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Tuesday, 13 March 1973
Page: 474

Mr LAMB (La Trobe) - The comments of the Deputy Leader of the Oppostion (Mr Lynch) would have rung true and not sounded so hollow if his Party had passed this legislation during its term of office. I refer to the actions of the previous 2 Prime Ministers when the Liberals were in office. First of all, the right honourable member for Higgins (Mr Gorton) stated at one time that he expected the 21 years voting age would be reduced to 18 in a very short time, but in a duel of semantics he explained that 'expected' did not mean 'promised' although one would have expected that if a Prime Minister, particularly of the Liberal Party, was in control of his Party an expectation would have meant a promise. The last Prime Minister stated that he would not introduce legislation to lower the voting age before the last election. So I say that the words of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition were hollow and did not ring true. I feel that the Liberal Party's lack of support for such legislation during its term of office resulted from its fear of loss of electoral support. Or does the Deputy Leader of the Opposition mean that the political climate which his Party wrought to maturity actually matured on the eve of the last election rather than going through a process of maturity during his Party's term of office? This is in effect what the content of his speech amounts to. That is just as absurb as saying that the 21 years voting age rests on the notion that a person on the eve of his 21st birthday is not fit to vote but the next day he awakens full of knowledge and wisdom and entitled to vote.

I support 'the lowering of the voting age to 18 years at federal elections. The Australian Constitution has been referred to by many as an anachronistic document and for many reasons. Just to mention a couple, section 92 has been said to be a barrier to the essential Commonwealth legislation in the fields of commerce. Section 51, giving specific powers to the Commonwealth, has allowed a hotchpotch of health and eduction systems to develop when it is increasingly obvious that we should be aspiring to a unified nation with standards that do not suffer by reasons of place of residence. Many of these anachronisms are tempered by High Court interpretations. Indeed, the Rocla Pipes case of 1970 would seem to indicate that a new avenue is open to the Commonwealth, such as a Companies Act, extending Commonwealth's powers under section 92 of the Constitution. The. imbalance of finance and functions between .the 3 tiers of Government can be relieved of' its distortion through the Australian Loan Council, the Premiers Conference and the Commonwealth Grants Commission.

But there is one section which has recently been debated. I refer to section 30 which deals with enfranchisement. The Federal Constitution - the overriding authority in the matter - provides by section 30 for the election of the Federal Parliament. It states:

Until the Parliament-

That is, the Commonwealth Parliament - otherwise provides, the qualification of electors- i-

For the Commonwealth Parliament - . . shall be in each State that which is prescribed by the law of the State.

Consequent upon this section in the Constitution, the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 191 8 provided: all persons not under twenty, one years of age . . . who are natural-born or naturalised subjects of the sovereign, and not subject to certain disqualifications not now material, should be entitled to enrolment.

This would be simple enough if all States were uniform in their laws for enfranchisement. But although all adult males were entitled to the vote in all States by 1900, female suffrage was accorded in only 2 States at the time of federation. These 2 States - Western Australia and South Australia - probably showed early signs of a progressive culture for they now both have Labor governments. Two other States, probably indicating their reactionary and conservative culture, did not introduce female suffrage until after federation. Both States now have conservative governments - Victoria, which introduced female suffrage as late as 1908 and Queensland, which introduced it as late as 1905.

These anomalies aside, the more recent debate has centred around the lowering of the voting age in several States, including once again Western Australia and South Australia. It should be noted that these States are leaders in extending voting rights in line with increasing responsibilities. These States, jealous of their State rights and justice, would seem justified in demanding votes at Federal elections for their enfranchised under their State laws, but section 41 of the Federal Constitution states:

No adult person who has or acquires a right to vote at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of a State shall ... be prevented by any law of the Commonwealth from voting. . . .

They are prevented from voting at Commonwealth elections. This anomaly between State and Commonwealth voting laws and this anachronism of the Federal Constitution was tested in the High Court last year. The resolution of this case revolved around the meaning of the word 'adult' in section 41 of the Constitution. Taken together in the cases of King v Jones, McEwen v Hackert and James v Jones, it was held by the whole court that:

An 'adult person' within the meaning of s. 41 of the Constitution is a person who has attained the age of 21 years.

Four judges assumed, without deciding, that the words 'acquires a right to vote at elections for the more numerous House of the Parlia ment of a State' in section 41 of the Constitution refers to a right given by a State law which came into force subsequent to the enactment of the Constitution before the framing of franchise by the Commonwealth. In other words, it referred to 1900 and, hence, the anachronism. It was so held by the whole court having regard to the nature and function of section 41 that the term 'adult person' in that section should not be accorded a vague and imprecise meaning such as 'mature person' but should be construed as a term of fixed connotation bearing the ordinary meaning - it possessed both at law and in common usage - that is, a person at the full age of 21 years as used in contradistinction to an infant at law.

It is this point on which I wish to expand. The Chief Justice also held that to change the franchise for Commonwealth electors it was not necessary to change the Constitution but only to change the Electoral Act as provided for under section 30 of the Federal Constitution. It is fortunate that this Bill we are now debating can remove the anachronism and the anomaly of depriving 18-year-olds of voting rights while demanding of them adult responsibilities,, rather than having to go to the people to change the Constitution. This debate and the passing . of this Bill centre around whether we should lower the age of qualification for enrolment, voting and candidature, for Commonwealth parliamentary elections to 18 years. Many countries have a lower voting age than has Australia. Fiftythree countries have a franchise age of less than 21 years. The 18-year-old literates of Equador and the 18-year-old male Jordanians - but not Bedouins - can vote. Where does that put us in comparison? Of particular relevance to Australia are those countries modelled on the Westminster model of government - the United Kingdom, New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, the United States In Canada the franchise age is 18 years, as it is in Ceylon and the United States. In New Zealand it has been reduced to 20 years. In Britain the voting age was reduced to 18 at the same time as the age of majority was reduced. In the discussion about the desirability of lowering the age of majority no document has had quite the impact of the report of the Latey Commission. The Latey Commission did not specifically look at the question of the voting age but argued very strongly for . the reduction of the age of majority to 18 - hence the tie up with the High Court decision. The Commission said:

What the history does show is that there is nothing particularly God-given about the age of 21 as such, and that things do change in the light of changing circumstances.

Those changing circumstances bring about changing responsibilities and a differing definition of what is meant by maturity. This arbitrary age of maturity did centre around that of the age of bearing arms - an historical one, it is true, but it has relevance today. Many people have said: 'If you are old enough to die for your country, you are old enough to vote for your country.' Yet the previous Government allowed voting under the age of 21 only to those who were serving actively overseas, most of whom were conscripts. It is an indictment against the previous Government that it did not lower the voting age so that the people could determine whether or not there was going to be a government that would send them overseas to fight for their country. It should be the right of all 18, 19 and 20-year-olds, who have physically matured earlier and who do bear arms in the historic and present sense, to have that vote.

Mr Garland - Would you give school children the right to decide to go to school?

Mr LAMB - They are better educated, if you like. Children of 18 are going to school and with the rising school leaving age, it will become increasingly so. But with better education, which does not come entirely from the school but through the media, these people are better equipped to have a vote at that age. These are all reasons why we can regard people of 18 to 21 years as being as well equipped as 21 year olds to vote responsibly. But then, we already regard them as mature in commercial, legal and social spheres.

Even though there is no clamour for it from some 18-year-olds, a case can be made for giving them this right. Many of them work and pay taxes; thousands of youngsters have been conscripted at the age of 20 and in some areas 18-year-olds may, or soon will, be able to enter into contracts, dispose of property, take and defend legal actions, or front up to hotel bars, and more teenagers are becoming politically and socially aware. In Australia, we would have to agree with the Latey Commissioners who, in their conclusion, stated:

By 18 most young people are ready for these responsibilities and rights, and would greatly profit by them, as would the teaching authorities, the business community, the administration of justice and the community as a whole.

The Commission settled on the age of 18 years for several reasons, including greater maturity, the fact that by 18 most people are running their own lives, and the fact that people of 18 have other responsibilities and consider themselves capable of acting maturely, this being their own conviction.

It has been argued that young people are not interested in politics and that people who do not care should not vote, but in my opinion that is not an argument against extending the vote to 18-year-olds but against compulsory voting. Surveys show little or no difference in trends or interest in voting between persons under 21 years old and those over 21 years old. This is the conclusion of recent surveys of various public opinion polls. As well as revealing levels of interest in politics by Australians the surveys compared the results of similar investigations made in Britain. This destroyed the myth that Australians, in general, are less interested in politics than the corresponding social groups in the United Kingdom.

The principal argument on which to base a decision, to give people the right to vote before 21 years of age should be that, mature or not, they are in fact becoming increasingly involved personally in social, financial, industrial, cultural and political issues of importance and that to take a meaningful and responsible part in society they must have the right to vote. This would be to them a challenge to develop the awareness that is necessary to play an articulate political role in the community - responsibilities far too often shunned by people who have the vote solely because they are 21 or older. This might even apply to some of the under 18 year old schoolmates of the honourable member for Curtin (Mr Garland), who was trying to interject a moment ago.

Many States are waiting for this Parliament to extend the franchise to 18 years of age so that they can proclaim or enact similar legislation. Not only do South Australia and Western Australia provide for the franchise at age 18 but New South Wales has passed legislation to lower the voting age to 18 years although it has not proclaimed it. Victoria has announced its intention to lower the voting age before the next State election. In Queensland, Cabinet has approved the principle of votes for 18-year-olds and in Tasmania the lower House already has passed a Bill which includes provision for lowering the voting age to 18. The States recognise that youth is becoming a larger percentage of the total population and forms a distinct sector that needs representation. It has been estimated that with the voting age reduced to 18 years between 700,000 and 800,000 people will be added to the rolls. We are warned by 2 countries what to expect if the franchise is not extended to 18-year-olds. Those 18-year- olds will fee] that their rights are being neglected or ignored.

I am fortunate to have come across a speech by the honourable member for Kooyong (Mr Peacock) who quoted from an article which appeared in 'Playboy' magazine. At the time he apologised to my predecessor, Mr Jess, who, he incorrectly had said, had lent him the magazine. The honourable member for Kooyong referred to events that took place in the United States Senate. Senator Jacob Javits, who is a well-known United States senator, wrote a very compelling article in this magazine. It was related to the age of majority. He said:

To me the most compelling reason for lowering the voting age ls that American politics needs the transfusion that younger voting could give it. Almost without exception, today's 18. to 20 year olds - those of college age - are better educated and more highly motivated toward political action than were their fathers and grandfathers.

It is essential to our country that their idealism and activism find a genuine release within our established political framework. Unless young people know they are involved, idealism tends to turn to cynicism.

In New Zealand, a member of the Government, Mr Moyle, when in opposition, said that the most serious threat to New Zealand politics was the increasing level of nonparticipation. He said that youth was forced to move away from the normal democratic process and toward direct action when they did not have the vote.

This House cannot obstruct the desire of the people. The Government secured a mandate at the last election. It was plain to the people that the policy of the Australian Labor Party was to reduce the voting age to 18 years. As mentioned by the previous speaker, the honourable member for Flinders (Mr Lynch), a growing percentage of people, according to the gallup polls, supports this proposal. However we should note from these polls where the opposition lies. It seems, from an analysis of these polls, to be well and truly rooted in the conservatism of the Democratic Labor Party and the Liberal and Country parties. Why are these parties frightened? Youth patterns, in their voting tendencies, are very similar to those of persons aged over 21 years. No real conclusion can be drawn, especially when the trends are related to State elections, because of the size of the samples. However, I suspect that an increasing number of young people support Labor. This is in line with a theory that support of youth groups tends to come in 20-year cycles. The Chifley Government enjoyed the support of youth until about the time of its demise. During their stronger terms, the Liberal governments enjoyed the support of youth. If we can take any indication from these imprecise gallup polls, Labor enjoys that support now, but even then it depends on where these people live and the size of the constituencies. I believe that such support will merely magnify the present majorities of all parties.

It is not a defence of the present position to give a point of view about the behaviour of 18 to 20-year-olds. It is a matter of recognising that this age group already has adult responsibilities which require the bestowal of adult privileges. It is not a defence to delay this Bill through an argument of costs in extending the rolls, although this excuse applies more at State level. The arguments for lowering the voting age are strong, be they based on social, legal or civil rights grounds. The arguments against lowering the voting age are based on fear of losing electoral support. I commend the Bill to the House.

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