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Thursday, 21 June 2018
Page: 3648

Senator FARRELL (South AustraliaDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (16:39): I rise to speak on this issue and to thank Senator Steele-John for the opportunity to speak to him earlier today about this bill, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering Voting Age and Increasing Voter Participation, Bill 2018, and his cooperation in some of the things that we are planning to do to advance the particular proposal that the Greens have brought forward to the chamber. I did indicate to Senator Steele-John that we did have some concerns about the way in which the legislation was introduced into the parliament only a few days ago. When we come to consider something as significant as this particular change, from the Labor Party's point of view, we would have preferred more time to consider the implications of the legislation. More particularly, we would have preferred—as you would know, Acting Deputy President Gallacher—to go through all of the appropriate party processes that are required to settle on a particular course of action within the Labor Party.

I'm pleased that, in having some discussions with Senator Steele-John, we've reached agreement that—and I think the government supports this position—the issues that are addressed in this bill should be given full and proper consideration by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. That is the appropriate committee, as it deals with these sorts of issues, and it's an opportunity for the committee to look at the proposals in finer detail, rather than for us to be required to vote on the issue after only having seen the bill a few days ago and without what I would consider to be more detailed consideration.

It's important to say that the Australian Labor Party has a proud history of advocating for the extension of the electoral franchise. It was the Labor government in 2012 who introduced automatic enrolment provisions, extending the right to vote to thousands of disenfranchised voters across the country. Similarly, 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 guide change. There are a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds who work, pay tax, earn penalty rates, drive on our roads and use public services. We owe it to them to give respectful consideration to this, and we're happy to have that conversation.

At the time of announcing the 2016 election policy, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Bill Shorten, committed that an incoming Labor government would consult on the issue appropriately prior to recommending a change in the legislative provisions. It is still our belief that this important and substantial issue, which carries with it significant implications, requires appropriate consultation. Therefore, it is not adequate to simply debate legislation without a considered review process. It is the Labor opposition's position that we strongly recommend that the issues canvassed in the Greens' bill be referred to the committee for review, specifically to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It's extremely important that we engage young Australians. It has probably never more important than it is right now, when we have a government that has declared war on young people. This bill has a number of facets that each deserve to be discussed, consulted on and investigated in a thorough way. It's for this purpose that we believe that the JSCEM committee is the appropriate one for the review.

Turning to the Greens bill itself, the bill seeks to do three main things: lower the voting age in Australia from 18, as it is currently, to 16; introduce voluntary voting for 16- and 17-year-olds; and introduce election day enrolment for all Australians. It also seeks to lower the enrolment age from 16 to 14. Each of those provisions potentially has significant implications for our electoral system, and, as such, should be considered carefully through an informed review process. Debating them here today at very short notice does not do justice to the importance of engaging with young Australians and, more broadly, the extension of the electoral franchise in this country.

We're here today to talk about the bill that the Greens have put forward, and there are a number of issues that I think we need to explore. The Future of Australian Governance stream at the Australia 2020 Summit called for optional enrolment to vote and voting to be introduced for Australians aged 16-18 years. The communique from the Australia 2020 Youth Summit in 2008 recommended:

To build a more participatory 2020, the age at which people are eligible to vote must be lowered to 16. Sixteen-year-olds work, pay income tax, pay GST, drive, and can join the army. They must be enfranchised so they can have a say in Government policies that affect them.

Those are some of the arguments that have been advanced in favour of lowering the voting age in some way. Others include: that youth have a substantial enough stake in the nation's governance to justify being given a voice in how the nation is governed; that 16- and 17-year-olds are sufficiently mature and sufficiently educated to vote; and that a reduced voting age could improve the relevance and, hence, effectiveness of existing civic education programs and lead to more political engagement and participation.

There have, of course, also been several arguments advanced against the idea of lowering the voting age. Those arguments include: that the public do not support lowering the voting age; that, internationally, very few countries have lowered the voting age beyond the age of 18; that youth may have insufficient maturity or life experience to vote; and that some young people show high levels of apathy about politics.

There are, of course, numerous ways in which Australia could seek to enfranchise youth. Various proposals and ideas exist, and no doubt there are aspects of other models that are worthy of investigation through an appropriate review of this bill. Some of those alternatives have included: compulsory voting to be extended to 16- or 17-year-olds; 16- or 17-year-olds be permitted to vote on a voluntary basis; voluntary enrolment for 16- and 17-year-olds, with voting to be compulsory for those who are enrolled; the right to vote at 16 or 17 be for those who are exercising or affected by other rights and responsibilities, such as joining the armed forces, working full time or paying tax; or different voting ages for different levels of government like in Germany and Italy, where the voting age is lower for local elections than for national elections.

I'd like to make some comments about the issue of voluntary voting. The idea of introducing an element of voluntary voting to Australia's electoral system is one that definitely needs to be very carefully considered. Even if voluntary voting were to only be made available to 16- and 17-year-olds, it would have the potential to significantly impact on our electoral system. The transition from voluntary voting as a 16- or 17-year-old to compulsory voting at 18 years of age has the potential to introduce confusion. We know that, even without lowering the voting age, there are a number of young Australians who, for various reasons, are not enrolled to vote. There are also a number who are enrolled but do not exercise their right to vote. To introduce a voluntary lead-in could exacerbate this. Again, the complexities of this particular aspect of what the Greens are proposing require serious consideration, which would be best achieved by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

There's also the issue of election day enrolment. That's another issue which I think needs some attention, as I've indicated to Senator Steele-John. One idea is enrolment on election day. As I mentioned earlier, Labor have a proud history of advocating for the extension of the electoral franchise, which is why we introduced automatic enrolment provisions in 2012. Election day enrolment in some US states and in Canada usually requires electors to provide a prescribed proof of identity document to the staff to establish their eligibility before being registered and allowed to vote. For example, in Minnesota, which introduced election day registration in 1973, eligible electors who have not registered by the close of registration, which is 21 days before the election day, are required to appear in person at the polling place for the precinct in which they reside, complete an application to register, make an oath in the prescribed form and provide proof of residence.

Arguments advanced in favour of election day enrolment in those places that use it have included increased voter turnout and reduced barriers to electoral participation. However, Australia's compulsory voting system means that we generally have higher voter turnout, and Labor's automatic enrolment forms have already significantly reduced barriers to electoral participation. Those arguments for election day enrolment are probably less relevant here in Australia. Arguments against election day enrolment in jurisdictions that allow it have concluded that it does not allow sufficient scrutiny of the voter's credentials, that it might allow people to cast multiple votes at different polling places and that a lack of voter interest and motivation are more significant barriers to participation than enrolment requirements.

In Australia, arguments against election day enrolment might include that one of the key benefits of the present system is that the qualifications of a person seeking to enrol are tested and verified in a structured way in advance of polling day. Election day enrolment would significantly impact on the efficiency of the polling process, with a greater number of voters having to fill out a greater number of forms at the polling booth. That complexity in determining a person's qualifications might make it necessary for some people to cast a declaration vote, which would have implications for the speed at which the election result could be finalised. Also, it could result in an overreliance on election day of electors enrolling or updating their enrolment details rather than updating their details when their address changes.

The resources that are required to facilitate election day enrolment must also be considered. Elections already require a huge nationwide deployment of significant resources at significant expense to the taxpayer. Introducing additional processes which will require additional resources and additional funding should not be contemplated without detailed research into the potential costs and other resourcing requirements.

Our parliament makes decisions that have incredibly important implications for the future of our nation, decisions that shape the future for all Australians. It is, of course, our young people who will live that future and so we have a great responsibility to carefully consider matters that will have an impact on young Australians as we deliberate on and debate policies in this place. Labor have always and will always seek to engage with young people on their hopes, dreams and visions for the future of Australia, because we understand it is their future. That's why it's important that we engage young people with democracy and encourage and empower them to understand that their voice counts too. We listen, but, sadly for young Australians, all too often their voices fall on deaf ears when it comes to the government in this country.

We've seen on a regular basis the appalling disconnect between the Turnbull government and young Australians. We've seen the $17 billion that Malcolm Turnbull is slashing from our schools—$17 billion denied to Australian schoolchildren just so Malcolm Turnbull can give his big business buddies and the banks a tax handout. Labor will restore every dollar of that $17 billion that Mr Turnbull has cut from schools. We will always put schools and services before banks. We've seen the Turnbull government's complete disregard for young Australians in its $2.2 billion cut to university funding. Everything that Malcolm Turnbull does makes it harder for Australians to go to university. These cuts mean that fees will go up, and they effectively cap the number of places. Malcolm Turnbull went to university for free to get his law degree but now thinks too many kids do law, and wants those that do to pay more for it. He will do anything to protect what he thinks should be an exclusive club for the rich. This government has also slashed about $3 billion in recent years from TAFE and apprenticeship funding. They're spending billions of dollars less on schools and university education, ensuring that fewer young Australians can go to university at a time when they're slashing billions from other forms of postsecondary education and vocational training. Labor understands the importance of educational opportunities for young Australians. That's why we'll conduct a national postsecondary school inquiry.

This government has presided over a penalty rate cut for hundreds of thousands of Australian workers, many of them young people trying to pay their way through university, which is only going to be more expensive thanks to the Liberal cuts. Millionaire Malcolm Turnbull thinks the answer to housing affordability issues—another matter that is particularly pressing for many young Australians—is for their parents to shell out and buy them a house. No doubt he can afford to do that, but most Australian parents can't, and most young Australians know that. That's the point at the heart of why Labor is and has always been acutely aware of how important it is that we engage with and represent young Australians. The alternative for young Australians is an arrogant, out-of-touch Liberal Prime Minister who is more interested in giving billions of dollars to big business and big banks than he is in helping young Australians get a quality education, find a good job and be able to afford a house.