Jordon Steele-John the youngest Senator in Parliament, has recently announced that he, with the full support of the Greens and the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, the peak body for 4.3 million young Australians, will introduce a bill that proposes to lower the age of suffrage to 16 for youth who wish to engage in federal politics, while the compulsory age will remain at 18. The purpose of his bill is to reinvigorate the Australian political establishment, as he sees the growing political engagement by young people who wish to contribute their voice in public decisions.
For many teenagers, turning 18 can open many exciting doors because suddenly it becomes legal to purchase alcohol, get a tattoo and take charge of your own life. Yet, being responsible for the direction of life generally makes anyone a stakeholder in local and national political decisions such as education, healthcare and work rights. Many of these issues would have affected the lives of most before they turn 18.
“It’s frustrating to me that young people aged 16 can work full time, drive cars, pay taxes, make choices about medical treatment and about their own bodies yet can’t vote or elect the people who make decisions affecting them,” stresses Steele-John.
The status quo opinion on the age of voting usually implies that the youth should not be given the right to vote because they are incapable of making valuable and well-rounded judgments about the government’s operation in politics, and would thus harm wider society through voting.
Nevertheless, what Steele-John’s envisions in his policy is that youth suffrage has long term benefits as “including them (youth) at an earlier age as part of our national conversation and political process can only increase their civic engagement and understanding of Australian society and their place within it.”
The Labor Party had teased the idea of lowering the age of voting back in 2015 when Opposition Leader Bill Shorten stated that voting rights should be entrusted to people of 16 years old, because their decisions would affect their future. Undoubtedly, there seems to be an incentive for the Greens and Labor Party to allow teenagers aged 16 and 17 to vote, as the 2016 Census had shown a strong gearing towards the left of the political spectrum. The political bearing of younger people does not yet conjure momentum on issues that may arise in local, state or federal governments. Furthermore, there is a reciprocal relationship for Parliament when the voting age lowers as policies would ideally reflect the voice of the younger demographic, forcing current office-bearers to reconsider policies that exclude young people with no arguable reason.
The average age of senators in Australian Parliament has fluctuated between 47 and 52. There is a
clear indication from this statistic that there is a lack of representation from the youth demographic. Coming from this lack of youth representation also brings light to the lack of representation in minority groups such as women, Indigenous peoples and persons of colour, who altogether constitute a large portion of Australia’s population. The step of youth suffrage opens the opportunity for representative positions in local, state and federal politics, with figures such as Steele-John himself leading an underrepresented group’s voice into the community.
Organisations and programs such as Girls Takeover Parliament and Advocate have funded younger people aged 18-24 in the ACT to work with their local politicians to capture issues that matter to younger people in the electorate. With the increasing amount of empowering political opportunities given to young people such as Advocate, I believe that the currently underrepresented state of Australian politics will flourish, because the issues of minority groups and misheard youth affected by status quo politics will at least be considered in proceedings.
Despite the office-bearing incentive for the left-wing parties of Australia, it is without doubt that given the rights to political decision, youths will use this opportunity to their advantage. Teenagers who are under the age of suffrage already exercise their democratic right through civic participation in online advocacies and rallies towards policies such as refugee rights and as Steele-John had mentioned, the same-sex debate in Australia last year. These demonstrations of civic participation are a clear indication that 16 and 17-year-old teenagers have the educational capacity to vote.
By lowering the age of suffrage, policymakers would not just be earning votes but also creating stable foundations for the future of politics.
Steele-John states, “This reform is just another example of how the Green movement is committed to realising the rights of our generation.”
Steele-John is set to introduce the bill in the Senate next month to be debated on June 18.