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Thursday, 4 June 1970

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Luchetti (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Order! The Minister and the Leader of the Opposition would do better to conduct their discussion through the Chair.

Mr HUGHES - I accept your rebuke, Mr Deputy Speaker, and 1 apologise for conducting a polite conversation with the Leader of the Opposition across the table. These occasions sometimes are thought to be so rare that other people might welcome them. But you, Sir, are in the Chair and I bow to your ruling. I would put this qualification upon what the Leader of the Opposit on said: The Victorian Government has made no hard and fast decision to reduce the voting age. One of Victoria's senior Ministers expressed a view during the course of the Victorian election campaign but he qualified that view by stating expressly that the implementation of that decision would, to bis mind, need to depend upon uniformity of approach.

Referring now to another State, Tasmania, it is quite plain that the Liberal Government, Mr Bethune's Government, is committed to reducing the voting age. [ have no doubt that the Leader of the Opposition was quite correct in forecasting that in South Australia, under the new Administration, legislation to reduce the voting age is likely to be introduced.

Mr Whitlam - Mr Hall promised it too.

Mr HUGHES - That is so. To sum up, the position would appear to be that in 3 States the respective governments are firmly committed to the proposition that the voting age should be reduced. There is no such commitment, as J understand the position at present, in 2 other Slates, namely Queensland and Western Australia. That is a factor which ought to be taken into account in deciding whether to give this Bill a second reading at this stage.

I want to mention if I may what steps have been taken since 1 took office to look into this question of the reduction of the age of majority not only for electoral purposes but for other purposes which are relevant to the Commonwealth's sphere of constitutional competence. Before the last meeting of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General it became borne in upon me that any reduction by legislation of the age of legal responsibility in any field of activity - for instance, the field of contractual activity or the field of proprietary rights - would give rise inevitably to pressures for similar action in other fields in which the Commonwealth Government has a vital interest, for example, the voting age, the operation of industrial awards with the consequential effect of such operation on the economy, and the age for marrying without parental consent.

The debate today is really a repetition of one that took place rather less than a year previous to my taking office. When J took office it seemed to me that it would bc desirable to examine in depth the implications, from the Commonwealth Government's viewpoint, of the moves which had been made and were being continued towards achieving an earlier age of legal responsibility. 1 look the view that this was a matter that ought to be looked at not only in detail but as a total picture, lt therefore appeared to mc to bc a good idea that an interdepartmental committee of Commonwealth officers should be established to examine the matter in depth and in detail. Accordingly, as a result of a recommendation which I made, which was agreed to by the Prime Minister, an interdepartmental committee was set up late last year. It consists of representatives of the Prime Minister's Department, the Treasury, the Department of Labour and National Service, the Department of the Interior and my own Department. That committee has mct and is at work.

Honourable members will, 1 am sure, perceive when they come to consider the problem in the broad that each one of the departments of state which 1 have mentioned has a degree of responsibility and a very vital administrative interest in relation to any proposal for lowering in any respect the age of legal majority. The Go vernment's view, therefore, is that the work of this interdepartmental committee should proceed so that in due course its findings and recommendations will bc available for consideration by the Cabinet. It is the Government's view that the Cabinet or the Government will be better able to reach a decision which, as I have mentioned and as I wish to emphasise, will have far reaching consequences not only politically but in the field of proprietary rights and contractual rights and in relation to marriage. The consequences will be so far reaching that the decisions to be made ought to be made on full consideration of all the best available material from the people who are expert in this field. So - and I emphasise this - the Government's opposition to a second reading for this Bill is nol Founded upon any spirit of Abstractiveness. It is founded rather upon a desire thai the fullest consideration of all facets of this very big problem should be given before a decision is finally made at Government level.

We must not overlook - this is a point that was adverted to in the 1968 debate - the implications of section 41 of the Commonwealth Constitution. That slates in substance that no adult who has a right to vote under the law of a State shall be deprived, having that right, of a vote in a Commonwealth election. This section raises a nice question as to the meaning of the word adult' in a document that has in .some measure to be construed in the light of the meaning of its language as understood by the people who framed it in 1901. However, there is a countervailing consideration to which ] referred when I made my speech in the debate on the second reading of the Leader of the Opposition's Bill in 1968, which is that when one is endeavouring to construe a written constitution one is permitted, consistent with the authorities to regard it as to some extent being ambulatory in relation to the meaning of its terms, lt is not easy to determine what is the meaning of the word 'adult' in this section of the Constitution. The difficulty of interpretation that arises would in turn give rise to very grave practical and administrative difficulties if we cannot achieve consistency and uniformity in the voting age on the level of all parliamentary elections in the Commonwealth.

The matters to which I have adverted are the main points I wish to make. I would emphasise that in considering whether a piece of legislation should go through at a particular time it is important to consider whether enough thought has been given to all the problems involved. It is also relevant to ask oneself whether the measure - and here I refer to the proposals in the Bill relating to marriage - is of urgency in the sense that authority to implement it at this time is likely to give rise to substantial or, indeed, any hardship. As far as I am aware, and so far as my inquiries have been able to carry me, the provisions of the Marriage Act which prevent marriage being contracted by people who are under the age of 18 years except with the consent of their parents or guardians or of the court are not causing any hardship.

The fact - if it be the fact, as I believe it is - that no hardship is being caused in individual cases is a point we ought to bear in mind in considering whether or not the House should give this Bill a passage without first looking at every ramification, so far as it is humanly possible to do so, of the problems which I have endeavoured to outline to the House. So I repeat, the Government opposes the Bill not in order to be obstructive but rather for the reason that a little more time in which to make up one's mind, one's collective mind, on a question of such importance as each of the questions raised in the Bill, would be better on a balance of all the considerations involved.

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