It seems that Australia is considering a measure which would give 16 and 17 year-olds the right to vote in federal elections.
There are some aspects of Australia’s political system which make this sort of measure perhaps less controversial than in NZ. Australia’s electoral system is more complex than NZ’s; there are many more levels of representation, with two chambers at federal and state level (excluding Queensland); the right being proposed only extends to federal elections, not to state elections which are arguably more important to local electors; and it is a right to vote in a country where adult electors are required to vote. In a sense, proferring the opportunity to vote to those young’uns who consider themselves sufficiently informed and engaged to do so could limit cases of people being thrown into the deep end of compulsory voting in a complex system without a clue.
Politically, this was poison in NZ not so long ago, with most of the vitriol directed at Sue Bradford (who sponsored the Civics Education and Voting Age Bill), and the Greens’ secret conspiracy to take over the country.
But wait a minute, didn’t that bill include civics education? Wouldn’t that make NZ’s electorate more aware of and engaged with political systems and norms? While those with an ideological barrow to push would deride the teaching of civics as a propaganda exercise wherever it didn’t take their particular viewpoint, it is perfectly possible to teach the broad strands of political history, principles of government and representation and the bones of the major ideologies in a non-partisan manner – not an unbiased manner, mind; in a manner which makes the presence of bias clear and obvious enough for students to go and educate themselves. As far as I’m concerned, civics education and democracy should go hand in hand – and civics education and compulsory voting must go together. As it stands, we rely exclusively on the media to give us the information we need to be free and self-governing – without any sort of formal idea about what it means to be free and self-governing, or any critical tools to judge whether we are, or whether the information we get is sufficient to that end.
So, while I’m unconvinced that 16 and 17 year-olds should vote, the idea of them voting with a civics education is frankly less frightening than the idea of adults voting without one.