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Thursday, 4 June 1970

Mr CONNOR (Cunningham) - I listened with great interest to the remarks of the Attorney-General (Mr Hughes). While this Government holds office the spirit of Fabius Cunctator - Fabius the delayer - will never die. By the inevitability of gradualness, sometime, somewhere, somehow we will ultimately get legislation in both of these fields; but in the meantime the question of section 41 of the Constitution seems to crop up like King Charles's head whenever there is a debate. I should like to quote the words of the AttorneyGeneral himself in this House on 21st November 1968, when he said:

In constitutional matters - I am speaking now of section 41 - the modern tendency, which I think is hallowed by authority, is to regard a written constitution as a living, organic document which is allowed, as it were, to some extent - albeit a limited extent - to grow with the times. Referring particularly to the use of the world 'adult' in section 41 of the Constitution I would venture very tentatively to suggest that it would be difficult today to deny to the word 'adult' appearing in section 41 a construction which would include 18-year-old people. After all, we allow them to drink, we allow them to drive. We make them do various things in the nature of duties that are consistent only with the concept that they are adult. If one adopts that interpretation of section 41 as a possible view - it is sufficient for my purpose to regard it only as a possible view - there is a strong argument for the Commonwealth leading in this field and leading now by giving the vote to 18-year-old people.

It is precisely the need for a direct and a positive national lead that we ask for it today, and that is precisely the reason why this legislation has been introduced. The Government has always had as its objective to draft into military service young men at the age of 20. The Opposition has as its paramount objective to draft into citizen rights and responsibilities young men and young women at the age of 18. Our objective has been written into our party platform for many years and we press it today and will continue to press it. It is only obstinacy on the part of the Government, or dilatoriness or sloth which is responsible for the delay.

This Bill deals with 2 distinct issues - the question of marriageable age and the question of a voting age. The age of marriage, the age of voting and the age of majority are all closely linked, but in the field of marriage Commonwealth legislation is paramount and no-one but the Commonwealth can legislate in that field and no-one but the Commonwealth can give the necessary lead. Everything else - the question of proprietary rights, the rights of inheritance and other matters that have been detailed by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) are ancillary to it and a positive and firm lead is necessary, particularly when there is a growing climate of public opinion in support of the long overdue change of the law. As a matter of fact, what we are asking for is this: That a legal anachronism, a feudal anachronism, some 900 years old should be removed for all time as a permanent insult to the young men and young women of this country.

If the right to marry and vote is conferred, of course the full right of contract and of proprietorship must follow. There will, of course, be the need for complementary State legislation, but it is only the Commonwealth Government which can give the lead on the question of marriage, and complementary State legislation would follow. The Commonwealth would still have the added responsibility, in respect of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, of providing for a similar civil code. About 52.000 young Australians now marry annually between the ages of 18 and 21. We give them the right to produce children and to accept the responsibilities of family maintenance. Are we to deny them the right of full citizenship? Are they to remain in civic limbo? Are they to reman infants at law and adults in procreation and economic responsibility? According to the latest available figures 43% of the brides and 50% of the bridegrooms last year were minors. At present 52% of our population is under the age of 30 and it is estimated that in 1976 at least 64% of the population will be under the age of 30. lt is necessary for us to expedite their entry into their civic heritage and responsibilities.

On the question of con form ty and the activities of other nations, may I remind the House that when this matter was last raised in 1968 there were then only 15 major countries which had reduced the voting age to 18. That figure has now increased to 24 and it includes the United Kingdom, West Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Rumania, Yugoslavia, the United Arab Republic, Canada, Brazil, Japan and parts of the United States of America. The Dominion of New Zealand has reduced the age to 20 years. There is a world movement amongst the English speaking countries, with the notable exception of Australia, towards reduction of the age of the franchise and the marriage age. Of course, we are the last in the field as usual, lt is worth noting also that in the colder countries, in what we might term the sub-frigid zone, there has been quite a uniformity of reduction in the voting age, and notoriously maturity reduces with proximity to the equator. It is a well known fact that young people in Australia mature even more quickly than those in the United Kingdom. Therefore it is worth while to consider the comment of the British Medical Association which, in a memorandum to the Latey Committee on the Age of Majority, said:

Oxer the past 100 years girls and boys have been maturing at a progressively earlier agc in England and several European countries.

Intellectual ability and maturity are also closely tied. Professor Tanner, who also made a submission to that Committee, said that in England the sexes complete their growth at the average age of I7J years for boys and I6J years for girls w th standard deviations of about 10 months and 13 months respectively. Why do we insist on the antiquated concept of full citizenship at the age of 21?

Suspension of Standing Orders

Motion (by Mr Snedden) - by leave - agreed to:

That so much of the Standing Orders be suspended as would prevent (a) the debate on the second reading of the Adulthood Bill 1970 being continued until 12.25 p.m.; and (b) the culling on of Government Business at that time.

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