremost in the minds of everybody here. I believe that what young Australians need most is not the eligibility to vote from a younger age but a robust economy; a sense that their efforts will be rewarded; and a prosperous, hopeful, peaceful and safe country. I think these are the priorities for our 16- and 17-year-olds—not whether they can vote but what we can do to help them, the next generation. And I believe that that is what the Turnbull government is indeed delivering.

Madam Deputy President, and Senator Steele-John, there are 76 people in this place and 150 in the other place who, while they may very well disagree about the path, want Harry and his generation's future to be as bright as humanly possible. They want to give them every opportunity to thrive, to grow, to flourish and to succeed. Sixteen-year-olds don't need a vote. What they need most of all is responsible parliamentarians with sound minds, courageous spirits—as is yours, Senator Steele-John—and good hearts to pave that path for them.