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Thursday, 4 June 1970

Mr HUGHES (Berowra) (Attorney General) - -The Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) has raised for the second time in 19 months, the last time having been in November 1968, 2 questions which are of undoubted importance. I do not say for one minute that they do not deserve the attention of the House. He has with every justification reminded me of my recent past and has drawn the attention of the House to the fact that when I took part in the same sort of debate in November 1968 1 expressed a view which was favourable to the granting of a vote to people of 18 years of age. I suppose that this is not the first time in the history of the career of a person who occupies the office of Minister of the Crown that some spectre of his freewheeling past has come out of the fog to haunt him. I accept in completely good part, if I may say this, the quite agreeable and justifiable flick of the whip that my honourable and learned friend has given me today. As my friend, the Minister for the Navy (Mr Killen) reminds me, politics is in part the art of being flexible and of adjusting to changed circumstances.

Mr Whitlam - That does not mean you should wriggle.

Mr HUGHES - I shall not try to wriggle. I shall endeavour to explain to the House the Government's attitude to this present Bill. I say at once, speaking purely personally, that I see no reason to depart from the view 1 expressed in November 1968, but 1 hasten to say that my personal views on a measure such as this - it is a very important measure - ought to be subservient to another principle which I regard as a very important principle too. If one is a member of a government one must be prepared in particular circumstances to allow one's own views, which may have been expressed quite forthrightly in different circumstances, to be conditioned by the views of others. Government under the Cabinet system consists basically of a measured consensus. Let me say next, if I may, that the Government's attitude to this Bill, which J now express, is that it ought not to be given a second reading at this stage.

The Government's attitude is founded upon no deliberate decision that the Bill in either of its major respects ought to be opposed in terms of principle. Rather is the Government's attitude simply that the question of reducing the age at which marriage may be contracted without consent and the question of whether the age of eligibility to vote should be reduced are questions of great importance. Because of other questions that attend them and surround them, they ought to be decided only after the fullest investigation and consideration. While the Government for which I now speak has taken steps to investigate and to see considered these important questions and the attendant questions, to which I shall refer later, it has not yet considered or come to a decision on the question of principle involved. I think that the House will agree with me, that, whatever our political differences may be on a great number of issues, this Government in the 6 months since it attained office - I suppose it is now getting on for 7 months - has been a very busy government in the sense that it has put before the Parliament through the Cabinet mill a very large volume of legislation. That is one of the factors that has militated against the Government being able to give consideration to the important questions of principle that are involved in the Bill which has been presented by the Leader of the Opposition.

I think that in considering this measure it may be helpful to the House if I deal with it in historical perspective. The question of the reduction of the voting age, if I may take that part of the Bill first, was considered at a Premiers' Conference held in June 1968. At that Conference the then Premier of Tasmania, Mr Reece, raised for the consideration of his fellow Premiers and of the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) the question of whether the voting age should be reduced from 21 to 18 years. As a result of discussions at that Conference the question was referred to the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General. In the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General the question of the reduction of the voting age received consideration on 2 separate occasions.

The first occasion was in November 1968 at a meeting held in Perth at which the Standing Committee reached a consensual view that any reduction of the voting age ought to be approached on a uniform basis - that is, uniform as between the Commonwealth and each of the States. Then in December 1969 this question came up for consideration again at a meeting of the Standing Committee of AttorneysGeneral held in Adelaide. This was the first meeting that I attended in my present capacity. It was announced in the Press communique released at the end of the meeting that the Standing Committee had formed the opinion that legislation to effect a uniform - I think it is important to emphasise the word 'uniform' - reduction in the voting age would present no legal or constitutional problems.

However, the Standing Committee was of the view - and this view was recorded in the Press release from a copy of which I am reading - that the question of a reduction in the voting age was ultimately a matter of Government policy and not one to be decided by the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General. As one of the Ministers at that meeting who reached that concensus on this point, I now reiterate that view. I think that when one reflects upon the problem much difficulty will be avoided if those who are in favour of promoting legislation to reduce the voting age seek to achieve their objective by uniform Commonwealth-State action.

There are various considerations which predispose the Government - certainly myself, speaking for the Government - towards that view. Firstly there is the matter referred to by the Leader of the Opposition. Some States - I think 4 of the 6 States - have rolls of electors which are common for both Federal and State elections but 2 States do not have common rolls. Unless we are to have uniformity in the voting age throughout the Commonwealth for the purposes of both Commonwealth and State elections, I can see considerable confusion and great administrative difficulty in relation to the voting rolls. If a State which is now one of the 4 States using the common voting roll were to reduce the age of voting for the purposes of its State election, then the necessity would arise to compile a completely new roll for each electorate of the State concerned. That is one reason why we should endeavour to strive for uniformity.

I do not think the question of the reduction of the voting age ought to be looked at in isolation from other very serious questions which arise in relation to the reduction of the age of majority for other gur.poses. The report of the Committer on the Age of Majority - the Latey Committee - in the United Kingdom, which is a most impressive and illuminating document, did not touch on the question of whether the voting age ought to be reduced. There is one passage in that report which it may be useful to read to the House. The majority report referred at page 17 of the Command publication to the question of what was called the civic field - 'the question of jury service, whether 18-year-olds should serve on juries, and so forth. This part of the report states:

But it does not seem to us that changes in the civic field are at all likely to follow changes in the private field even if we wish that they should. It is a very different thing to cope adequately with one's 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 Suites of America the President must be over 35.

I do not want the House to think that I necessarily adopt those views as my own. My purpose in citing that excerpt from the report is to underline what I regard as the undoubted fact that this is an area on which views can genuinely differ and therefore an area in which, in the long term, the public could well be best served in a Federal Commonwealth if we first endeavour to travel along the path of uniformity.

My honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition referred today to the attitude of the some of the States to a proposal that the voting age should bc reduced from 21 to 18 years. I thought 1 heard him say that the 2 largest States had decided to reduce the voting agc to 18. 1 think that one qualification ought to be put on that statement. Certainly in New South Wales Mr Askin's Government, following receipt and consideration of the report of the Law Reform Commission of that State on the age of legal majority, took ils own decision to reduce the voting age. lt is the fact, however that so far no legislation has yet Come forward. [ have no doubt we may anticipate that legisltaion will be forthcoming. That is a factor which must be taken into account, of course, by the Commonwealth Government, I had not understood that there had been a firm decision by the Victorian Government.

Mr Whitlam - Sir Henry Bolte put it in h's policy speech.

Mr HUGHES - 1 may be in error on this point and I do not want to assert it positively in contradiction to what the Leader of the Opposition has said. May I put very tentatively a possible qualification upon what he sa;d. I have taken steps to check, not out of any disrespect to my friend but because J wanted to find out whether this information, which took me slightly by surprise, was correct. In the time I have had to make inquiries I have been told that Sir Arthur Rylah said during the election campaign that his Party would reduce the State voting age to 18 but that it would not move independently of the Commonwealth. 1 think that is the true position.

Mr Whitlam - I do not remember. I thought Sir Henry put it in his policy speech.

Mr HUGHES - I am bound to say - this bears upon the topic generally - that in Victoria the age for voting in municipal elections has been reduced to 18.

Mr Whitlam - That has already been done.

Mr HUGHES - Yes, that has already happened.

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