x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Australia could lower voting age

Australia could give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote under far-reaching proposals being considered by the government.

Andrew Robertson, 17, left, and his classmate Mark Khunnithi support the reform proposal.
Andrew Robertson, 17, left, and his classmate Mark Khunnithi support the reform proposal.

SYDNEY // Australia could give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote under far-reaching proposals being considered by the government. At present voters must be 18 to cast a ballot, but ministers are contemplating a plan to give younger teenagers a say in Australian elections.

The suggestion is contained in an official discussion paper on electoral reform that is to be published in Canberra this year. The prospect of lowering the voting age has prompted an energetic debate on whether young Australians have the capacity to fully grasp such weighty matters as healthcare reform and foreign policy. John Warhurst, a professor of political science at the Australian National University, said he believed most were ready to accept such responsibilities.

"I think 17-year-olds certainly are. There will be some voters in those earlier age groups who will be overwhelmed by the choices and issues before them, but the same is true of many people of various ages," he explained. "The bulk of those in the younger age group are ready to participate in the political process." Prof Warhurst has noted a "growing maturity" among teenagers and said Australian society needed to catch up with their development because 16- and 17-year-olds were being neglected and found themselves marooned in a kind of no-man's land between childhood and adulthood.

"They are forgotten in terms of political parties connecting with them, but the consultations the government is having with a select group of young people suggest they are at least ready to vote," he added. In the early 1970s, Australia cut the legal voting age to 18 from 21, partly because of the contradictory position of conscripts who were deemed old enough to die for their country in foreign battles but were too young to be part of the political process.

"One of the reasons why the voting age was reduced in Australia 35 years ago was because we were right in the middle of the Vietnam War and we were sending young Australians to fight overseas at a time when they didn't have the vote," Prof Warhurst said. Many teenagers feel it is time their opinions are taken seriously by the government, especially given that the potential effects of global warming and the global economic meltdown, for example, could radically affect their lives further down the track.

"My generation will take on a lot of problems of older generations, like climate change and the financial crisis, which is quite scary, but it is a challenge," said Mark Khunnithi, 17, a final year student at Cranbrook School in Sydney, who insisted his age group should be allowed to vote. "That would be a great idea. I do reckon that 16-year-olds do know enough to really be part of the democratic process. A lot of them do take an active interest in the issues and they can come up with quite sophisticated responses and questions," he said.

"It is frustrating at times. You think you could make a contribution to the process and it would be good to get your voice heard. At the same time, though, it might not be for everyone," Mark added. His classmate Andrew Robertson, 17, agreed that suffrage should be extended to those whose voices were not being heard. "Basically 16 and 17-year-olds are completely ignored. The youth tend not to have a say in issues that clearly affect them.

"It is obvious for them [critics] to run the argument that 16- and 17-year-olds are immature and don't take an interest in politics, but I think that is generally not the case. For every well-educated, curious teenager, you can see a 36- or 46-year-old who really doesn't care about the system at all. It is probably time for us to start having a say in issues that affect us," Andrew said. Voting in Australia is compulsory, but about one-quarter of Australians between the ages of 18 and 30 are not on the electoral register.

Trent Southworth, a youth worker in Sydney and former police officer, believes this lack of engagement in politics is reason enough to raise the voting age. "I'd be an advocate for increasing it to 21," he declared. "A lot of things for young people come far too early. For example, the legal drinking age [at 18 years] is too young. I don't think in general young people at the age of 16 have had enough life experience to be making informed choices."

Mr Southworth said the added responsibility of voting would overburden the lives of teenagers, which are often complicated by the illicit temptations of alcohol and drugs as well as the weight of peer pressure and the need to do well at school. "There are enough stresses on young people with exams and just getting through that adolescent period without throwing a vote at them," he said. foreign.desk@thenational.ae