We asked five experts: should Australia lower the voting age to 16

The following opinion piece, co-authored by Dr Phillipa Collin from the Institute for Culture and Society, was first published with full links on The Converstation(opens in a new window).

Voting is a key part of the democratic process. It allows all citizens of a certain age to have a say on matters important to them. Voting in federal elections and referendums is compulsory for every Australian aged 18 and over.

But decisions made by elected governments – especially in areas such as education, health and energy – impact young people too. Legal and political voices have long called for Australia to lower the voting age to 16. After all, people under 18 can leave school, get a job, drive a car and pay taxes. So why not vote?

A parliamentary inquiry is currently looking into the issue. In the meantime, we asked five experts their views. Here’s what they said.

Five out of five experts said yes

Helen Berents - Lecturer in youth justice - Yes

Lowering the voting age would allow young people who already are politically and socially engaged in their communities to formally participate in our democracy. Enfranchising young people would provoke a more diverse political dialogue that would be beneficial for all Australians. Often youth are depicted as apathetic. This has significant implications because it ignores the reality that many of the formal mechanisms for communicating with youth have been removed by successive governments. For example, there is no current Minister or Office for Youth.

When methods of communication as well as political issues of significance to youth – higher education funding, affordable housing, climate change among many others – are sidelined by governments, it tells youth their voice doesn’t matter. Providing a formal avenue for youth participation by lowering the voting age would recognise the valuable contribution youth can make, enhance political engagement with all Australians, and bolster representativeness in our federal parliament.

Jean-Paul Gagnon - Political philosopher - Yes

History – across language, time, and space – is peppered with tensions about the boundaries to political participation, in this case voting. Progressives have fought and won against arbitrary exclusions to participation formed by the powerful. Think about it: in some cases only men of a certain age were allowed to vote; in others it was about title; while in others it depended on where you were from, how much property you owned, and so on. Were any of these absolutist positions logically defensible? No, and certainly not in the face of the 'one person, one vote' principle. That's why these arbitrary positions crumbled in confrontation with more democratic logic.

If a 16-year-old asks, 'am I allowed to vote?', what viable counter-argument would one have? The 'you’re too young' line, arguably the most popular, doesn’t hold water, if only because some teenagers can outsmart their grandparents in different policy fields or vice versa. We’re better off working together across generations, drawing on each other’s expertise, and crafting a polity of more ages and not a polity guarded by ageists.

Lisa Hill - Professor of politics - Yes

However, I’d love to see a trial of this first. I'm a little conflicted as voting requires moral maturity. It’s something to be taken seriously. But we have low and declining turnout among young Australians and that worries me. Research suggests those who vote for the first time at 16-17- years-old are more likely than 18-20- year-old first-timers to stay in the habit. Ideally a trial would be conducted in a single jurisdiction. Preferably, it would be accompanied by a compulsory class in school on the value and mechanics of voting with a focus (and even test) on how to cast a formal vote, since the young are more likely to vote informally.

Louise Phillips - Lecturer in education - Yes

Young people are politically aware. They know about, and have rational opinions on, contemporary political issues. We all mature at differing rates and age is not the sole determinant of political awareness. I would recommend youth voters be offered the chance to participate in elections voluntarily, so those who vote are voting to enact their political right, rather than for compliance – which spurs ill-considered and donkey votes. Shifts for the inclusion of political enfranchisement for women, working class and Indigenous Australians was enabled through broader social support. Nearly 80% of Australians are in support of 15- to 18-year-olds having opportunities to influence government decisions, which includes voting in elections.

Philippa Collin - Social scientist - Yes

My research shows that young people are increasingly engaged in more diverse, issues oriented and digitally-enabled forms of political participation and civic engagement. They also recognise the role governments and politicians have on their lives and the society they live in. Lowering the voting age would give substance to the views of government and civil actors about the virtues of youth participation in community and government decision-making. It would also likely have a positive effect on participation by helping young people enrol, and think about how to use their vote, at a time when most are still in school or connected to family or other support networks. Extending the franchise is definitely not the only thing formal democratic institutions should do to improve the way they engage with young people, but it would be a good start.


27 March 2019

Media Unit