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Shorten pledges to lower voting age

Bill Shorten has charged Sam Dastyari to recommend whether the voting age should be lowered to 16 or 17. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is promising a Labor government would reduce the voting age – at least to 17 and perhaps 16.

Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Youth Sam Dastyari will consult with community leaders and young people, and recommend to Shorten whether the age should be 16 or 17.

In a speech to be delivered on Saturday to the NSW Young Labor conference, Shorten says that in 2012-13 more than 17,000 Australians under 18 paid A$41 million in income tax.

If Australia trusted 16- and 17-year-olds to pay tax and work, join the military, drive, fly a plane and make independent decisions about their medical care, “then we – the parliament of Australia – should extend that trust to include a direct, empowered say in our democracy”.

This was certainly occurring in other parts of the world, he says.

Shorten says this young generation faces a unique set of challenges in assembling a deposit for a house, paying off larger HECS debts and competing in a really tough jobs market. Young people are also inheriting problems not of their making – climate change, rising inequality, and Liberals wanting them to incur more debt for their education, or pay more through a higher GST.

“You look at these challenges, you weigh them against the daily experience of life, and then you turn on your TV and see a parliament that isn’t shaped by your views or your reality.

"Perhaps it’s no wonder that our democracy has a participation problem – especially among young people.”

A Labor government would also improve the enrolment of individuals once they reach voting age, he says.

Some 400,000 Australians turned 18 between 2010 and 2013 and did not enrol to vote.

“I know we live in times when it is easy to be disengaged, it’s easy to be cynical. But the worst outcome for our country would be for young Australians like you to lose faith in the power of our democracy to change our nation for the better,” he says in his speech.

“I believe young people want to be involved in decision-making processes – and should be offered the opportunity to do so, within our existing political structure. This will increase transparency and community-centred action in politics.”

Shorten points out that this generation of young people is more connected with the world than any before.

Dastyari’s consultations will also include the issues of improving enrolment and the engagement of young people with disabilities, young indigenous people and young people living in outer suburban, regional and remote areas.

Labor’s fact sheet “Empowering Young Australians” says that consideration should be given to “whether integrated enrolment and registration systems can be put in place to align with young people’s engagement in education through enrolments in school, TAFE and at uni, the tax system in their annual returns and licensing”.

Ian McAllister, from the Australian National University, in his 2013 paper “The Politics of Lowering the Voting Age in Australia: Evaluating the Evidence” says that there is “no evidence that lowering the voting age [to 16] would increase political participation; indeed, the evidence points in the opposite direction. And despite the rapid expansion of university education, young people are no more politically knowledgeable today than they were in the past. Modelling the partisan impact of extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds suggests little, if any, change.”

The voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 by the Whitlam government.

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