In the past week, two English-speaking nations have gone to the polls — an occasion of immense historic significance in one case, perhaps rather less so in the other. Nonetheless, both Scotland and New Zealand have had important lessons to impart to Australia in its debates on constitutional and electoral reform, such as they’ve been.
One of the more interesting things to come out of Scotland’s independence referendum was the lowering of the voting age to 16 — an astute move on the part of Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s government, which British Prime Minister David Cameron no doubt regrets having acceded to in hindsight.
In Australia, a lower voting age is frequently advanced in progressive quarters as the next frontier in an ongoing process of democratisation. Voluntary voting for 16- and 17-year-olds is the official policy of the Greens, and it was advanced early in the life of the Rudd government by Maxine McKew as co-chair of the governance stream at the Australia 2020 Summit.
It is often proposed that such a move would address the increasing disengagement of young people from the formal processes of politics, evident internationally through vanishingly low levels of party membership and declining turnout at elections. But it’s very far from clear that earlier involvement in elections would be an effective cure for such ills. The issues involved appear to run quite a bit deeper, as indicated by a widely discussed survey finding from the Lowy Institute that only 39% of 18- to 29-year-olds rated democracy as preferable to other kinds of government.
The enthusiasm on display in Scotland last week might seem to belie the contention that modern youth find little use for the electoral process. However, the issue at stake in the referendum went beyond mere politics to the more primal question of tribal identity — something even the very young have a purchase on, in a way that has no parallel in the more mundane affairs of state.
Given that the very notion of party-based politics appears to lie at the root of young people’s disengagement, it would require more radical solutions, such as citizens-initiated referenda, to meaningfully address it.
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Meanwhile, Saturday’s election in New Zealand was interestingly timed from an Australian perspective, given recent talk of seats dedicated for indigenous representation in the Senate.
The obvious model for such an initiative would be the Maori seats in the New Zealand Parliament, in which voters who opt for inclusion on a separate Maori electoral roll choose members for seven electoral districts that exist in parallel to those elected from the general roll.
Unlike Scotland’s votes for teenagers, this is hardly a new innovation, having been instituted in 1867. Despite its durability, the measure has always been contentious. When a royal commission was conducted into the country’s electoral system in the 1980s, it was concluded that separate seats had caused Maori concerns to be marginalised. Abolishing them as part of a move to proportional representation, it was argued, would oblige politicians to fight for Maori votes.
Nonetheless, the Maori seats survived the transition to the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system that was implemented in 1996, and Prime Minister John Key has distanced himself from his party’s policy for their abolition.
The issues raised by the voting age and indigenous representation exercise the highest questions of philosophical principle, but they must sooner or later collide with politics of the lower kind. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been decidedly lukewarm in response to dedicated Senate seats, and for all the undoubted sincerity of his interest in indigenous issues, it isn’t hard to see why.
Even if indigenous seats did not fall straight into the hands of Labor — and experience in the Northern Territory and New Zealand demonstrates that this can’t be taken for granted — there can be little doubt that their creation would constitute a free kick against conservative politics.
Such is not the case in New Zealand, as the MMP electoral system ensures parties’ seat shares are ultimately proportional to their overall share of the vote. In effect, the conservative National Party receives top-up seats to compensate it for any disadvantage it might suffer from being uncompetitive in the Maori seats.
By contrast, Australia’s Coalition need only imagine how the current Senate might look with a few extra indigenous representatives in the mix to determine that alternative pathways to reconciliation might be more appealing. Similarly, one of the reasons votes for teenagers looks a more attractive proposition to the Left than the Right is the clear relationship that exists between age and voting conservative.
The importance of this shouldn’t be overestimated — political scientist Ian McAllister calculates that lowering the voting age would add 0.1% to the Greens’ vote, subtract 0.2% from the Coalition’s and make no difference to Labor’s. However, lesser differences inspired self-interested electoral law changes by both the Howard and Rudd governments, and the 2010 election demonstrated how decisive such distinctions can be.
Furthermore, while last week’s ReachTEL poll for Fairfax Radio found support for indigenous Senate seats at a surprisingly robust 37%, opposition to a lower voting age appears to be overwhelming. A poll last year by Essential Research found 78% were opposed to the idea, while the Australian National University’s post-election survey in 2010 had it at 72%.
The inspiring example of Scotland notwithstanding, it seems the concept is doomed to remain the preserve of discussion papers and youth round tables.