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Electoral Amendment (Voting Age) Bill 2021

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Tags: Young People, Democracy, Legislation

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, I move -

That the bill be read a second time.

The Electoral Amendment (Voting Age) Bill 2021 amends the Electoral Act 2004 to allow for voluntary enrolment on the state roll for Tasmanians aged 16 and 17 years. The Greens' bill recognises in this climate-constrained century young people need voices in parliament and governance and they deserve agency. They have unarguably the right to have a say. They have witnessed in this past week the failure of political leadership at Glasgow for COP26, an epic failure of political leadership.

This bill amends sections 31, 34 and 39 of the Electoral Act 2004. The amendments to section 31 stipulate that a person is eligible for enrolment on the state electoral roll if they are, (1) aged 16 or older; and (2) would be eligible to be enrolled on the Commonwealth roll if they were 18 or older.

The amendments to section 34 provide that a person aged 16 or 17 who is entitled to be enrolled on the state roll may apply to be enrolled on the state roll and vote in a state election. This means while those aged 18 or older are required to be enrolled to vote, 16- and 17-year-olds have the option to enrol. Importantly, once enrolled, like anyone else enrolled to vote, there is a requirement to vote. I am certain plenty of engaged bright young Tasmanians would relish the opportunity to cast a vote for their future in a state election.

The amendments to section 39 of the principal act establish separate provisions regarding eligibility for the candidate roll and election roll to reflect the differing age requirements in respect of candidates and electors as a result of the Greens' amendment bill.

Despite references to the state roll in the Local Government Act 1993, this bill would not affect eligibility to vote for local government elections by virtue of section 254(4)(b) of the Local Government Act 1993. Given that the Local Government Act is intended to be substantially rewritten as we understand it, and electoral matters are intended to be introduced in a separate act, this would be an appropriate opportunity to address voting age matters should this bill pass.

Australia has a long history of extending the right to vote. In 1856 South Australia was the first Australian jurisdiction to extend the right to vote to all males aged 21 or older, which other jurisdictions quickly followed. As we know, the right to vote was once exclusive to the landed gentry. South Australia was also the first state to extend the right to vote to women in 1894. In 1902 women nationwide were granted suffrage in Commonwealth elections.

Shamefully for this nation, it was not until a referendum in 1967 that Aboriginal Australians were given the right to vote. We sent First Nations people into the First and Second World Wars, but we did not give them the right to vote until 1967. In 1970 New South Wales was the first state to lower the voting age to 18. In 1973 the voting age was lowered to 18 for federal elections. We have lowered the voting age before; extending enfranchisement is not a new concept.

Providing the vote to those aged 16 and older is also not a particularly unique proposition. In 1984 Nicaragua lowered the voting age from 21 to 16. Nicaragua was joined by Brazil and Estonia in the 1990s. In the 2000s, the Isle of Man, Austria, Guernsey, Jersey and Ecuador all lowered their voting age to 16. In the 2010s, Argentina, Malta, Scotland and Estonia joined these ranks and, in 2021, so did Wales. East Timor, Greece and Indonesia allow 17-year olds to vote.

Opponents to this bill will likely cite the 2019 Senate inquiry into this matter. We would be disappointed if there were strong opponents to this legislation and people in this place who did not recognise that young people should have agency, they are informed, and, in a climate constrained century, should have a say at the ballot box once they reach the age of 16. The 2019 Senate inquiry examining a Greens bill to lower the federal voting age to 16 rejected the bill and, of course, as we know, the major parties had the numbers on that committee.

In their rejection of the bill they relied heavily on the argument that public support is not clear. That is no argument. Public support for climate action in Australia is strong and it is growing. Yet this is ignored by the federal government. Public support for the removal of poker machines from pubs and clubs in Tasmania sits at about 75 per cent to 80 per cent but that has been completely ignored by the major parties in this place. Whether something has public support or whether there is any clarity over public support is no reason to reject voting reform that extends franchise to younger people.

The history of the right to vote in democracy is replete with examples of enfranchised groups with the view that others should not be enfranchised. History has not treated them kindly and rightly so. We are now seeing in the United States the Republicans at state and national levels trying to prevent people from exercising their right to vote; trying to disenfranchise black Americans, Hispanics, women, and people who are in poverty. It is an age old trick of parties and candidates who know that if there were a general right to vote and if they genuinely put themselves forward in a free and fair election they would lose. That is why parties like the Republicans cheat and try to take away from people their right to vote.

The Senate report also claimed little empirical evidence to support the view that lowering the voting age would improve political engagement. Recent evidence challenges this view. In July 2021 the journal Parliamentary Affairs published an article by Jan Eichhorn and Johannes Bergh examining the impact of lowering the voting age to 16. This article is particularly compelling as it examines findings from studies in a range of different countries. None of these studies found any negative effects on political engagement or civic engagement. To the contrary, many studies found that 16- and 17 year olds who had been given the right to vote were often more interested in politics, more likely to vote, and demonstrated other pro civic attitudes which, surely, we should be fostering in a healthy democratic society.

The study also found that 16- and 17 year olds who have the right to vote were, in many instances, more politically engaged than those who were first allowed to vote at 18, and that this engagement carries on into later life.

Sixteen and 17-year-olds in this country are subject to laws and policy introduced by governments. They can be liable to pay taxes as workers, and make numerous contributions to our communities. They deserve to have a say about who represents them, particularly in this climate-emergency century.

Traditional arguments opposed to lowering the voting age rely on assertions that people under the age of 18 are less experienced, mature or knowledgeable about political matters. These same arguments, of course, are used to say that scientists and Greens politicians and other clear-thinkers who relay the facts on climate are scaring children and young people, and that they cannot make up their own minds.

As we know, what young people are most afraid of, in this century, is a failure of political leadership. Tragically, almost everywhere they look in the democratic world, they are seeing manifest failures of political leadership. Here in Australia, of course, we have the most embarrassing climate-denying prime minister that we have ever had, who went to Glasgow with a pamphlet, was rightly given the cold shoulder by world leaders, is a passionate advocate for coal, oil and gas, and is now pretending that he is a big believer in electric vehicles.

Being knowledgeable about political matters is not a prerequisite for voting for people over the age of 18. It is a rather condescending assumption to think that young people, aged 16 and 17 - the kind of young people who gather on our lawns to strike for climate - are not knowledgeable about political matters. In my experience, the young people you talk to about the state of the planet, the climate, and raging inequality, are deeply informed - they have made sure they are - and deeply engaged, and they want to be part of the solutions. They deserve to have some power given to them, because the decisions that are being made by governments now will affect their futures profoundly. Just like the decision that this Government is making not to end native forest logging will affect their lives and their wellbeing into the future.

Mr Speaker, those under the age of 18 can make enormous contributions to society. In 2014, Malala Yousafzai, at the age of 17, won the Nobel Peace Prize for risking her life to fight for the protection of children from slavery, extremism and child labour. In 2012, 15-year-old Jack Andraka received the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for developing a new method for the detection of pancreatic cancer. Taylor Wilson was the youngest person to create nuclear fission, at age 14; that sounds like a dangerous child to have, but what an amazing kid. At age 17, Taylor had taught a graduate-level nuclear physics course at the University of Nevada.

Aside from these examples, the assumption that younger people are somehow naturally less capable of decision-making is flawed and insulting.

A 2015 study conducted by Joshua Hartshorne and Laura Germine on the rise and fall of cognitive function across the lifespan - one of the largest studies of its kind - found a range of cognitive domains that peak before the age of 18 and decline during our 20s. I am sure in honest moments every member of this place would confess to that. While certainly many cognitive domains peak around middle age, others begin declining quite early in our lives. In short, people of different ages have different cognitive strengths, and therefore different insights to offer.

It is inconsistent to prohibit the vote to 16- and 17 year-olds on the basis of a lack of knowledge and intelligence. We know that is not true, when people over the age of 18 are universally entitled to vote, despite all of us being somewhat along a journey of cognitive decline.

We move this bill because we believe in young Tasmanians. We recognise their worries and their hopes for the future. We understand their frustration at the failures of political leadership. We have the deepest respect for young people who strike for climate, who advocate for change.

We, the Greens, want to be in here pushing that envelope to drive that change for young people, because the history of Greens policy - and every member of this place knows this - is that at first you laugh at us and then, over time, after a bit more ridiculing us, our policies are adopted, because they are good evidence based policies. As I said earlier, there are many other jurisdictions, all over the world, who have extended the right to vote to 16 and 17 year-olds.

We moved it this week, particularly, after the fiasco that was COP26. Anyone who saw the outcomes of what was to be one of our great hopes for change will be intensely dispirited by what came out of Glasgow. No real commitments to change. Even the Glasgow Declaration, which talks about halting and reversing forest loss and restoring forests - the very next day we had this Gutwein Government say it does not apply to us. The Australian Prime Minister signed that Glasgow declaration. Its first point calls on governments to halt forest loss, and yet within moments we had Senator Jono Duniam and state ministers basically saying nothing to see here, and nothing will change here.

That is what scares young people. Not the truth. What scares young people is when they see people like Senator Duniam absolutely dismiss the science, pretend that everything is fine, ignore the fact that native forest logging is contributing towards global heating. That is what worries young people.

I would like to acknowledge the presence in the gallery of two young climate strikers, Sam Eccleston and Lucian Beattie. Lucian has given us permission to read into Hansard some of the speech that he made here on the lawns at the Strike for Climate on a rainy day on 15 October. Dr Woodruff and I were at this school strike in the bucketing rain, and this speech was electrifying. Lucian says, about the third paragraph down -

It was only this week that Scott Morrison's buddies in the Murdoch press began promoting net zero by 2050. This may sound like an amazing step forward, but it truly is just a greenwashed election scheme hidden behind demands from the Nationals for $250 billion subsidies to the billionaire owners of the fossil fuel industries, and not to mention the fact that net zero by 2050 is 20 years too late.

By then, we will be well over the greenhouse gas emissions allowance to stay under a 1.5 degree rise, which would absolutely devastate the environment.

Lucian says:

Unfortunately, it is not only the federal government that needs to act, although this week the Tasmanian state Government announced their plan to legislate a target towards net zero emissions by 2030, which I applaud them for; they are not perfect. In fact I am utterly shocked that our Premier can target net zero emissions by 2030, but still ignores pushes to declare a climate emergency, saying that it will frighten the children.

Well look at us now. Frightened children. But we are not frightened the way Peter Gutwein said we would be.

We are frightened because we have a Government that won't take up their full responsibility and act.

We are frightened because we have a Government that won't declare a climate crisis. A crisis that our Government, being the climate leaders of the country, are doing their best to fight, but still won't even officially acknowledge its existence.

To quote Tim Flannery: 'The costs of the clean energy transition have never been lower nor the costs of inaction higher. Australia is poised to grasp a brighter, more prosperous and cleaner future, but delay, even by a few years, could cost us everything'.

This truly is a turning point. If our Government, and the world do not act on climate change to the best we can, we are doomed. The seas will rise, the arctic will melt, the coral reefs will die, the days will get hotter, the fires, storms and floods will get more extreme.

If those in power really cared for us, they would hear our voices. Our voices that feel so helpless right now.

The fact that I and all of you here, as children, teens, parents, grandparents, and more, have skipped many days a year of our valuable education and work to protest for our futures, our lives, is hurtful.

It is hurtful to know that we have a Government that chooses to care more about money than they care about the health and safety of their own citizens. For them to not act on or care about the state of our planet's climate is the equivalent of them digging our future children's graves before they could even have a chance to see the beauty of Earth's nature.

To Scott Morrison and every government and person in power that chooses to not act, I say shame, shame on you.

The Australian Government must act now, or never will the future generations of our country and the world, live on this planet knowing there will be a tomorrow.

Thank you. Let's keep fighting.

This is something we should all be fighting for together. It is something that we should be able to agree on.

We have had debates in this place, only this week about the safety and wellbeing of children and young people. Without exception, every member who spoke in those debates made strong, passionate statements about the vital importance of protecting children and young people. There is a risk here, that what young people will hear is lip service, because the actions are not following the words.

I wanted to thank Lucien for that magnificent speech. Thank you very much, Lucien. It is one of the most powerful speeches I have heard. I hope my colleagues in here were listening carefully. I hope the Premier was listening carefully because I did not see many of our colleagues at that school strike on 15 October.

The Commissioner for Children and Young People undertakes statewide consultation on young peoples' hopes and dreams for the future. Every report in recent years of the hopes and dreams of young Tasmanians is very clear. They want a safe climate. They want to be able to experience the beauty and the wonder and the life-sustaining goodness of nature.

This is across regions in Tasmania, from Smithton to Southport. I will just read a bit from the Commissioner for Children and Young People:

I know that in just a few short years this world will be in our hands. It is very important that the Government takes into account what we would have done with our world.

One major issue is climate change. If this is not acted on immediately it could potentially be the end of our future. The Tasmanian Government needs to educate people about this issue. They need to make their decisions with climate change in the backs of their minds.

I would argue in the front of their minds, but I digress:

They need to lead people in the right direction because together we can make a huge difference.

This all needs to happen before it is too late.

I personally do not want to be handed such a big problem. It shouldn't fall on the people of the future's shoulders. It should fall on those of the present.

If that means we need to finish what they started, that's okay, but this should not be all up to the next generation.

That is pure wisdom coming out of the mouths of young people. Another correspondent to the commissioner's consultation says:

Education of people about the importance of our environment is important. If we don't act now, in less than a hundred years over half the Earth's species will be extinct. This would be a great tragedy for the world and future generations.

Another young Tasmanian said:

Big corporations need to reduce and ultimately stop their production of carbon emissions and stop putting the blame on everyday people who use straws, et cetera.

A few tips:

Plant more trees.

We need the attitude of older generations to change and for them to listen.

We need to ban the production of fossil fuels across the world, to find alternative materials to use.

As we know, the alternatives are there. Predator capitalism is just under investing in them and governments are not creating the regulatory and legislative climate for these changes to be accelerated. Another correspondent to the commissioner's consultation says, 'At school we have a green team who recycle and reuse our recycling'.

One student says, 'Schools need to make their students more aware of the climate strikes'. That is because young people want to participate. They want their voices to be heard. While the climate strike on 15 October was not at the scale of the last couple before that, we know that thousands and thousands of young people were prepared to walk out of school, walk out here on to the lawns of parliament and demand that every person in this place elected to represent them listens to their calls for a safe climate.

Now is the time to rethink the power and the agency that we give to young people. Now is the time to extend the right to vote to 16- and 17 year olds. When I was Minister for Climate Change I used to say to young people who were interested in a career in politics, 'It is probably a good idea that you finish your studies and you do some work in an area that you are passionate about, where you are making the world a better place, and you party and you have fun and then late 20s or early 30s you could think about going into politics'. I do not say that anymore. I say, 'Crack into it. Put your hand up. We need you in there'. My oath, we do.

I hope that what we hear from our colleagues in this place is a considered and nuanced contribution to this policy of extending suffrage to 16- and 17 year old Tasmanians. If you vote against it, it tells me personally that there is a fear there. There is a fear that if you give younger people the right to vote, they might not vote for you.

There is another way of looking at this. If we give young people the right to vote, they can help us. They can certainly help the major parties lift their game, have good policies that respond to that aching, yearning of young people for real political leadership, that yearning to look to their prime minister and their premier and see someone who always puts their future first.

Mr Speaker, I commend the bill to the House.