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Thursday, 12 October 1972
Page: 1536


Senator GREENWOOD (VictoriaAttorneyGeneral) - The Senate is debating a Bill introduced by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Murphy) to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act to give the right to vote at 18 years of age. To that motion Senator Byrne has moved an amendment which, without detailing it in full, purports to express an opinion on behalf of the Senate that election to the House of Representatives should be under the system of proportional representation. At the outset I indicate that I oppose the second reading of the Bill for reasons which I propose to elaborate and which I trust will have some modicum of support within the Senate. I also oppose the amendment which has been moved. It is not that I disagree with what Senator Little has had to say because I think that the greater part if not the whole of what he had to say, except his conclusion, ought to command the support o£ anyone in this chamber who thinks about democracy and its meaning. But I disagree with Senator Little for a reason which he expressed in the course of his speech. He said that democracy had to be tempered in order to make it work. Reflection will indicate that democracy, in the sense in which it has meaning and is traditionally practised involves people. I should imagine that every person in a society which has to be governed has the right to determine how he shall be governed. But that is an impossible achievement.

Our system is really representative democracy. To make representative democracy work there has to be a limitation on the number of representatives. In this community it would be foolhardy to have a representative assembly which consisted of 100,000, 10,000 or 5,000 representatives because that would be unworkable. The number of representatives is a matter of judgment. When the number has to be limited the really important question is how to divide the persons who are to be representatives among those who have the obligation of electing the representatives. Broadly we can take 2 systems. There is a single member constituency which is the traditional one under which our parliamentary democracy in the Westminster tradition has developed or there is the system which has its origin more on the continent of Europe than in the United Kingdom of having a multi-member constituency. Proportional representation is the electoral system under which those representatives are selected. I believe that both are democratic and both are representative: yet both can lead to different results. I think it would be dangerous in the extreme to the workings of our democracy to have the same system prevailing in each House of the Parliament.

We did have a system different from proportional representation as the method of electing senators prior to the 1949 election and it produced some odious results. But we have had since 1949 a system under which there is in the Senate a genuinely representative assembly which one might say more accurately reflects the divisions of political opinion in the community than does the House of Representatives. I am quite sure that Senator Little will accord with that view because his Party, the Democratic Labor Party, is represented in the Senate whereas although the percentage of votes it gains at each election would normally entitle it to some representation in the House of Representatives if that chamber were a truly representative assembly, it has no representation there. For the reason I have indicated, namely, that democracy must be made to work, and because it would be foolhardy to have precisely the same system applying in both chambers, I believe that as we have proportional representation in the Senate, we should retain single member constituencies in the House of Representatives. Morever a single member constituency does enable a member to identify with a group of people - the people in his electorate. That provides for the contact which is so vital to the working out of the democratic system. Notwithstanding the goodwill which senators have to become identified with the electors in their States, and whilst it may be possible in the States with smaller populations like Tasmania and Western Australia, it is nigh impossible for senators from Victoria and New South Wales to have anything more than a fleeting chance from time to time of becoming identified with any significant section of their elector.Ctc

For those reasons, I feel that the case which the Democratic Labor Party has made in support of its amendment is not a case which will make our representative democracy work in the effective way that it must work to maintain its public acceptance. Proportional representation was for many years the system under which many parties were elected to the Assembly of the French Parliament. We know that that type of system brought down the French Government in the long run. The French have now devised a system which is serving them well but which does not leave proportional representation as the means by which many parties can be represented.


Senator Little - It is limited to proportional representation.


Senator GREENWOOD - The French have 2 elections to ensure that in each electorate there is one person who can be said to have received the majority of the votes at the election. I believe that the French experience is such that we can recognise the value of proportional representation but that we ought not to make it the only means by which a government is selected; otherwise we will have so much in the way of representation in the Parliament that the effective government which we expect from the Parliament will not be possible.

The major part of what I have to say is directed to the Bill which Senator Murphy has introduced. 1 feel that there are 2 substantial arguments, as I see the situation, to be raised against Senator Murphy's Bill. The first is the timing of the Bill and its impact on the forthcoming general election. The second is the more substantive question of whether the functioning of our democracy is to be served by the granting of the vote at this time and, for my part, in the immediately foreseeable future, to persons between 18 and 21 years of age. 1 shall deal first with the point of timing. As we know, a general election is to be held on 2nd December. Nominations are to close on, I think, 10th November. The electoral rolls will close, if my recollection of the Commonwealth Electoral Act serves me well, at some time prior to the closing of nominations. Therefore, if this Bill were to be passed by the Senate and by the House of Representatives we would have a most anomalous situation. We would have, presumably, the situation where some people between the ages of 18 and 21 years, if they were speedy in their actions, would have the right to vote at the election, but there would be no obligation upon every person between the ages of 18 and 21 years to enrol because the Electoral Act at present provides for a period of 3 months within which a person, after attaining the age of 21 years, may enrol before he commits the offence of failing to enrol.


Senator Jessop - There will be no rush to enrol in South Australia.


Senator GREENWOOD - I know of the figures for South Australia and I know they reveal whether the 18 to 20-year-olds are really enthusiastic about having the right to vote.


Senator Young - A tremendous amount of money has been spent on publicising the event at public expense.


Senator GREENWOOD - I am indebted to Senator Young, who comes from South Australia, for that information. If publicity has been given to inform people of their right to vote either it has had little impact or the people concerned are not attracted by the prospect. On the other hand, the legislation in South Australia has been operative for only the last 3 months. No doubt over a longer period the numbers will increase. But, as I recall the figures quoted by Senator Cotton when this Bill was last before the chamber and the ones 1 have seen elsewhere, approximately 9,000 out of a total of 55,000 eligible 18 to 20- year-olds in South Australia have enrolled for the purpose of voting in elections in that State. 1 was indicating that if the Bill were to become law the anomalous situation would exist - just because of the practicalities of the situation - where there would be conferred upon some people aged between 18 and 21 years a right to vote at the forthcoming general election. 1 believe that that is inconsistent with the general principle which underlines our electoral law. Our electoral law provides for compulsory voting. It is regarded as a duty on the part of every citizen to cast a vote as to who his or her representative shall be. It is a system which, of course, is not to be found in many other parts of the world. It is a distinctively Australian pattern. But I believe in compulsory voting because I believe the most important function in any democracy is for people to exercise the duty of determining which of the opposing parties they prefer as the party by which they should be governed, I think it makes, theoretically or philosophically, for a sounder base for our democratic system than any of the systems under which there is voluntary voting. 1 believe also that our compulsory voting system goes hand in hand with our preferential system. I could not accept that in a voluntary voting system one could have preferential voting. I think the whole justification of preferential voting would disappear.

Likewise, 1 accept for my part what Senator Little said about first past the post voting, which can result - particularly if there are a number of candidates standing for a seat - in a small proportion of the total electorate determining who the member shall be. In effective terms, if there were some 5 or 6 candidates standing, there could be a situation where the one who polled 21 per cent of the votes was the candidate who was elected. That would not be in accord with the general represen tative and democratic principle to which we subscribe. Therefore I believe, simply because of the timing of this Bill and the impact it would have on the forthcoming election, that it is undesirable that the Senate should give it a second reading. For it to be passed, as I have said, would mean that some people between 18 and 21 years of age would be able to vote and its passing would introduce, for that segment of the community, a voluntary principle which would run counter to the general compulsory principle which prevails throughout the Electoral Act.


Senator Georges - You are nol compelled to vote. You are compelled to go to the polling booth.


Senator GREENWOOD - 1 accept the distinction which Senator Georges makes except, of course, that when you go to ?he polling booth you have to receive a ballot paper. Unless you have your name crowed off the roll as having received a ballot paper you would be, as I believe the situation, committing the offence of not having voted. What the individual does wilh his ballot paper after he has received it is his right. If he is wise, he can vote for the Government Party. If he so chooses, he can vote for the Opposition Party. On the other hand, he can vote for the Australian Democratic Labor Party, the Country Parly, informally, or for one of the minor parties. But the essential point is that the obligation upon him is to take his ballot paper and have himself recorded as having gone to the poll and received the vole. Obviously, we have a performance which indicates that people, even though they may grumble about the necessity of having to do it from time to time, accept the obligation which is involved in voting because it is very seldom that less than about 91 per cent of the people in any electorate are recorded as voting. There are occasional cases when, for particular reasons, that figure is lower. But somewhere between 90 per cent and 98 per cent of all those eligible to vote at an election always vote.


Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - So you are in favour of compulsory voting.


Senator GREENWOOD - 1 am in favour of compulsory voting for reasons which 1 feel I have outlined and because I believe it makes our system of democracy more meaningful for the people who participate in it. I have suggested that from the timing aspect this is not an appropriate time to pass this measure. Indeed, I suggest that there is an element of political grandstanding involved in the presentation of the Bill at this time. My recollection is that it has been part of the policy of the Australian Labor Party for some time to grant the vote to persons between the ages of 18 years and 21 years. I seem to recall that about February or March of this year publicity was given to a decision by the Federal Executive of the Australian Labor Party that the question of whether the under 2 1 -year-olds should receive a vote would be tested in the High Court of Australia. Yet it was not until July of this year that those High Court proceedings were instituted.


Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - The law is very slow.


Senator GREENWOOD - I think we know the reason why the proceedings were not instituted until July.It is because the one State which had effectively passed a law upon which the prospect of a successful argument could be based had not brought its law for voting in that State into operation until 1st July. Accordingly, the Labor Party had to wait until 1st July before it could mount its litigation. The point I make is that the Labor Party, as the course which the High Court ultimately decided was appropriate for any change in the voting age, could have introduced this legislation at any time this year. Certainly, it could have introduced it in March of this year and I believe it could have introduced it at any time over the preceding 3 years. But it chose not to do so until 1 5th August. It chose not to bring the matter on for debate until, I think, 15th September. The date today is 1 2th October.


Senator Murphy - It is not possible to choose a date when you know that agreements arc made about when matters will come on in this chamber.


Senator GREENWOOD - I will accept that there were probably only 2 or 3 weeks in which it could have been brought on earlier and that these matters are determined by agreement. But we know that general business is a matter which can be raised in the Senate on Thursday evenings. Certainly, we have been talking about nothing else but this Electoral Bill for the last 2 general business evenings.


Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - We are not the government yet.


Senator GREENWOOD - No, and I, fortunately, echo what the honourable sentor has just said. The point I am making simply is that there is an element of politics in this subject of which I think we are all aware. I think that it is an element which entitles one to point out the politics of how this matter was raised. In short, the matter could have been discussed in a totally different atmosphere if it had been introduced at an earlier stage. 1 regard the argument against the 18 to 21-year-old voting as being of much more substantial character. We have in this country ever since Federation accepted that the right to vote at Federal elections is to be granted to those persons who are adults. The term adult' has been conclusively determined by the High Court to mean those persons of 21 years and over. An exception has been made in war time and currently for those persons who are under 21 years of age and rendering overseas military service. I think that the rationale of that exception to the general principle is well understood.

Because we have had a 21 -year-old franchise since the inception of the Commonwealth to my mind this imposes upon those who would change that franchise a heavy obligation of persuading the community and the Senate that the need for that change is a substantial one. I feel that it is very difficult for that persuasive case to be made. I understand that the reason why 21 years has been regarded as the age of adulthood is shrouded in mystery. Earlier this evening I heard Senator Murphy suggest that there might have been some mystical reason for 21 years being chosen as the age of adulthood because it represented 3 sevens. 1 do not know whether there is any basis in that. I would have accepted that the general view was that in times past when persons reached the age of 21 years they accepted, in regard to their private obligations and certain public obligations, the obligations of manhood; and so it has come through our history that 21 years is the ago of adulthood. But it is quite arbitrary, lt is arbitrary today to maintain that 21 years is the age of adulthood.

I would imagine that persuasive cases could be made out to support the thesis that the age of adulthood should be more than 21 years. There is no reason why it should be 21 years in preference to 30 years, 25 years or, as some would have, it, 18 years. I think that a strong argument can be made that because more people today are receiving educational benefits and therefore, are remaining at school or university for a longer period it takes much longer before they have adjusted, after they have left an atmosphere of formal education, to the problems and exigencies of life outside the institutionalised atmosphere.


Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Education is bad for them.


Senator GREENWOOD - lt is not that education is bad for them but that the atmosphere in which formal education is inculcated is one which does not equip persons to deal with the knocks of life. That is an argument which colleagues of Senator James McClelland have used in my hearing on many occasions in the past. If persons are not leaving universities or schools until 2 or 3 years later than they were leaving them 20 years ago, they are not becoming as well equipped until they are 22 or 23 years of age. I recall that when I was 21 or 22 years of age and still attending university, my colleagues with whom I had attended school were well established in whatever businesses or vocations they were, following. Some of them were married and some were in the process of buying their homes. Certainly, they were much more attuned to the needs of the world of which they were part than I was. Quite obviously, they were more mature than I was. I think that they were certainly better equipped to cope with life at that stage than I was.


Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I can recall a little unwisdom in my own mid-twenties.


Senator GREENWOOD - It is simply the passing of the years. I instance this only to suggest that the argument that the voting age should be lowered to 18 because there is an earlier maturing is not wholly the one way. I should have thought that an equally attractive argument could be made the other way. I instance these matters purely to emphasise the arbitrariness of the choice at which we make adulthood and the choice at which we make the voting age. Democracy predicates the equal rights of people who live in the democracy. Necessarily it excludes questions of worth, questions of intelligence, questions of greater or lesser education as standards or criteria upon which a person's rights in the community must depend. This is indicated by the fact that it is age and age alone which determines what the criterion for voting shall be. There are many people over the age of 21 years who in terms of comprehension of what our voting system is concerned with, and in terms of ability and intelligence to make the type of judgment that we would like to see people make at election time, are not equipped to make that sort of judgment.


Senator Willesee - Is that why we have been beaten?


Senator GREENWOOD - I imagine that one could raise an argument that if we were to have a different criterion on voting the results might be different, but that might not be the same sort of argument that I would use. The point I make is that we all know that there are persons who are entitled to the vote who either do not care about it or lack the amount of comprehension that we would like to see them bring to the casting of their vote. Nevertheless, the fact that they are 21 years of age entitles them to equal rights with other persons. I do not doubt that a number of people under the age of 21 have a comprehension which is as good as, if not better than, anyone in this chamber, who are fully seized of the obligations of voting and of the responsibilities of those for whom they are voting. They have an enhanced sense of what they are about. But on the other hand, there are many people under that age who have no such comprehension. Unless one is going to pick and choose on some standard, which I do not believe our society will accept, those who are entitled to the vote and those to whom the right to vote will be denied, I believe that we must continue with a criterion which is fixed, specific and arbitrary, that is, a voting age.

As to whether the voting age is to be 21, 20, 19, 18 or some age above 21 is largely to be answered on the basis of opinion and judgment as to maturity and responsibility to exercise and accept public and civil responsibilities. The law provides at present that 21 years is the age of adulthood for a variety of private purposes. To mention some examples, it is the age at which a person may marry. I should have thought that was probably as important a personal decision as any individual could make in his lifetime, yet that is fixed by law at 21 years. There are other age limits which are fixed in a variety of pieces of social legislation as determining the age at which a person may drive a motor car, the age at which he may drink in an hotel, the age at which under industrial law he can be regarded as an adult for the purpose of receiving adult wages, and so on. Under our social services legislation there are various types of differential benefits which are paid to people according to their age. All this indicates that we have a society which has a variety of ages for certain personal obligations and other age limits for different types of obligation.

I refer the Senate to one of the considered works on the age of majority, namely, the Report of the Committee on the Age of Majority, known as the Latey Committee, which reported in the United Kingdom in July 1967. That report was concerned with the age of majority but, significantly, the age of voting was excluded from that Committee's consideration. The majority of the Committee was in favour of reducing the age of majority; the minority desired to retain the age of 21 as the age of majority. The majority report of the Committee at paragraph 25 stated:

Whether the results of our deliberations would have consequences in the civil field has been the subject of considerable discussion, especially between ourselves and our 2 dissentient colleagues, who take the view that we have disregarded the wider constitutional and social consequences of reducing the age of capacity in the field of private civic law. They are mistaken.

We have to confess that it would not actually keep us awake at night if people under 21 were to serve on a jury - if, that is, one 18-year-old were liable to take his seat with II older people, since it is statistically unlikely to be more. And on the subject of voting we have carefully refused to express a view. But it does not seem to use that changes in the civic field are at all likely io follow changes in the private field even if we wished that they should. It is a very different thing to cope adequately with one's own personal and private affairs and to measure up to public and civic responsibilities. Not every sound taxpayer is equipped to be Prime Minister and in the United States of America the President must be over 35.

Much the same proposition was indicated in the recent decision of the High Court when this question of the interpretation of the Constitution and, in particular, the meaning of the word 'adult' was canvassed. The Chief Justice, Sir Garfield Barwick, said in the course of his judgment:

I turn to consider whether 'no adult person' in s. 41 should be construed as 'no mature person'. In the animal kingdom, maturity is a reference to physical maturity, that point of time beyond which there is no further physical growth. So it is in the plant kingdom. So in the precise use of language it is in relation to humans. I suspect that the physical growth of humans, at any rate of Australians, that is completion of skeletal formation and extension, is complete before the attainment of eighteen years of age. I cannot believe that the draftsmen of the Constitution in 1900 would have contemplated giving the franchise to males and females whose physical growth had reached its maximum, making that fact a criterion of the franchise. But physical maturity apart, the word 'mature' may possibly be used to express a person's suitability, to exercise a capacity in relation to some subject matter or in relation to some specified purpose or activity. For my part I would regard this as an inappropriate use of the word. It is used at times as an adjective descriptive or behaviour or outlook in contradistinction to adolescent or juvenile behaviour or attitudes. But even if thought to be a proper use, it does not follow that a person expressed to be mature in relation to some stated activity or in relation to some altitude or behaviour is mature in relation to all matters or activities or in relation to all purposes. A capacity to engage in contracts, to make a will, to borrow money or to drive a motor vehicle is quite disparate from a capacity to exercise a franchise. To decide to accord the on: is not to compel, or perhaps even persuade, a decision to accord the other.

He then referred to the passage in the Latey Report to which T have referred


Senator Jessop - Who said that?


Senator GREENWOOD - That was Sir Garfield Barwick in the High Court decision given recently in King v. Jones. I raise these matters because I feel, with respect to Senator Murphy that there, was a tendency running right through his speech in support of the Bill to suggest that maturity in some matters is a sufficient criterion to determine that a person has maturity and an appropriate qualification for him to be accorded the franchise. I feel that as a principle that does not follow. For that reason, that argument alone is not persuasive of the result for which Senator Murphy is contending.

Debate, interrupted.







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