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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters

DRUM, Dr Martin, Private capacity

MURRAY, Professor Sarah, Private capacity

Committee met at 11:05

ACTING CHAIR ( Mr Morton ): I declare open this public hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for its inquiry into the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering Voting Age and Increasing Voter Participation) Bill 2018. Although the committee does not require you to provide evidence under oath, I wish to advise that this is a formal proceeding of the parliament. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. These are public proceedings, although the committee will consider a request to have evidence heard in private session. If you object to answering a question you should state the grounds of that objection, and the committee will consider the matter. I now invite you to make an opening statement. The committee will then proceed to questions. We have copies of your submission.

Dr Drum : Firstly, this bill does two things. It seeks to lower the voting age to 16 and it also has other measures targeting political participation. I'm going to speak primarily to the first of those intentions around lowering the voting age to 16. Like many, I'm in favour of lowering the voting age to 16. Our democratic culture in Australia over the last 100 years has tended to favour a more inclusive and broader democratic franchise. On the whole, we have one of the broader franchises in Western liberal democracies. The idea behind this is that a democratic outcome is more representative of the people if a greater number of people are involved in participating in it. With that in mind, we were one of the first countries to allow women to vote. We finally, belatedly, allowed Indigenous people to vote and, on the whole, our franchise has broadened since that time.

Sixteen and 17-year-olds make a broad and deep contribution to our community and society, and many of those have been discussed already through the submission phase, but it's worth reminding that a 16 or 17-year-old can have a job, be a parent, join our defence forces, get married and still can't vote. We even allow prisoners serving prison terms of under three years to vote but not a 16 or 17-year-old. We also know through evidence that young people are politically and socially aware in lots of different ways. Some people have talked about activism on the part of 16 and 17-year-olds. That is an important component but it's not the only component. Many of our 16 and 17-year-olds volunteer in large numbers in all manner of community service organisations. Service learning is an important component in many schools both here in Western Australia and nationally. So young people make a broad and deep contribution to our voting our community both in the taxes they pay and in the voluntary contribution they make. I can also talk from personal experience not only from the schools that I have gone and taught in but also because I am in the business of teaching young people generally, and they are certainly politically and socially aware. They have a broad variety of political opinions and they're not afraid to express them. They are my opening remarks.

Prof. Murray : Like Martin, I would also argue that there is much to support increasing youth involvement in the electoral process. I don't see any constitutional or legal obstacles with the bill as it set out. I would also support the operation of the bill in allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to self select as voters. There is considerable, particularly political science, research to suggest the sort of heterogeneous nature of 16 and 17-year-olds. This was certainly something that was raised in many of the submissions before the committee, that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds the choice of whether they wish to vote is not likely to affect the penetration of compulsory voting. I really think those concerns are overplayed in terms of what it might do to 18 or 19-year-old voters down the track. Seeing 16 and 17-year-olds voting, almost as part of a voter training period, makes some sense. And certainly this was supported back in 2007 with the ACT inquiry into allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote and allowing it to be on a voluntary basis.

Interestingly, although this was not run by the Electoral Commission but also considering the relevance of the recent same sex marriage survey, which itself was an optional an optional survey, officially not a plebiscite and was run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we saw there was a real increase in the 18 and 19-year-old vote from what you would typically see in a standard election. The statistics that I could see were that, of 18 and 19-year-olds, 78 per cent elected to express their view in that survey, while in the last federal election it was only 66 per cent of 18 and 19-year-olds who voted. That showed that, even the fact that voting is not always compulsory, as we will see here—we're looking at 16 17-year-olds—it's not necessarily something that would significantly reduce the youth vote.

Also, it's interesting to consider the Scottish and Austrian experiences, which found that youth are actually much more likely to engage at a younger age with the voting process. In Scotland, when they temporarily allowed 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in 2014 with the independence referendum, there was actually a 75 per cent turnout amongst 16 and 17-year-olds as opposed to only a 54 per cent turnout with the 18 to 24-year-old cohort, which is quite interesting and does suggest that there's something about getting people early which is beneficial. And research also suggests that an early experience of voting can also be beneficial in creating a sort of a habit of voting which is also relevant.

I also want to just briefly comment on the aspect of the bill which touches on increasing voter participation through allowing polling day enrolment. I do think that this might need further consideration in terms of the resource impact it could have, particularly on the Australian Electoral Commission and particularly if this is to be introduced as it is in the bill alongside lowering the voting age. Practically, this bill is unlikely to be passed before the next federal election and what that gives us is the possibility to look at a significant community education campaign such that 16 and 17-year-olds, if the bill is passed, are then encouraged to enrol early and not on polling day to use this as an education campaign both for letting 16 and 17-year-olds know about the change but also to reduce the potential for delay and enrolment clumping at polling booths. In New South Wales and Victoria, there was a 2012 direct enrolment report which really outlined the considerable resource-intensive nature of allowing election day enrolment at polling places. So if we could diffuse that through stopping it being everyone's going to vote, everyone's going to rock up to enrol and vote on polling day then that could be beneficial. And that's also relevant if we're also looking at this coming into play before the next time a referendum is going to be held.

Finally it's beneficial to think about civic education more broadly if this measure is passed, particularly about what deep learning for electoral literacy might look like, which isn't just kind of a chalk-and-talk style education in schools. Martin has already mentioned the importance of civic activities and skills training, which really give young people an experience of voting whether that be through school elections, youth parliaments and other such activities.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Thank you for your presentations. It is wonderful to have your contribution to this inquiry. Associate Professor Murray, I just want to go to your last point there because it's really key around civics education. There's been a lot of research in the States, particularly by the University of Chicago, which pointed to the real need to solve the civics education issue by actually having civic education conducted in a tangible atmosphere, meaning that you can't really crack civics education problems unless you are actually educating in a situation in which the student is going to be participating in something tangible. First of all, are you aware of that research and do you think the same thing applies here in Australia?

Prof. Murray : Yes, and that is certainly the research that I uncovered in thinking about these issues. It makes tremendous sense in my experience as an educator. I teach constitutional law to students and it's something that a lot of students find very hard to grasp. The more that you can get them involved and understanding and participating, the more you see the lights go on. There's research by Tony Porter and Lopez and others which really looks at this idea of knowledge skills and disposition all being relevant to a deep learning about civic education, and I think that's beneficial.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: In that sense then, we are looking at a situation where the lowering of the voting age goes hand-in-hand with civic education as civics education goes hand-in-hand with the lowering of voting age, not a situation where we would need to first invest in civics education and then lower the voting age—if you know what I mean.

Prof. Murray : That's correct. Yes, I agree with you.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: All right wonderful. Both of you, feel free to contribute to what I've described a couple of times as a kind of Gordian knot of this inquiry. We've got a new consensus of at least myself and the chair around the need to lower the voting age. The question is now around the compulsory or non-compulsory nature. Would you be able to expand a little bit more on why you would support the non-compulsory approach, both as a research and an educator?

Dr Drum : I'm certainly in favour of lowering the voting age but making it non-compulsory. There's a number of reasons for that. There is some variance and there's research that shows that, psychologically, people mature at different ages, and some people are more likely to be interested in politics and vote below 18 more so than others. We need to recognise that and facilitate our voting system to accommodate that. So that's the first point.

Mr MORTON: Is that an intelligence test or something, is it?

Dr Drum : It's not so much about intelligence; it is more about maturity than intelligence. People mature at different ages. You see this all the time in schools. It's more marked at the front end probably of primary age schools but its still there; it's even there into adulthood. We actually have a system already, a regulatory approach to people's behaviour that we allow them to participate more as they get older. If you think about a driver's licence, you hand out a driver licence but there's no regulation about what you can effectively do with that driver's licence as time goes on, and that's freed up as you get closer to 18. So it's not an unusual scenario for people of this demographic that they're dealing with on a day-to-day basis. I think this idea that our construct of compulsory voting is undermined completely by allowing voluntary voting for 16- and 17-year-olds is a bit overblown.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Professor Murray, the figures you were quoting from Scotland, Austria, et cetera, seem to suggest that, of the evidence that exists, when the ability to vote is given to this demographic they consistently vote at a higher level than both the 18-and-above level and our 18-to-25 cohort currently do under the compulsory system. Is that a correct interpretation of the data?

Prof. Murray : I can't comment on the last point—not that I disagree with it; I just don't have enough data to suggest that. But, yes, I do think that there is a lot of support for this idea that, whether you're in school or you've got the support of your family or you haven't moved out of home necessarily, you're in a position where your life is potentially more stable—and this is going to vary; I'm not saying that there are a lot of 25-year-olds who are still living at home! I do think that you're more in a position to engage with the voting process. But I think, also, that you're in an environment where—as you mentioned earlier, this idea of civics education going hand-in-hand. Being able to vote at the same time as participating and learning and being surrounded by this, as something that you do as a citizen—that is a very good time to do it, and to get students when most people are in school or are in a position in life where they're able to engage with that.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Just to clarify: you did quote a 66 per cent voting rate for the last federal election in that demographic?

Prof. Murray : Yes; that's right. I could see in the data—and I don't know if Dr Drum would contest this—that it looked like about 66 per cent of 18- and 19-year-olds had voted. Interestingly, we saw a huge increase in enrolment with the same-sex marriage survey; I think about 65,000 people actually enrolled in time to express their view in the survey. So we have seen a real big increase. I wonder what that will would do for the next election, in terms of increasing that.

Dr Drum : At this Commonwealth election, we'll have different figures because more people are enrolled.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: But we did see in Scotland—did you quote the figure of 75 per cent?

Prof. Murray : Yes, that's right, as opposed to 54 per cent with the 18-to-24-year-old cohort.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: In that example, we did actually see the Scottish cohort, which wasn't compelled to vote, vote at a higher level than our compelled-to-vote cohort in the next demographic, higher up.

Prof. Murray : Correct. Interestingly, what happened was that they then elected, in the next election in Scotland, to expand that—so that was going to be across the board, which I think was also an interesting change.

ACTING CHAIR ( Mr Giles ): Sorry, just on that: can I make sure I'm understanding your evidence on this point correctly. So 66 per cent of 18- and 19-year-olds who are enrolled to vote voted at the last federal election, or 66 per cent of 18- and 19-year-olds voted?

Mr MORTON: You can take that on notice.

ACTING CHAIR: I just think it's a pretty important point.

Prof. Murray : I agree; it is. To be fair, as I said, that's the statistic that I would need to check a little bit more. I haven't gone to the Australian Electoral Commission on that. I was looking at some other data today. I think we'd actually need to go through the Electoral Commission data on that, so I will take that question on notice. It's a very relevant question.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: That'll do me for the moment.

Mr MORTON: I'm interested in this compulsory/noncompulsory voting argument—and you've touched on this—and how you can advocate for noncompulsory voting for 16- and 17-year-olds but why, at a particular point in time on one day, that flicks to compulsory voting when someone turns 18. Can we flesh that out a little bit more?

Dr Drum : I'll speak a little bit more and maybe I'll hand over—

Mr MORTON: Should we consult if voting should be compulsory, and is 18 the right age at which you bring that in?

Dr Drum : There are two arguments that are essential to compulsory voting in the Australian context, both of which I support personally. But people, I understand, will have different views. The first is that our democratic system is more representative of the people's views if it's broader. If we have a much bigger turnout, then the final outcome is truly representative of the community. A lower turnout makes it less representative. That's the first argument. The second argument is around responsibility. We argue that it's our civic responsibility, not just our right, to have a say and to contribute to both the election of our government and the make-up of our parliament that represents us and makes decisions. So there is a two-pronged approach.

The approach to having a voluntary voting age at 16 and 17 and a compulsory one from 18 speaks more to the second part. It's a question of responsibility: when do we hand this demographic group a high level of responsibility? Are we going to see to a 16- or 17-year-old, 'It is your hard and fast responsibility at that age to vote,' or are we going to impose that at 18? There's an argument, as I indicated earlier, that, whilst people are still maturing and at different developmental phases and they haven't finished their education, we might not impose that responsibility in a mandatory sense until they're 18.

Mr MORTON: So is 18, in your view, the right age?

Dr Drum : Yes, I think so.

Mr MORTON: Why is that?

Dr Drum : There are a couple of reasons. One is that we expect most people in our community to have finished their formal education. There is tertiary education, of course, but that's a bit different. We have a much higher rate of participation around years 11 and 12 than we had previously. The age was 21 as late as the 1970s, and I think most people in our community would argue that that's too old and that 18 is a better age. I accept that 18, by its very definition, is an arbitrary date, as every single date you choose would be an arbitrary date.

Mr MORTON: Understood.

ACTING CHAIR: Thanks very much, Dr Drum and Professor Murray. My apologies for being late; I was overly ambitious in navigating Perth traffic! I won't make that mistake again! I just had a couple of questions to follow-up your evidence, if I may. Starting with civics: firstly, are there any states or territories that presently do civics education better than others?

Dr Drum : I'm not across all elements of civic education but I can speak a little bit about Western Australia. There is a civics education program in place in Western Australia. There have been a range of people who have very much been champions of this project. The WA Electoral Commission do go into schools—these questions are probably better addressed to them than to us, because we always hear about what they do. They do run mock elections, as Professor Murray indicated, as a means of trying to apply concepts of voting and democracy in a practical way. Naturally, I'm in agreement with Professor Murray; if people are actually voting, that's a far more robust and meaningful way of applying these principles than a mock election. But they even come out to student elections as well. They are in the business of trying to educate people in schools. I would argue that schools are by far the best place for people to undertake civics education, because you have all the people coming through towards a voting age who are in one place—maybe not in years 11 and 12; there are a few dropping out. But you are actually better placed to get people at that age than at any other age in society.

Prof. Murray : I'm probably more familiar with Western Australia than the other states. We really should hear from Dr Harry Phillips, who is probably the best Western Australian expert on civics education nationally. I'm probably not able to compare it with other jurisdictions. Certainly, WA has very strong civics education. That's been significantly enhanced in recent years by making it a part of the curriculum. But I think there is variety in terms of the degree to which—experiences that students have are what we referred to before as deep experiences and immersement in electoral activities, as opposed to the chalk-and-talk, which I don't think can necessarily penetrate and be as exciting and captivating for young people.

Can I just jump back to the question I took on notice before? I did find some materials while Dr Drum was talking. There is some research from 2013 which says that 25 per cent of eligible voters aged between 18 and 24 missed the enrolment deadline for the 2013 federal election. That means that 25 per cent weren't even enrolling. Obviously you're going to have a percentage of those who are enrolled who then fail to vote on the day. That's from 2013, so it's a few years old.

ACTING CHAIR: If it were the case that 66 per cent of those aged 18 and 19 who were eligible to vote did note vote, that would be a particularly striking statistic. Perhaps between your resources and our resources we'll find the answer to that. Lastly, it's slightly unfair to press you on civics, but I think with almost every witness we've had at this inquiry the issue has come up. I think Senator put it well in his response to the exchange. If you do have any views on the role of the national government in supporting or superintending civics education, I invite you to share that, either now or on notice.

Prof. Murray : One thing I was interested in was looking at some of the work the electoral commissions are doing in this space. Particularly, the Australian Electoral Commission had a report where they went through what they'd done in recent years. This wasn't necessarily reflective of all of the work they do, but it did seem to me that the commission's work was quite patchy, in that there was a lot of work done, but in some states more than in others. Some of it was trialling things, so that's fair enough—for example, they'd done a whole lot of work in Queensland and a lot in Victorian schools. Some things were seeing how initiatives worked. I do think that the commissions particularly have a real potential to make a difference in this space. They send the birthday card enrolment forms out to people, which I think is quite a cute idea. There's an opportunity for schools to work with the commissions. I think this is also part of making these deep experiences. Often the commissions are involved with school elections. There's an opportunity there. Whether that requires more resourcing of the commissions I'm not in a position to say. I do think the commissions are really powerful in this space.

Dr Drum : I'll only make broad remarks. If you look at what people say about democracies, they not only talk about a broad base but they say a deep base is important. It stands to reason—it's fairly obvious logic—that the more informed someone is when they vote, the better the outcome should be. We know through surveys, et cetera, that people are still not completely informed about our voting process. There's still a lack of knowledge. I think that's despite strong efforts that the commissions have made. Voting can be a complex process, perhaps more so in our upper house at times. There have been voting changes which have been important reforms. But people do need to be informed. The civics education phase is obviously essential to that.

ACTING CHAIR: One last matter, if I may, Dr Drum. Hopefully I'll relieve Senator Steele-John; I won't go over too much of the compulsory and non-compulsory ground, because I think that's been well covered in the exchange so far. I was interested in your evidence to the senator a little while ago. I just wanted to touch on two aspects of it. Firstly, I well understand your argument about the floodgates argument being overblown. There's another argument, which is really about voting as a right. Is that something that you think is a significant issue for you?

Dr Drum : Voting is clearly one of the seminal rights that we have in our political system. It's one of the few rights protected in our Constitution. It's a right that our courts have been quite robust in defending at times. Voting in many places around the world has been seen solely through the rights lens; the responsibility of voting is not a strong principle that is discussed in places like the US or the UK. I would argue that our political system is a little bit different, and political systems always vary from nation to nation. I'm not sure of the exact number, but the last time we had large surveys done on compulsory voting, somewhere around three in four people supported that notion. That may just be because that's the system we already have, but our compulsory voting system has been in place for a long time and many people in the public in Australia see voting as a responsibility as well as a right. There are always people who that are dissenters, and that's understandable, but I think our political culture is different on that score.

ACTING CHAIR: Thanks very much. Is there anything you'd like to add to that, Professor Murray?

Prof. Murray : The only thing I would add, which I think is an interesting aspect for this inquiry, is that while we might say there is a right to vote, the one thing that the High Court has emphasised consistently in recent years—and it seems to be more of a trend with the current court—is this move to think that it doesn't necessarily mean the Constitution requires us to maximise participation. In the recent decision of Murphy, and across different judgements, the High Court really said, 'Look, this is something that really needs to go to parliament.' It was really keen to say that this was a decision that parliament makes, and that particular case concerned whether or not it was constitutionally required that you should be able to enrol closer to polling day. The argument was a sort of constitutionalisation of maximising participation. That was really shut down by the court, suggesting that this really was something for parliament to decide. That's exactly what is happening here, which is as it should be.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you very much, Dr Drum and Professor Murray. Thank you for your attendance today. If you have been asked to provide information on notice—and you have, although it may be information we can find through other means—could you please send it to the secretariat by 14 March?

Prof. Murray : Thank you very much.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence today. We might suspend briefly; the next witness is presenting his evidence via Skype and we'll need to make those arrangements.