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Thursday, 21 June 2018
Page: 85


Senator KETTER (QueenslandDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (17:50): I rise to speak in relation to Senator Steele-John's private member's bill, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering Voting Age and Increasing Voter Participation) Bill 2018. At the heart of this bill is a really important issue: participation in the democracy that is Australia's electoral system, and I'm grateful to Senator Steele-John for allowing me this opportunity to talk about the issue. Given the confusion that surrounded the views in terms of Senator Farrell's contribution, I want to make it very clear from the outset that the Labor position in respect of this bill is that we believe the appropriate course in order for it to be progressed is for it to be referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters—which you very ably chair, Madam Acting Deputy President Reynolds. That committee has done some very good work in recent times. It has addressed some of the topical issues of the day—issues of foreign donations and section 44 of the Constitution. A lot of Australians may not be aware that that particular committee operates in a very collaborative way most of the time on the very rarely partisan issues that are dealt with. In fact, there are very often bipartisan views on some very unexpected matters. So it is a well-functioning committee. It's a longstanding committee, and I think it is the committee that will do proper justice to this particular issue, because it is one that deserves additional consideration. Senator Steele-John might be aware that the sorts of issues he raises in this bill were taken by Labor to the last federal election. So, we were a bit disappointed to see this bill sitting on the Notice Paper from Monday to Thursday, allowing us only a very short period of time to debate its merits. And I do want to reiterate the point that I think this is a bill that should receive the appropriate scrutiny. It's our view that these issues should be properly considered by the committee.

When it comes to the Labor Party's position on this issue, historically we have had a very proud track record of advocating for the extension of the electoral franchise. And let's not forget that it was the Labor government in 2012 who introduced the automatic enrolment provisions, extending the right to vote to thousands of disenfranchised voters across the country. Prior to the last election the Labor Party announced a broad strategy to engage young Australians in the political system and to empower them to drive and to guide change. There are a couple of excerpts from those announcements that I think are worth citing. Firstly, the research by the Whitlam Institute showed that young people want to be involved in decision-making processes and should be offered opportunities to do so within existing political structures—I'll come back to that issue later on. We also highlighted the fact that encouraging their participation will encourage greater transparency and engagement, inspire short-term issues-based or community-centred action to improve longer-term decision-making processes, and value and acknowledge the contribution of young people through a process of accountability back to those young people.

We do know that young people are active participants in public life and active contributors to, amongst other things, the taxation system. According to the Australian census figures and taxation statistics, in 2012-13 over 17,000 Australians aged under 18 paid over $41 million in income tax alone. This does not take into account indirect taxes paid by young Australians—for example, the GST.

Our policy announcement also made reference to the fact that 16- and 17-year-olds are already permitted to engage in a range of adult activities, which have been canvassed previously. They can apply for the military from the age of 16 years and six months, to commence service at the age of 17; for a drivers licence from between 16 years and six months and 17, or 18 in the case of Victoria; for a private pilot licence from the age of 16 for balloons and gliders and 17 for other aircraft; and for a firearms licence at 14 years, although there is some variation across the states and territories. They can make independent decisions about medical matters and the decision to leave home at the age of 16. As we said back then, if 16- and 17-year-olds can be trusted to join the military, to drive on our roads and to live independently, they should also be trusted to directly participate in our representative democracy by having their say at the ballot box. We also said that directly involving 16- and 17-year-olds in our democracy is an opportunity to engage young people in an important conversation about civic responsibility and community values and expectations, and to help them become productive members of society. We believe that we owe it to all those 16- and 17-year-olds who work, pay tax, earn penalty rates, drive on our roads and use public services to give respectful consideration to this proposal, and we're happy to keep having that conversation.

While I'm talking about what some might consider to be anomalies, let's not forget that, under many of the industrial awards that apply to Australians—in retail, for example, and other industries—when you're 18 years of age and for all intents and purposes an adult under our system, you're getting 70 per cent of the rate of pay of a 21-year-old. There are some anomalies that I think many young people would want to see addressed. Thankfully there is an industrial campaign by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association to address that. If anybody would like more information about that, they can visit 100percentpay.com.au. As I said, the engagement of young people in the system enables those types of issues to be addressed. Young people can get involved in that campaign. Joining the SDA is another opportunity for people to show their support for that initiative. Because of the work of the SDA on the retail award, 20-year-olds now have the benefit of the 100 per cent rate of pay.

We believe that a number of issues about lowering the voting age need to be canvassed, and we undertook at the last election to consult with government, community leaders and young people across the country prior to recommending a change in the legislative provision. In that sense we are being consistent. We believe there is an important need for consultation and for stakeholders to be involved in this decision. It is our belief that this issue should be afforded appropriate attention, and therefore it's not adequate to simply debate legislation without a considered review process. For that reason we're not in a position to support it at this point, but as I said, we think it should be carefully considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

When thinking about the current bill, we have a number of issues which time doesn't permit me to go into, but I would have liked to have raised that the voluntary nature proposed in this bill for voting under the age of 18 has the potential to cause some confusion. I think the compulsory voting system we have in this country is a very worthwhile one. It has led to overwhelming engagement in the voting process, and I would be personally concerned if there were any steps to diminish that. I'm not suggesting Senator Steele-John has that motivation, but it is important that we maintain that compulsory voting system. I also had some concerns about the 'rock up and enrol' provision, and time doesn't permit me to speak further on that. I would have loved to have talked about the corresponding need for civics and citizenship education to be part of any conversation about changing the voting age.

I ask that the Senate support the referral of the bill to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters so that it receives the appropriate analysis. We would especially like to see the principles of engaging young people in the electoral system considered in conjunction with the work done in the inquiry into electoral education, an inquiry that you know that I'm very concerned about.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Reynolds ): It being 6 pm, debate is interrupted.