AustLII Home | Databases | WorldLII | Search | Feedback

Australian Journal of Human Rights

You are here:  AustLII >> Databases >> Australian Journal of Human Rights >> 1996 >> [1996] AUJlHRights 9

Database Search | Name Search | Recent Articles | Noteup | LawCite | Author Info | Download | Help

Ludbrook, Robert --- "Children and the Political Process" [1996] AUJlHRights 9; (1996) 2(2) Australian Journal of Human Rights 278

Children and the Political Process

Robert Ludbrook[*]

Our democracy is based on the premise that groups of people will stand up for their own interests and rights. but generally speaking children and young people are not in the position to do this. Children are a large but uniquely uninfluential sector of the population. They are particularly powerless and vulnerable, and are generally highly restricted in both the extent to which they can take decisions about their own lives and the extent to which they can participate in society's overall decision making processes.Martin Rosenbaum and Peter Newell Taking Children Seriously (1991)

Politicians, eager to be seen as child-friendly, have often paid lip service to the well-being of children. But at the end of the day children have usually been let down. In the power game other interests have been stronger. Children have always been and still are the victims of hypocrisy. Thomas Hummarberg, Member of UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

One of the most important rights that should be available to the young is the right to vote. John Holt Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1975)

The exclusion of children from voting is part of a broader exclusion of children from decision-making. Children in all societies are denied rights to make decisions about their affairs which adults take for granted and consider to be essential to a democratic way of life. Bob Franklin Votes for Children 198?

The child who is capable of forming his or her own views shall have the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child. Article 12 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

1. Introduction

Children are and have always been relatively powerless members of society. This powerlessness derives from their smallness, their physical and intellectual immaturity. their lack of life experience, their dependency on adult carers. But their powerlessness is institutionalised and reinforced by compulsory education requirements which deny them opportunities to take their place in the adult world, by employment laws which deny them equal pay for equal work and by societal attitudes and processes of socialisation which, even today, expect them to be seen and not heard.

The general powerlessness of children is exacerbated by their exclusion from political processes and political decision-making. While there is a growing interest in and respect for the rights of children as human beings and as important members of society there has been little consideration given to the constraints on their participation in the political process.

While Australia takes considerable pride in being a democratic country with universal suffrage it excludes from voting more than a quarter of its population: children and young people under the age of 18. This exclusion is not the result careful deliberation of the issues involved and the arguments for and against allowing under 18s to vote. It is part of the received wisdom that children could not or should not vote or stand for election. This myopia which prevents us from seeing children as people, as citizens and as participants in the democratic process not only affects Australians: it is international.

Age discrimination is now widely proscribed as being unjust and unlawful. In family law and under international law we are being reminded that children are individual human beings with a right to participate in decisions which affect them. Can we continue to treat children as apolitical creatures, as outsiders in the political process?

If adults continue to deny children the power to play a part in politics and to exercise political choices they must offer some justification. This paper looks at the arguments in favour of allowing under 18s to participate in the democratic and political process and discusses some of the ways they might be involved and the issues involved in implementing such participation.

2. Children and the Right to Vote

Voting as a democratic right

Democracy is a system in which the will of the people is paramount. People express their will through their elected representatives who sit in Parliament and vote on their behalf. The right to vote and to stand for election are essential to the democratic system.[1] Australians believe in democracy. Fundamental to democracy is the principle of universal suffrage. 'One person - one vote'. Women gained equal voting rights in South Australia a century ago and have long had the right to vote in all States of Australia. Aboriginal people were denied the vote at Commonwealth level until 1962.[2] We now see it as unjust and insupportable that Australia's indigenous people should have for so long been denied the fundamental right to have a say in the choice of political leaders and policies.

The right to vote can be seen as the most important of all rights. It is the means by which people can exercise some influence over the nature and quality of the society in which they live and over laws and policies which will affect them in their daily lives. It is at the very heart of democracy. As a United States Supreme Court judge has said: 'Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined'.[3]

Universal suffrage

Australians see their system as one of 'universal suffrage' yet we deny under 18s (representing 27% of the population) the right to vote. The only other groups denied the right to vote in Australia are sentenced prisoners, criminals who have committed serious offences and psychiatric patients. Imprisoned criminals are, presumably, denied the right to vote by way of punishment for their criminal behaviour or because that behaviour is judged to merit forfeiture of their citizenship rights during the period of punishment. Psychiatric patients under compulsory orders no doubt lose their right to vote because of their presumed unsoundness of mind.

Why has the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in parliamentary election been denied to children and young people? Their disenfranchisement cannot be justified in terms of their anti-social behaviour or any proven mental or physical incapacity. In New South Wales, even people who are so physically incapacitated that they cannot sign the enrolment or voting form can vote. One does not have to pass a test in English language, literacy, intellectual ability or political knowledge. Not even an eyesight test is required! In the case of children it has long been presumed that they should be excluded from the democratic process but the reasons for their exclusion have not been identified.

Voting and Citizenship

Politicians often speak about the rights and obligations of Australian citizenship and exhort young people to be more aware of the rights and responsibilities that flow from their status as Australian citizens. The then Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe in an address to the Australian Labour Party Conference on 27 September 1994 remarked that:

Labor recognises that to be an Australian citizen is not just about the enjoyment of civil and political rights. Rather, to be a citizen is to be able to fully participate in the life of the community by sharing the general standard of living and in the quality of life. Being a citizen implies a social and economic status as well as a civil and political one.....

Considerable resources are currently being outlaid by the Commonwealth government on citizenship education in schools. The Minister for Schools, Hon. Ross Free, announced in January 1995 a national program of civics education to assist in the development of an informed and knowledgeable citizenry and one which would be able to contribute to the political debate in an educated and informed manner. The government is putting $20 million into a civics and citizenship education program in Australian schools.

Bob Franklin sees children as a unique political group in democracies in that they constitute a clear violation of the democratic principle that no individual or group should be subject to laws which they have not participated in making.[4] With the current Australian emphasis on 'citizenship' and on the rights and obligations flowing from this status, it is perhaps time to reconsider the question of voting rights for children. If we want them to behave as responsible citizens we need to give them some stake in society and some opportunity to influence its policies and priorities.

Brian Simpson has made the point:

Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of lowering the voting age is that it would reverse the trend in recent years to scapegoat young people for various social problems. It would redress a power imbalance which makes young people easy targets for politicians who want to make a name for themselves. By giving young people some power they would have to be included in society's decisions and perhaps better decisions would result. It might just help reduce some of the alienation which the political exclusion of young people currently causes.[5]

In an interesting legal development Justice Gaudron of the High Court of Australia in the Teoh decision[6] advanced the argument that fundamental rights were acquired by children by reason of their status as Australian citizens stating that:

Citizenship involves more than obligations on the part of the individual to the community constituting the body politic of which he or she is a member. It involves obligations on the part of the body politic to the individual, especially if the individual is in a position of vulnerability. And there are particular obligations to the child citizen in need of protection'. So much was recognised as the duty of kings, which gave rise to the parens patriae jurisdiction of the courts. No less is required of the government and the courts of a civilised democratic society.

While it was the best interests principle that was in issue in Teoh, the decision adds some force to the argument that the democratic right to vote might be seen as flowing from one's status as an Australian citizen.

Voting as part of citizenship education

Children learn by doing. They learn about decision-making by making decisions. They can learn about politics and the electoral system by being able to express their views and preferences through the ballot box. This argument has been developed by John Holt who has written:

The other great reason for giving people control over their government, and hence over their lives, is that it may and probably will make them more informed and responsible. People do not always learn from experience, but without it they do not learn at all. And experience is not enough, they must have not just experience but the ability to affect experience. If they think their choices and decisions will make a difference to them, in their own lives, they will have every reason to try and choose and decide more wisely. But if what they think makes no difference, why bother to think?[7]

Voting and inclusiveness

The principle of inclusiveness is widely accepted. The idea is that those who are affected by decisions should be part of the decision-making process. Children can be characterised as the most unrepresented minority in a country that takes pride in its tolerance towards minority groups. Moira Rayner, then Equal Opportunity Commissioner of Victoria, wrote :

We expect people to stand up for their own rights. Children cannot demand remedies for their wrongs. They are a largely uninfluential section of the community. They do not have access to the means of exerting power, or protecting their own vulnerability. They do not play any part in the processes which determine the policies which affect them. They, unlike other subjects of discrimination, are peculiarly unable to organise themselves politically. [8]

John Holt views the right to vote as a matter of justice and argues that 'to be subject to the laws of a society without having any right or way to say what those laws should be is a most serious injustice'. He puts it this way: "If I am going to be affected by what you decide, I should have a say in it. If you are going to have control over me, then I should have some over you."[9]

Voting and the age of majority

The right to vote is seen as one of a bundle of rights which children acquire at midnight before the day of their 18th birthday. In recent times the voting age has tended to move in tandem with the age of majority. The age of majority is the point at which a child attains legal adulthood, it marks the passage from the dependant legal status of 'minority' or 'infancy' to the full legal status of 'majority' or 'adulthood'. At common law, a minor is deemed to be under a general incapacity to exercise the rights of citizenship and to perform civil duties or to hold public or private offices or perform the duties incidental to them.[10]In law, growing up is not a continuous and cumulative process, it is an instantaneous transformation from childhood to adulthood.

While the law has long recognised a chronologically-determined legal threshold between childhood and adulthood the specific age has moved upwards and downwards to take account of the social thinking of different generations.

At one stage the age was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. One hundred years ago the age of majority was 21 for males and females but a lower 'age of discretion' of 14 for girls and 16 for boys was recognised[11]. A parent could not enforce a custody order against a reluctant child who had attained the age of discretion. In Australia, the age of majority was reduced to 18 in the late 1970s in the Commonwealth and in each state and territory[12]. It had earlier been reduced to 18 in the United Kingdom[13]. Today the age of majority has become largely irrelevant. The Gillick case[14] decided that, in the absence of any statutory provision, children could make their own decisions when they had acquired the requisite capacity. While it may be convenient to fix a chronological age at which children attain full legal powers, a rigid aged-based criterion fails to take account of the considerable variations in maturity of individual children and young people, the varying degrees of maturity and competence needed to handle different situations and the degree of harm that may result from an immature or unwise decision.

Children under the age of 18 cannot marry (without parental consent), cannot (with some exceptions) enter into binding contracts and they cannot change their names or vote. While there may be serious adverse consequences of entering into an unwise marriage or a disadvantageous contract there is little chance of harm to a minor resulting from a change of name and even less from an injudicious vote. While minors are protected from some of the responsibilities of adulthood they are still required to pay taxes, they can be bankrupted for non-payment of enforceable debts, and they can be sued in negligence and other torts if they are found to be able to distinguish right from wrong[15].

The Gillick [16] decision resulted in a significant shift in the common law away from a fixed age approach to a individual capacity approach to children's powers. In Gillick it was accepted that children have the right to make decisions for themselves when they have attained the intelligence and understanding to make an informed judgment on the matter in issue. The rationale for the decision in Gillick casts doubt on the value and appropriateness of the concept of a fixed 'age of majority'. Capacity is an elastic concept measured taking into account the developmental maturity of the individual child, the complexity of the decision the child may be asked to make, and the seriousness of the consequences to the child who makes an unwise or immature decision.

Capacity to make political choices

While young children may be shown to lack the capacity for complex decision-making, the capacity argument is untenable when applied to adolescents. According to one study, by the age of 13 a young person has acquired "the major components of a mature political self."[17] A New Zealand Royal Commission in 1986[18] rejected the proposition that young people lack the capacity to make political judgments. Maturity is an elusive concept and there are different views about when children achieve political maturity. One researcher suggests that many under 15s do not conceive of the community as a whole but tend to conceptualise government in terms of specific and tangible services. By 15, young people take into account the long range effects of political action, and use philosophic principles for making political judgements.[19]

The research evidence that younger adolescents do not have a wider view of society and political processes may reflect the reality that they receive little encouragement and have little incentive to be involved in matters over which they have no influence. If politics is viewed as adult business, children will leave it to the adults. At what age is a child capable of making a political judgment? This question is probably not capable of precise answer. One would need to know about the capacity of children to understand political issues and to weigh up opposing considerations. One would also need to identify whether for adults voting is a considered political choice based on factual information about the different candidates, the parties they represent, the policies they espouse and the credibility to be attached to their promises or whether it is an expression family or personal loyalties and ideologies or heavily influenced by media messages:

To a large extent the research on political socialisation has treated children and adolescents as passive interpreters of political information that they receive. But young people seek out political information and on occasion reject the information that they receive. In this sense new political meaning may be created by children in particular circumstances. They also carefully select out and subtly change information to fit into their interpretative framework.[20]

Those who argue against giving children the vote tend to stress the seriousness and difficulty involved in making political choices. But the degree of maturity and political knowhow needed for voting is quite low. Because a vote is one among millions, the political damage that can be done by an immature or ill-informed political choice is minimal. And because voting is by secret ballot it is unlikely that any harm will be suffered by a young voter.

Voting and youth perceptions of politics and politicians

Many young people have a distrust of politicians. In an AGB Mc Nair survey conducted in April 1994, 78% of young people said they had no respect for politicians and 88% said they had very little confidence in state or federal MPs. Similar dislike and distrust of politicians was indicated in a poll in 1989 by the Australian Council for Educational Research.[21]

These views are shared by many adults. The lack of respect for politicians may be a manifestation of the 'tall poppy syndrome'. It may because of a lack of any defined place in the political system adolescents have had little personal experience (be it good or bad) of politicians and their views are more likely to reflect common stereotypes. Or it may be that their views are based on personal experience. There is certainly resentment felt by young people at the negative images of youth behaviour promoted by some politicians and sections of the media. And there is a depth of feeling that children and young people are often used as convenient scapegoats by politicians who know that they can be targeted for negative comments knowing that they will thereby not lose votes.

Whatever the reasons for youth scepticism towards politics and politicians it is a cause for concern. If young people feel alienated from political leaders and political institutions they are likely to feel alienated from society. If they are able to see that politicians are representing youth interests this alienation might be lessened.

Voting and age discrimination

There are laws in every Australian state and territory (other than Tasmania) making it unlawful to discriminate against any person on the grounds of their age. While these anti-discrimination laws do not override voting ages laid down by statute, they establish a principle that no person should be disadvantaged because of their youth unless there are compelling reasons for the differential treatment. If the voting age cannot be justified in terms of the young person's lack of capacity it must amount to a form of age discrimination.

Denial of political rights on the basis of an arbitrary age restriction is prima facie discriminatory. It should be for those who argue against lowering the voting age to justify their position.

Voting and military service

In Australia the voting age has often been linked with the age at which young people can fight in the armed forces. There may not be any obvious logical connection between young people's capacity to fight in a war and their capacity to make a political choice but there are strong emotional arguments that if one is old enough to die for one's country one should be old enough to have a say in the running of that country. In World War II Australian servicemen sent overseas were given the right to vote from the age of 18. The voting age was then 21. In 1966, the Federal government passed legislation giving the vote to members of the defence forces serving in Vietnam and Malaysia. The fact that young people were conscripted into the armed forces caused some commentators to remark that the older generation was willing to impose its will on young people but was unwilling to give them a say in public affairs. These precedents had some influence on the later reduction to 18 of the age of majority and the accompanying lowering of the voting age.

Voting as a universal human right

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) provides that "everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government, this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage..." This principle is restated in Article 25 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): which states that "every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, ... without unreasonable restrictions: (a) to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; and (b) to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage...."

The National Children's and Youth Law Centre is currently investigating the possibility of assisting some young people to make a complaint to the UN Committee on Human Rights alleging that the failure to grant a vote to under 18s amounts to a breach of their right to "take part in public affairs either directly or through freely chosen representatives' and that the arbitrary age limit is not a 'reasonable restriction". Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC) assures to all Australian children a right to express their views in matters which affect them. The only qualification is that they are capable of forming their own views.

Yet children and young people under the age of 18 are denied the right to express their views in the political arena. When one considers the battles fought and won by women and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people it is surprising, perhaps, that protagonists for children's rights have seldom argued strongly that children should be enfranchised.

3. Other avenues for youth participation in politics

Youth lobby groups

While there is a wide range of youth groups in Australia, there is not a well organised youth political lobby. It is a phenomenon of modern day politics that special interest lobby groups exert considerable influence within the political process. Examples are the women's lobby, the family rights lobby and the pro-gun lobby. Peter Newell, an English children's rights advocate, has written:

Politicians are under pressure to devise and present policies in a way which reflects the self-interest of various constituent groups of adults ranging from war widows to farmers and from mortgage payers to commuters: they are not under the same degree of pressure with regard to children and young people. As a result, the impact of policies on children and young people receives less care and attention. Children may be the subjects of a fair amount of political rhetoric, but unfortunately the rhetoric tends to be empty and unconnected to practical policies. [22]

The peak youth body in Australia is the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition (AYPAC). In 1995, AYPAC launched a campaign to have the voting age lowered to 16 or younger for all Federal, State, Territory and local elections. AYPAC set out the arguments for lowering the voting age in a comprehensive discussion paper, Seen But Not Heard. The National Children's and Youth Law Centre has also released a comprehensive discussion paper on the topic and has consistently lobbied for lowering the voting age.

Membership of political parties

Membership of political parties is open to young people below the voting age but there is no consensus on what is a suitable minimum age for membership. At 16, one can join as a branch member of the Young Liberal movement and will have opportunities to participate in local branch discussions and in the formulation of policy initiatives to be presented to the Young Liberal Council, the policy making body of the Young Liberal Movement. The Young Liberals have not taken a position on the lowering of the voting age but the Liberal Party Platform includes a commitment to an Australian nation 'in which the youth of the nation is given every encouragement to develop its talent to the full, recognising that from its ranks will come the leaders of tomorrow'.

At 15, a young person can join the Australian Labor Party and a local Young Labor Group. New South Wales Young Labor debated the issue of lowering the voting age at their most recent conference but this has not been incorporated into Young Labor policy. The Young Democrats have no lower age limit for membership and there are members aged 11 and possibly younger. At their National Convention in September 1995, they voted in favour of lowering the voting age to 16. At 16, enrolment would be optional but voting compulsory for any 16 or 17 year old who was enrolled. The Honorable Richard Jones, a Democrat member of the New South Wales Upper House, has indicated his intention to introduce a private member's Bill to lower the voting age. The Western Australian Greens have no lower age limit for membership. Both they and the national Greens are currently considering the lowering of the voting age.

Youth Parliaments

An interesting initiative supported and encouraged by the YMCA movement in Australia has been the creation of Youth Parliaments. The first was held in Brisbane in 1963 and Youth Parliaments are now established in all Australian states and territories other than Queensland and New South Wales. Young people between the ages of 15 and 25 are encouraged to form groups and to put forward ideas which form the basis of Bills introduced into the Youth Parliament. Before the Youth Parliament sits, there is a week's intensive activity where the various groups come together in a residential setting and debate and discuss ideas put forward and decide which proposals should be put before Parliament in the form of draft legislation.

On the Parliamentary sitting day, members of the groups are divided at random into government and opposition. A number of Bills are introduced and there is debate on each Bill. After the debate members of the Parliament cast a vote not on party lines but in accordance with their personal views formed after having heard both sides of the argument put. Details of all motions that have been passed are sent to a government member of the State or Territory government in question. While the government may choose not to act on the decisions of the Youth Parliament, they will at least be aware of the views of the participants.

Does the experience gained by young people at Youth Parliaments motivate them to seek opportunities to participate fully in the political system? While records are not complete, Bills to lower the voting age have been debated and voted on a number of occasions with mixed results. The issue was debated in the Victorian Youth Parliament in 1991 and again in 1992. In each case a Bill to introduce optional voting at 16 was passed. The first Youth Parliament for the Northern Territory in 1995 considered a 'Right to Vote at 16 Bill' to 'encourage the participation of young Territorians in the democratic process of government'. The Bill established a non-compulsory right to vote in local and state elections. It was debated and voted on but failed to gain the support of the House by a small margin. One section of the Bill contained an acknowledgment that 'not all young people wish to be enfranchised, as apathy is rampant in many parts of society'. Also in 1995, the South Australia Youth Parliament considered a 'Young Australian's Voluntary Voting Bill' which would have allowed young people to enrol at 15 and to vote at 16 in state and local authority elections. Enrolment and voting was to be optional. This Bill also failed by a small margin[23].

It emerges from these experiments in youth democracy that young people themselves are divided on the question of whether they would like to have the opportunity to vote. Their interest in the topic is evidenced by the fact that the issue has been raised on at least four occasions. In 1995 two Youth Parliaments put youth voting rights forward as an important issue. In all cases it was proposed that 16 be the age at which young people could first cast their vote and that voting should be optional.

Official agencies speaking for children

Even if children are denied a direct voice in political decision making they can be given an indirect voice. There are a number of ways in which this can be achieved. One is through the appointment of a statutory body with responsibility for promoting the interests of children such as a Commissioner for Children (as in New Zealand) or a Children's Ombudsman (as in Norway). Another is by the appointment of an Office of Children's Affairs ( along similar lines to the Office of Women's Affairs attached to the Prime Ministers Office). A cabinet position of Minister for Children could be created. Australia has chosen not to adopt any of these models.

4. Issues involved in child participation

At what age should children have the right to vote?

John Holt writing 20 years ago argued that all children should have the right to vote and that age capacity and dependency were irrelevant:

The right (to vote) does not need to and should not depend on a young person having or exercising other rights... A young person living in every other respect as a child, as a dependant, should have the same right as everyone else to vote., just as many adults, living as dependants have it.[24]

Arguments based on 'one person - one vote' may be persuasive but it is doubtful that Australians are ready to accept that babes in arms and toddlers should be able to line up with them on election day. In the Australian context where compulsory voting is embedded in political tradition votes for all children may be unrealistic. Arguments based on capacity, contribution and on the exercise by young people of other civic responsibilities (eg paying taxes) are likely to carry more weight.


If one ties voting to competency children should be able to vote when they attain the capacity to express a political choice. To adapt the words of House of Lords in Gillick and the High Court of Australia in Marion's case children should be able to make their own decisions when they have attained sufficient intelligence and understanding to make an informed decision about the candidates and their policies. Because it is impracticable for all children to be tested periodically on their political maturity and understanding (even were this capable of being accurately tested) it may be necessary to fix an age at which the majority of children in that age bracket will have acquired the requisite intelligence and understanding. To some extent this will be arbitrary. Research evidence tends to support an age between 13 and 16 as being appropriate.


While legal independence is reached on attainment of the age of majority (currently 18) actual independence is a progressive attainment. Children can work and be fully self supporting at 15. They can leave home at that age or even earlier if they can support themselves.

Contributions and responsibilities

Children can pay taxes in respect of earned or unearned income from any age. Because of the legal limitation on their working full time before the age of 15, and because of the lower wages paid to children, their contribution may be less than the average adult but it is far from minimal. Much work performed by young people is unpaid but it nevertheless amounts to a substantial contribution. Within the family and community children are expected to assume a range of responsibilities.

Fixing an age

Age 12 The United Nations definition of youth is from the age of 12 to 25. Teenagers are seen as a separate sub-group in society.

Age 15 In Australia children on their 15th birthday reach the end of their compulsory schooling. They can at 15 work full time and become economically independent of their parents. Below that age they are in a state of legally enforced dependency in that their parents can be prosecuted if they do not attend school and any employer can be prosecuted if they are employed during school hours. Fifteen is the age at which children have the opportunity to take their place in the adult world. Some choose to remain at school and further their education but that is their choice and society should not penalise them for exercising that choice.

Age 16 There is no particular reason to select 16 as the appropriate age at which children should be able to vote yet it is the age that seems to attract the most support. This is possibly because (like 18) it is an even number. It may be because in practice most 15 year olds are still at school. Or it may be because young people and adults today see 16 as something of a watershed between childhood and adulthood. All four Bills presented to Youth Parliaments in different parts of Australia opted for 16 as the voting age. The National Representative Board of AYPAC has supported a reduction of the voting age to 16[25]. The Democrats, Young Labor and some South Australian youth groups have also expressed a preference for 16.

Optional or compulsory voting for under 18s

There are arguments both ways:

Optional voting

Young people themselves have expressed a consistent preference for optional voting. All four Bills presented to Youth Parliaments demonstrate a strong preference for optional voting. One argument is that some young people who are not interested in politics or have not formed views of there own should not be forced to cast a vote. Another argument is that 16 and 17 year olds vary in maturity and that optional voting acknowledges this.

Compulsory voting

Australia is unusual in that it is obligatory for every Australian citizen entitled to vote to enrol on the electoral role and to vote in Federal and State elections. Any qualified person who fails to enrol and to vote can be prosecuted and fined. In local authority elections voting is usually optional. In most other English speaking countries enrolment of qualified voters is compulsory but voting is optional. The Australian approach is that voting is not only a right but also an obligation. While this approach might be characterised as a restriction of the individual's freedom of expression (in that they are denied the opportunity express their disinterest or distaste for the political system by abstaining from voting) it can more accurately be viewed as democracy in the fullest sense of the word: everyone, including the apathetic and the antagonistic, must be involved in choosing their government. Recent attempts in South Australia to move to an optional voting system have not received popular support.

To give voters under the age of 18 the choice whether to vote or not would be to treat them differently than all other eligible voters. It would be setting a precedent and creating a sub-class. It could generate opposition from constitutionalists and politicians who might see it as the thin end of a wedge. It could also expose young people to the criticism that they want the right to vote but do not want the obligation. At a time when there is widespread feeling that children want rights, but are unwilling to recognise corresponding responsibilities, their preference for optional voting could be used against them. Another argument that might be raised in opposition is that if voting for young people was optional political parties might manipulate this by persuading young people who support their views to enrol and vote, leaving severely alone those who would not give them their vote.

Compulsory enrolment but optional voting

Under 18s could be required to enrol and encouraged, but not required, to vote.

Compulsory enrolment and voting but with no penalty for non-voters

Under 18s would have to enrol and to vote but failure to vote would not attract any criminal penalty. There are examples of legal requirements that are not backed up by criminal sanctions and there are arguments for placing an obligation on young people but not criminalising their failure to meet these obligations. Again. young people might be accused of wanting the best of both worlds.

Standing for election

Representing an electorate in Parliament requires considerably greater skills and sophistication than casting a vote. A Member of Parliament has the responsibility of representing the interests of the electors and of presenting their concerns to Parliament. Elected representatives become public figures and are exposed to the cut and thrust of party politics and the critical interest of the media. It might be argued that even though under 18s should be able to vote they should not be exposed to the destructive aspects of politics. Against this it can be argued that young candidates seldom succeed in being elected and that they are unlikely to be successful in gaining pre-selection and winning a seat unless they have the personal and political qualities to do the job. The voters can be relied upon to choose the person they perceive as the best for the job and young people should not be debarred from seeking to be elected.

5. Conclusion

One can expect that there will be an increasing clamour by young people to be given the right to participate in the political process. As Australia moves towards the year 2000 and looks to replace the constitutional monarchy with a republic it will be harder to resist pressure to lower the voting age. Political parties will undoubtedly sponsor opinion polls to ascertain whether, if enfranchised, younger voters are likely to support their political party. However compelling the arguments for and against lowering the voting age competition for the youth vote may ultimately be the determining factor. A party that is likely to capture a significant share of the youth vote will be encouraged to adopt the lowering of the voting age as official policy. Australia lagged behind New Zealand in giving women the vote. It was we;ll behind other Commonwealth countries in enfranchising its indigenous people. If Australia set its sights on giving under 18s the vote by the year 2000, it could lead the world.


[*] Formerly Director, National Children's and Youth Law Centre, Sydney.

[1] See A Bill of Rights for ACT - Issues Paper Attorney-General's Dept (AGPS, 1993) para 131

[2] See Gaze B & Jones M Law Liberty & Australian Democracy (Law Book Co, 1990) at 90-93; Jones M "The Right to Participate in the Policial System" The Laws of Australia Human Rights.

[3] Wesberry v Saunders [1964] USSC 31; (1964) 376 US 1 at 17 per Black J

[4] see Franklin, B (ed) The Rights of Children (Blackwells, 1986) and "Votes for Children" Childright Bulletin

[5] Simpson B "Democracy: Give Children the Vote" (1993) 18 Alternative Law Journal 190-191.

[6] Minister of State for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs v Ah Hin Teoh [1995] HCA 20; (1995) 128 ALR 353.

[7] Holt J Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (Penguin ,1975) at p118

[8] Rayner, M. "Children's rights in Australia: do we need the Convention?" (1991) 1 12 to 25 22.

[9] Holt op cit at p118

[10] Halsbury Laws of England 4ed para 604

[11] Agar-Ellis v Lascelles (1883) 24 Ch D 317,326

[12] see Irving T, Maunders D, Sherington G Youth in Australia: Policy Administration and Politics (1995) pp150 ff

[13] Family Law Reform Act 1969 (UK) s9(1) with effect from 1 January 1970

[14] Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority and Anor[1985] UKHL 7; [1985] 3 All ER 578, (1986) AC 112, [1986] 1 FLR 224 followed in Secretary, Department of Health and Community Services v JWB (Marion's Case) [1992] HCA 15; (1992) 175 CLR 218

[15] Halsbury Laws of England 4ed para 626

[16] See note 14 above

[17] Dawson R, Prewitt K and Dawson K. Political Socialisation (Little Brown ,1977) quoted in Franklin B "Votes for Children " Childright Bulletin 19???; Ormond C et al, " " (1991) 14 Journal of Adolescence 275-291

[18] Democracy at Work Report of Royal Commission on the Electoral System (1986)

[19] Furnham & Stacey B Young People's Understanding of Society (1991) pp19-34.

[20] Ibid at p33

[21] Australian Council for Educational Research Political Knowledge & Political Attitudes: A Study of Australian 14 year olds (1994)

[22] Rosenbaum M and Newell P Taking Children Seriously (1991) p10

[23] Information provided by Ben Hubbard, YMCA Youth Parliament Co-ordinator

[24] Holt op cit at p118

[25] Seen but not Heard: Voting Rights for Young People (1995)

AustLII: Copyright Policy | Disclaimers | Privacy Policy | Feedback