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Thursday, 12 October 1972
Page: 1517

Senator SIM (Western Australia) - I was rather surprised a fortnight ago to find that the Opposition was very anxious to force a debate on this Bill since some members on this side including myself had a right to speak because we had publicly declared our position. I do not usually adopt a cynical attitude to the introduction of Bills such as this - I am pretty philosophical about it - but I must say I did feel a little cynical. It may have been only coincidence - I do not want to be unfair - that within a couple of days of my colleagues, Senator Withers and Senator Durack, and myself having declared our position quite unequivocally at the Western Australian State Conference of the Liberal Party to support the vote for 18-year-olds, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Murphy) announced that he intended to introduce a Bill for this purpose into the Senate. I repeat that it may have been only a coincidence, and I am not quarrelling with Senator Murphy's right to introduce the Bill or with the tactics he adopted. It is a legitimate political manoeuvre. Nevertheless, it does raise some cynical thoughts in my mind.

I make my own position quite clear. I have declared publicly my support for the vote for 18-year-olds. The first government in Australia to introduce legislation to provide the vote for ,1 8-year-olds, as my colleague Senator Withers reminded us a fortnight ago, was a Liberal-Country Party Government in Western Australia. That legislation had the almost unanimous support of the Liberal 'Party organisation at the Western Australian State Conference of the Liberal Party in July. Senator Withers addressed that conference on his own behalf and on behalf of Senator Durack and myself in declaring our support for votes for 18-year-olds. Having said that I wish to say that my first responsibility is to convince the Government which I support that it should introduce this kind of legislation. I express some disappointment that it has not done so, but emphasise that for the time being my responsibility is to use all my endeavours in conjunction with the endeavours of others on this side of the 'House who support the granting of the vote to 18-year- olds to convince the Government that such legislation should be introduced. Therefore I do not intend to support the legislation which is before the Senate either tonight or whenever the vote on it is taken. However, I make quite clear to the Senate that if the Government which I support does not within a reasonable time introduce such legislation my attitude could change very quickly. 1 have no desire at this stage to embarrass the Government. Rather, I adopt the attitude, which I hope I have made clear, that I support the granting of the vote to 18-year-olds but that I shall use my endeavours initially-

Senator Devitt - But not this time.

Senator SIM - Not this time. I make that quite clear, Senator Devitt - not this time. I do not want the Opposition to criticise me on this. Let us all be frank: Some senators on this side of the chamber have been prepared to vote against the Government, but I have yet to see a member of the Opposition cross the floor to vote against a caucus decision. They are all too regimented to do that. Let us have no criticism until some members of the Opposition show the political moral courage required to vote against a caucus decision of their Party. Let them not criticise those on this side of the chamber who have from time to time shown that they have the courage to vote against the wishes of the Government when they believe an issue is at stake. An issue is at stake in this legislation but it is not an immediate issue; even if it is agreed to the vote cannot be granted until after the election on 2nd December. I again make my position clear: I will not support this legislation at this stage, but if my pressures and the pressures of those of my Party who also support the granting of the vote to 18-year- olds are not successfully heeded by the Government, then I for one am prepared to reconsider my position.

I have always been intrigued by the arbitrary nature of age limits. At times I have wondered why the age of 21 has become a magical sort of age. I understand that at different periods of history people have assumed adult responsibilities at various ages. I believe that at one period in one civilisation - I am not sure whether it was the Greek or the Roman - girls assumed adult responsibilities at 14 and boys at 16. One viewpoint about the age of 21, which I think is supported, is that in British countries a person assumed adult responsibilities at the age of 21 because that was the age when young men were considered strong enough to bear arms.

Senator Murphy - History speaks of what you have said about ages, but on your point about 21 being a magical age, I think the fact that it is the product of 3 and 7, which are magical numbers, has a lot to do with it.

Senator SIM - That is, multiplication of 3 by 7? I do not deny Senator Murphy's viewpoint, yet I think there are many theories or viewpoints on why .the age of 21 was chosen as the age at which people assume adult responsibilities. The point 1 make, Senator Murphy, is that 21 is not a magical age. It may be that in times gone past a person of 18 was as physically and as mentally mature as a person of 21. That is the point I make, that there is nothing magical about the age of 21, or 20 or 19. There has to be some judgment. I understand from the history that the age was based upon some arbitrary ruling given at some time. I do not know whether it is because 3 multiplied by 7 makes 21 or whether it is for other reasons. The point I am trying to make is that it was based upon some ruling and there is nothing magical about it.

Senator Milliner - Two times 9 makes 18.

Senator SIM - I do not know whether that is as magical as 3 times 7 which Senator Murphy mentioned. 1 suppose one could argue about two 9s making 18 just as one could argue about three 7s making 21. Different ages have applied throughout history. We find in our own country that there are now 2 States which have adopted 18 years as the minimum voting age. I understand that a third State is to make a similar decision. 1 regret that State governments have had to give the lead. I would have preferred to see the Commonwealth Government providing leadership.

I noted that the Minister for Civil Aviation (Senator Cotton), in reply to the second reading speech of the Leader of the Opposition, said that this matter deserved serious and objective study. I agree with him. I also suggest that there has been plenty of time to give serious and objective study to it. Senator Withers reminded us that in 1943, when he was a young man of 18 years serving in the Navy, he had the right to vote. Probably he is the only honourable senator in this place who has exercised a vote at the age of 18. I do not know whether he voted wisely on that occasion or whether he has become wiser since. It was believed during the war years that a man of 18 years who was old enough, in the view of the Government - I believe rightly so - to fight for his country was also old enough to vote. That decision having been made it seems to me to be a precedent which we cannot ignore.

One can argue about whether youths today are more intellectual and physically mature than they were in past generations. I do not believe they are. I do not believe that there was anything wrong with the youth of past generations; nor do T believe that there is anything wrong with the youth of today. I do not believe that youths today are any better or any worse than those of earlier days. I become rather cross when I hear people say that the youth of today is better or worse than it was. Perhaps people think that the long haired, bare footed and rather shabby looking characters we see are representative of youth today. I do not believe that they are; rather I believe that those people are a minority. The flower people of the day when I was at school were represented by the fellows who wore very wide trousers. Each generation has had a section of youth which rebelled against society in various ways. I think that because of the mass media they now get more publicity and that probably attracts more attention to them. I do not believe that the people I refer to represent youth today. It may be argued, and possibly the argument can be sustained, that the youth of today have greater educational opportunities than did the youth of past generations. Therefore they may be more educationally mature, but it is debatable whether that qualifies them as being ahead of past generations when it comes to deciding how to vote. Apart from the greater opportunities for education that are available, I doubt that the youth of today are better or worse than the youth of past generations.

What has happened, and is still happening in our community - I believe it to be unquestionable - is that today young people are accepting greater responsibilities at a far earlier age. We find this revealed in the participation by youth in many areas of public life. Many people of very immature age provide leadership of a high quality in youth groups and probably those people are far more developed than they were in the generation of Senator Milliner and following generations of people like myself.

Senator Milliner - I wish I had enough hair to grow it long.

Senator SIM - I am not suggesting, Senator Milliner, that your generation was any worse than mine or that it was any better.

Senator Milliner - Paternalism of the highest order.

Senator SIM - Probably Senator Milliner was belted more than is the youth of today and that is probably why he is as he is today. I believe that youth today are showing a greater participation in many areas of public life. They are showing greater willingness to accept responsibilities in many areas of public life, possibly because they have had better opportunities than did youth in past generations. In the business and commercial world today we find very young men occupying very senior executive positions. We often hear that men are too old at 40 whereas in past generations men were probably 55 or 60 years of age before achieving any great responsibility in the business or commercial world. Today men in their 20s and early 30s are holding very senior positions. People in all walks of life are accepting responsibility at a much younger age than did past generations. I believe that this is germane to this discussion. We only have to look back a few years to see that there has been this dramatic change in Australia and, indeed, throughout the world. If this change continues we can expect to find that people are accepting responsibilities at an even younger age in the future.

There is another significant point to consider. Young people today go out and manage their own affairs at a very early age. They fly from the nest when they are 17 or 18 years of age and go into flats, in groups or singly, and accept the responsibility of looking after themselves. They accept social responsibilities as well. In the old days they stayed at home until they were well into their 20s. Today young people, whether male or female, leave home at an early age and look after themselves. There is also an increasing level of interest by young people in world affairs. Most certainly they have greater selfreliance.

All these things suggest the view that I hold: Regardless of whether 21 years was the acceptable age in the past these factors, apart from others, indicate to me that people today are prepared, willing and capable of accepting responsibilities at a younger age. There is another factor that I want to mention briefly. It is all very well to criticise young people. We often hear them criticised and we often hear people say that they will not accept responsibility. That is not the view I take. The simple answer is that we cannot expect young people to accept responsibility unless they are given responsibility, and people must be confident that young people are capable of accepting responsibility. That is a point which we ought to bear in mind. Young people must realise and understand that the older generation or the generation before them has confidence in them. I think we will find that when they feel people have confidence in them they will accept responsibilities. In a few words these are many of the reasons why I sup port votes for 18-year-olds. I think we all have to ask ourselves a simple question. We can all play politics on this issue. We can all argue and no doubt some people can produce figures to show that 18-year- olds are more inclined to vote one way or another way. I do not think that we really know.

Senator Devitt - On 2nd December we may get some sort of an indication.

Senator SIM - Maybe, but I think we all have theories about that. I do not think that any of us can be certain. I do not think that gallup polls reveal with any certainty the way 18-year-olds vote or are likely to vote. But I do not think we should look at the situation in this way. I think that we, as a responsible people, should ask ourselves what is in the best interests of the Australian people and of the generations which are now growing up. If we believe that the best interests of Australia will be served by giving votes to people at whatever age it may be - in this case 18-year-olds - then I suggest this must be the criteria upon which we should make our judgments and decisions. Involved in this debate are amendments which have been moved by the Australian Democratic Labor Party. I find that I cannot support paragraph (1) of the amendment. I find some attraction in paragraph (2). I find a good deal of attraction in paragraph (3). I find nothing to attract me in (4) or (5) which I think is the Queensland position where the polling hours are from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Senator Wright - It is only paragraph (1) of the amendment which is before the Senate.

Senator SIM - Yes, I am sorry. I recall that a fortnight ago Senator Byrne withdrew paragraphs (2), (3), (4), (5) and (6). We are discussing only the first one. I find no attraction in it although I appreciate the point of view which is expressed. I suppose we can argue that the most democratic way of electing a parliament is by means of proportional representation. Bui I look at the fate of parliamentary government in many countries. I look at Europe where, because of various voting systems, there have been a multiplicity of parties and what has happened has been a great instability of government. Whether this has been because of the volatile nature of the people, or whatever the reason, there have been compromises and defeated governments and then groupings together again. This has been a continual process which has brought parliamentary government into disrepute. I cannot help but bear in mind that while one can argue that proportional representation will reflect public opinion and bring into the Parliament many varying views, I wonder whether stability of parliament and government is going to be effected. One has to weigh these considerations. In weighing these considerations I find myself unable to support this amendment.

I must say towards the end of my speech that I was rather intrigued to hear Senator McLaren, who unfortunately is not in the chamber at the moment, advocate that the first past the post system of voting was the only democratic method. I am reminded that the Australian Labor Party in Western Australia has introduced legislation to bring into effect the first past the post system and also to abolish the Legislative Council which, I understand, is part of the Party's platform. I understand that the abolition of the Senate is part of the policy of the Australian Labor Party, although I do not think many Labor senators take that very seriously. At least, I hope they do not. But I come back to the point of first past the post being the only democratic method. I suppose it depends upon one's view of a democratic method. If 4 candidates were standing for election it would be mathematically possible for a candidate to be elected to Parliament on 25.1 per cent of the vote. I find it very difficult to accept the view that that person is the choice of the electorate. In fact, he is the choice of 25.1 per cent and he is opposed by 74.9 per cent. I find it is impossible to sustain this argument. I think that this is muddle-headed thinking. I do not believe that the first past the post system in the United Kingdom produces the result which is required in a democratic system. As I say, mathematically it is possible there for a person to be elected on 25.1 per cent of the vote. Even to be elected by 30 per cent or 33 per cent means the candidate is the choice of a minority only. Let me make it clear that there is no perfect system. We are not perfect ourselves. No perfect system prevails. But what we have to try to seek is a system that is as near perfect as possible and that reflects in every way as far as is possible public opinion.

If our present system is not perfect then, as far as I am concerned, we should by all means seek a better system. But do not let us scrap the present system for a system such as that which in theory - and we cannot disregard theory - could place in power a government which represents 25 per cent, 25.1 per cent or 26 per cent of the electors and which could be opposed by 74.9 per cent, 76 per cent or 60 per cent of the electors. I do not find this argument appealing, logical or rational. I hope that I have made my position clear. I make no apologies for the attitude I adopt tonight in relation to this legislation because I have no wish at this stage to embarrass the Government. I shall continue to use my endeavours, and try to harness the endeavours of my colleagues who support votes for 18-year-olds, to convince the Government that it should introduce this legislation. Before I sit down I merely repeat that after a reasonable time if the Government has not introduced the vote for 18- year-olds then I shall reconsider my attitude.

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