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Tuesday, 13 March 1973
Page: 477

Mr HUNT (Gwydir) - It gives me also pleasure to support the Commonwealth Electoral Bill and the associated Bills which provide for the lowering of the franchise age to 18 years for Federal elections. The inference in the second reading speech of the Minister for Services and Property (Mr Daly) and the honourable member for La Trobe (Mr Lamb) was that the former Government was opposed to the lowering of the franchise age. That is not true. The former Government at no time expressed itself as being opposed to the provision of voting rights for the 18, 19 and 20-year-olds. After the relevant High Court judgment I made a Press release on behalf of the former Government in which I said:

I want to make it clear that the Government is not averse to the lowering of the franchise age.

Indeed, it had not taken a decision on the matter for reasons which I intend to relate. In the debate, on the Electoral Bill, which was introduced by the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam), on 11th May last year I said:

The Government has not at any time taken issue on or implied opposition to the principle of a vote for the 18-year-olds.

I went on to say:

Indeed it might well be a proposal that has support from a great number of members on both sides of the House.

The issue at that time was whether it was necessary or practical to support the passage of a Bill at a time when the 27th Parliament was drawing to a close, leaving insufficient time to handle the changes comfortably. The former Government had established a committee to examine the age of legal responsibility and associated matters, but at that time it had not completed its consideration of that report. Although the franchise age issue could have been dealt with separately, a variety of other legal issues surrounding the rights of 18, 19 and 20-year-olds needed the closest scrutiny.

The report on the issues that I have mentioned was completed; so the socialist Government has inherited the value of an indepth research into these issues. I do not begrudge the Government its great inheritance but I know that it is a very lucky government indeed to have so much research behind it on these issues. The Government has been enabled to move swiftly at this point of time against a background of invaluable research and endeavour. Then there was the need to overcome a number of technical problems before we felt that we could move to lower the franchise age to enable 18, 19 and 20- year-olds to vote in the last House of Representatives elections.

One of the most important considerations was to maintain a uniform franchise for all State and Commonwealth elections. There was a need to reach uniformity to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. There was a need to reach agreement with the States, especially in regard to the joint roll States, namely, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. The need for a uniform timing of franchise legislation was essential. Until 30tb June last year only one State, namely, Western Australia, had introduced 18-year-old franchise legislation. I think it did so in 1970. The first Bill to lower the franchise age in Western Australia was introduced by a Liberal-Country Party Gov ernment. At that time Western Australia was the only State which had proclaimed such legislation. South Australia followed Western Australia and legislation was enacted and proclaimed, 1 think on 30th June last year.

The other States had approved of the franchise in principle, either at Cabinet level or in legislation, but had not proclaimed the legislation. The State governments were at varying stages of decision on this matter. In his second reading speech the Minister for Services and Property (Mr Daly) gave a list which indicated the progress that has been made to date within the various States of the Commonwealth. I commend the Minister for having reached agreement with the States so soon after having assumed his portfolio, thereby achieving in practice the uniformity to which 1 have referred.

When consideration was given to this matter last year the Government was aware of the great confusion that would have occurred unless uniformity was achieved. This applied especially in cases where persons moved from State to State. Under the long-standing arrangements, with joint roll States, the submission of a single electoral claim by a qualified person would achieve simultaneous enrolment on the joint roll which is used for both Commonwealth and State purposes. This arrangement has many public advantages and offers considerable economies.- But it was essential that any change in age qualification for enrolment and voting should be effected concurrently by the Commonwealth and the joint roll States.

The most elementary consideration in any franchise system is that it should be clear and fair and that the circumstances in which the right to vote is to be exercised should be uniform. Franchise uniformity is, I believe, a most essential objective to avoid confusion State by State or between the Commonwealth and the States. I submit that if unilateral action had been taken by the Commonwealth considerable disruption among the joint roll States would have resulted. For the purposes of the last election it would have necessitated 3 special form or an enrolment claim card with a distinguishing mark on the electoral roll against the name of 18, 19 and 20-year- olds made eligible by this unilateral action of the Australian Government. As it was, unilateral action was taken by one joint roil State, namely, South Australia.

So it was against the background of this consideration and other considerations that the former Government felt that it was not prudent to rush franchise entitlements to the 18, 19 and 20-year-olds last year. Indeed, on 8th March last year, when the then Prime Minister was asked a question in this House on the matter, he told the Parliament that the law would not be changed in time to give 18- year-olds a vote in the then forthcoming elections. I doubt whether anyone, other than a few eager politicians, lost any sleep over that decision. Perhaps those few immensely egotistical politicians who believe they have some great attraction for young people could have suffered some anxiety as a result of that decision. But I think it was a good decision not to try to rush and steamroll the legislation through, thereby causing an air of confusion in some of the joint roll States. 1 believe that one matter mentioned by the honourable member for La Trobe (Mr Lamb) was quite sound. I refer to his remark that there has not been any really emotional demand by the great body of the 18, 19 and 20-year-olds to have a vote. Such a demand has not been evident to me and I think the truth of the honourable member's remark was proved to some extent as a result of the legislation that was introduced in South Australia. In spite of a very intensive education and publicity campaign encouraging young people to enrol, I understand that approximately 16,000. out of the 68,000 who were eligible actually enrolled. I think that to some extent this indicates that only a small percentage of our young people seek this entitlement at this stage.

The point of difference between this legislation and that of South Australia is that in South Australia the 18, 19 and 20-year-olds are free to enrol if they so desire; it is not compulsory for them to do so. Once having enrolled, of course, it is compulsory for them to vote. While I was the Minister for the Interior a number of parents made representations to me as Minister and also as the member for Gwydir, objecting very strongly to young people being forced to vote, in other words, being forced into a position where they would have to make political decisions as such. They feared that the young folk could be exploited by political organisers. But I am inclined to believe that with voluntary enrolment an even greater temptation exists to those who would want to marshall the sup port of youth than there would be if enrolment were compulsory. Now that the privilege has been conferred on this age group it is up to these young people to accept their full responsibilities. This is an historic occasion. I know that the Minister for Services and Property - who is father of the House and proud to be so - must be proud that he has the great privilege of introducing the legislation. This legislation was inevitable because this has been the trend throughout the world. Yes, it will introduce politics into our high schools. This is inevitable.

I hope that the unscrupulous political organisers to whom I alluded a moment ago will not feed their lust for power by insidiously campaigning among our young people. They may get away with it for a while, but not for long. I have a lot of faith and confidence in the sincerity and perception of our young people. I am sure they will not allow themselves to be used by one Party or another for that Party's specific purpose. It is essential, however, for parents and children alike to be aware of the possibility of such insidious attempts developing inside our high schools in an attempt to mobilise young people for political purposes. Undoubtedly the 18, 19 and 20-year-olds will have a responsibility to inform themselves of political affairs and Party policies. I think this will apply also to 16 and 17-year-olds because people do not suddenly become informed and capable of voting on their 18th birthday, unless they have been interested in the subject for probably 2 years prior to reaching voting age.

In effect, not only are we giving 700,000 young people the privilege of franchise, but also we are giving them an enormous responsibility since most of the decisions made by any government of the day will have far reaching effects upon the future lives of our youth. It is right that they should participate in the political thought and activity of their nation. It is right that they should participate in choosing the Government which they think is best for their long term future and for the long term future of their country.

I have every confidence in the well informed idealistic youth of Australia. I believe that their full blooded participation in the political life of this country will make it a better place. Whilst there has been no obvious clamour amongst the young, or for that matter among the majority of parents of the 18, 19 and 20-year-olds, for this privilege, it was inevitable that the voting age should be lowered. I support the Bill and compliment the Minister for having introduced it so soon in the life of this Parliament.

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