Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote?
That is a question being posed to federal parliament this week after returning for the start of the year. The provocative discussion was initiated by Greens MP Stephen Bates on Monday who argued younger Australians are entitled to have their their say in our democracy.
Mr Bates has introduced a private member's bill to lower the voting age in Australia.
"Climate change, access to health care, housing affordability, racial justice — these are issues which young people are passionate about because they are the ones who stand to lose the most from government inaction," he told parliament.
"Lowering the voting age to 16 gives young people the opportunity to have a real say over the politics and policies that will impact them for the rest of their lives," he continued
At the moment all Australians of voting age are obligated to vote and are fined if they do not comply. However, the proposed bill would not mandate voting for 16 and 17-year-olds and fines would be waived.
Compulsory and non-compulsory voters
The Greens propose this two-tiered system to acknowledge opposing concerns that under 18s do not have the political maturity to vote. Giving young people the choice, rather than mandating, is a step in counteracting this factor.
Many believe that due to a lack in life experience, many young people do not make wise decisions and this could subsequently have a negative impact. However, it can also be argued that political protests and rallies are often attended by many in the under-18 age demographic.
When a similar bill was introduced by the Greens in 2018, the Australian Labour Party (ALP) were not in favour of the non-compulsory element of the proposed bill, believing it could introduce confusion and depress turnout among general voting population.
Luke Beck, Professor of Constitutional Law at Monash University weighed in with a similar argument saying it would violate the Commonwealth Age Discrimination Act of 2014, which states members of the community should be treated equally based on age.
"There's no material difference between a 17-year-old and a 18-year-old that could justify the law treating the 17-year-old differently than the 18-year-old," he wrote in a submission against the bill.
With the two-tier system still in place with the most recent bill, it is likely this argument will be raised again.
Lowering voting age in the name of equity
Another argument for lowering the voting age is that Australians who are 16 can already do a number of 'adult' things. It is the age in most states that Australians can legally have sex and start applying for employment in the army and navy. Many also believe 16-year-olds have the right of representation if they have started either part-time or full-time work and are paying tax.
Young voters more likely to become lifelong voters
Many jurisdictions already allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, such as Argentina, Scotland and Wales, and found they have a positive engagement with the political system.
Research indicates that voters who participate in politics at an earlier age are more likely to become lifelong enthusiastic voters, with this factor argued to be beneficial for democracy and overall wellbeing of a country's political landscape.
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