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Thursday, 21 June 2018
Page: 3655


Senator RICE (Victoria) (17:14): I'm pleased to hear that we have the support of Labor for this important bill, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering Voting Age and Increasing Voter Participation) Bill 2018. I am absolutely so pleased to be standing up here speaking in support of the Greens bill for lowering the voting age and increasing voter participation, because we have a huge democratic deficit here in our parliament. If you look around at the people who are representing Australians in the Senate today, they are overwhelmingly older people. I am one of the younger people here. They are overwhelmingly male. They are overwhelmingly white. We need to be doing everything we can to be increasing the diversity in our parliament, whether it's through younger people, females or people of different cultural backgrounds. This bill is critically important for increasing that engagement with politics for young people and, in fact, all people. The measures that are in the bill to allow voters to enrol on the day of an election and to update their details on the day of an election are just as important as the measures to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.

Before I go into some of the reasons as to why the Greens think that this is incredibly important action to be taking, I want to respond to some of the issues and concerns raised by the Labor Party and the government. I was pleased to hear Senator Farrell's clarification that Labor are supporting this bill—

Senator Farrell: We proposed the reference.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Fawcett ): Order, Senator Farrell! You had your chance. There is time at the end of the proceedings.

Senator RICE: I won't try to verbal you, Senator Farrell. I'm pleased to hear the Labor Party is supporting the reference of this bill to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. In fact, the Greens are very keen for this bill to have a full inquiry into it, because we believe in democracy. We believe in hearing lots of voices. We want to hear all of the arguments being put. Frankly, by referring the bill we're going to get much more substance and many more of the actual reasons as to why this bill is a sensible way to go than in some of the arguments that have been put here this afternoon—in particular, the arguments that were put forward by Senator Stoker.

Firstly, most of her debating points cherrypicked tiny bits of data. I suppose I shouldn't really have been surprised. It is what the government has been doing all week and all month on the debate over the tax cuts—trying to mislead the community with a very warped, cherrypicked version of reality and trying to argue that having tax cuts that are worth $144 billion aren't going to impact on services, for example, for young people. It's completely false.

Secondly, it was very interesting to note that most of Senator Stoker's arguments came from some research that was undertaken in 2007. I think it's very pertinent to note, when we are talking about the engagement of young people, that that was 11 years ago. In fact, in 2007 Senator Steele-John, who is here with us today, was 13 years old! A lot has happened since 2007 in this space around the world. So relying on research that was undertaken in 2007 is not giving us an accurate understanding of the latest research globally into the importance of allowing young people to vote. In particular, the other study that she was quoting, the McAllister study, was undertaken before there had been two significant changes in voting age in other jurisdictions around the world—in Austria and particularly in Scotland.

In Scotland, when they introduced optional voting for 16- and 17-year-olds in the Scottish referendum they had an 80 per cent turnout. Despite it being voluntary—and, in fact, despite Scottish voting being voluntary overall—they had an 80 per cent turnout of 16- and 17-year-olds in that referendum. There was so much support for voting by Scottish young people that they are now looking at making it a feature of their general elections. So I think that is an incredibly valuable piece of research which Senator Stoker omitted to share with the Senate here today.

Young people: they pay taxes, they own and drive cars, they make decisions about their own bodies and, as we've been told, they can join political parties, including the Liberal Party. They can make decisions on Liberal Party policy, or at least have input into Liberal Party policy—not that I think that current Liberal Party policy on a whole range of issues, particularly increasing inequality, privatising the ABC and things like that, probably had much input from young people for those decisions.

Basically, we know that young people are keen to be involved. They are thoughtful, and the key issue, I think, as to why there is so much resistance to having 16 and 17-year-olds being able to vote is that they have not yet been weighed down by cynicism, not yet weighed down by this sense that, 'Oh well, we can't change anything, so we'll not engage with the political process.' The young people that I know—and in fact I know many young people who are involved with the Greens; they have done work experience with me—are as active and engaged in politics as anybody in our society, and they really don't understand and have this immense sense of frustration about why they aren't able to be involved in the political process of voting. They know that the decisions that are being made are going to affect their lives.

In fact, there is much more justification for young people being able to vote—not that I would say that people at the very end of their lives shouldn't be able to vote—in terms of having that view forward and of thinking about the future. The rationale for 16- and 17-year-olds to be able to make decisions, to be involved and to have representation on decisions that are going to deeply affect their lives is overwhelming.

And we need to have their voices here. We need to have their voices in our parliaments, we need to have their voices as voters, and, by having that engagement, we need to encourage more people to stand for election and be involved in political processes so that we can improve the diversity here. There are so many strong reasons as to why that engagement and getting that political engagement happening at 16 and 17 is effective. A key thing is that people are engaging with these issues of politics when they are at school in years 9, 10, 11 and 12. That is the time when they are building their understanding about the world, and we could have a system where you've got kids in years 10, 11 and 12 not only learning about the world but actually then having the opportunity to enrol to vote. Senator Stoker told us about the low enrolment of people when they turn 18. We would be able to increase the enrolment to vote much more substantially if, when they were studying the issues of the day—whether climate change or marriage equality or poverty—they could be saying, 'Hey, I've got the opportunity to have a say and do something about this.' Enrol-to-vote forms could be available at schools for young people to fill out.

As part of that engagement, people would be discussing elections. Imagine if you were a year 10 student studying politics or science—or the whole curriculum—in the lead-up to the next federal election. That is a wonderful way of actually engaging people: 'Hey, not only am I concerned about learning about these things, but I can actually act on them, I can get involved in the political process, I can enrol to vote and I can vote!' Then they can look forward to actually seeing representatives truly represent them in the parliament. We know that when people are passionate and engaged and are given that opportunity and the sense of empowerment that they can be involved and can help change things, they act.

The postal survey on marriage equality last year was not the right way to make the decision on marriage equality. It was a horrible, hateful process that we shouldn't have been put through, but we know that the turnout of young people who wanted to have their say on that was amazing. There were 100,000 new voters who'd gone on the electoral roll because they had that sense of empowerment. Here was something that they really could act on. People who had been disengaged from the political process up until then enrolled to vote, and they went out there and had their say in the postal survey because they knew that the issue of marriage equality was something that they cared about, were passionate about and wanted to see changed in Australia as part of creating a fairer, more just society.

I have had two young people in my life, my two sons, who are now well above that 16- and 17-year-old age, but it's not that long ago. I remember having conversations around the dining room table with them and their friends about the issues of climate change and their sense that they wanted to be able to act. Young people are now involved with wonderful organisations like the Australian Youth Climate Coalition because they want to be able to have a say. They should be able to vote. They have just as much of a valid point of view and a perspective that needs to be represented on these issues as other people.

It is not just some 16- and 17-year-olds who are feeling cynical and disengaged and not involved in politics. We are told that they don't want to vote or they won't be engaged. As well as the 16- and 17-year-olds, I know 26-year-olds, 36-year-olds, 46-year-olds and people right up to 76-year-olds who are equally disengaged. Yes, we need to be working out how to engage all of them. But there is such a strong reason—given that 16- and 17-year-olds are paying taxes and that it is their society that we are making decisions on—that they should be enfranchised to be able to have a say.

Critically, those issues are ones that they feel very deeply. If you're a 16-year-old and you're looking at the issues of dangerous climate change, you know that by the time you are the age of those of us here in the Senate, by the time you are 40 or 50, the impacts are going to be very real and we are going to have gone way past the two degrees of warming which current government policy is heading us towards. Current government policy is going to head us to three, four or more degrees of warming within the lifetime of young people. So they ought to be able to have a say on that. They ought to be able to have a say as to whether it's right that the Great Barrier Reef should die, that agricultural production in this country is going to dive and that our wheat-growing areas—say, around Dubbo—are going to have the growing conditions and climate of the central deserts. Young people who are 16 or 17 care about this. They also care about and deserve to have a say about the future of the natural environments. I have had the great privilege of being able to see wonderful old forest and wonderful animals like Leadbeater's possums, greater gliders and powerful owls, and to experience all of that incredible diversity of our natural environment. Within the decades in the future of a 16-year-old, sadly, that may not be the case for them on the current trajectory that we're on.

I think it is critical, given the outlook over the lifetimes of young people in our society today, that they deserve to be enfranchised and to be able to have a say, be empowered, be involved and take part in our democracy. Doing so—having their voices in our democratic system and having that greater diversity—means we're going to end up with much better outcomes by involving the voices of young people, just like involving the voices of people of great cultural diversity and the voices of women, including women who have children. In saying that, I want to congratulate the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, whose baby girl has just been born. What a wonderful thing to be having that sort of diversity in our parliaments—having the diversity of a huge range of Australian society represented here in our parliament. Lowering the voting age, having optional voting for 16 and 17-year-olds, is a really important factor. It's a really important and powerful lever in building towards a more participatory democracy to have greater involvement of a greater range of people in our democracy. To be giving people, whether it's a 16-year-old or a 66-year-old, the sense that they can be involved, they can vote and they can be represented is important, and that the decisions that our parliaments make are going to be taking the issues of the future, having the outlook, being concerned about a future for all Australians and working for an overall fairer, more caring and more sustainable Australia.