This article first appeared in Overland on 8 June 2018.
Greens Senator Jordan Steele-John announced in April that he would introduce a bill to lower the minimum age for voting to sixteen. He argued that many young people are working and paying tax, that they can join the army and get married, and should therefore have a voice in parliament. None of these were new arguments.
The reaction wasn’t new or surprising either, with conservative voices echoing sentiments expressed when a similar change was floated by Bill Shorten in 2016 – that is, young people are immature, undeveloped, uninterested. Former Liberal politician Peter Collins went so far as to offer a sound bite that bordered on dog whistling, when he smugly declared on ABC’s The Drum, ‘We don’t want to politicise our playgrounds.’ The statement seemed perfectly to encapsulate the conservative position and to simultaneously undermine it. First, it showed the profound disrespect some adults hold for young people, many of whom are contributing to society in many ways. Second, it exemplified the reductive and inaccurate negative stereotyping that has historically been levelled at other disenfranchised minorities. And finally, it highlighted the hypocrisy at the heart of the right’s opposition to this move to extend so-called universal suffrage, that hallmark of democratic societies, from its current boundaries.
Over the last 200 years, the trend in democratic societies has been to remove barriers from voting incrementally, while retaining some basic restrictions. To vote in most countries, a person must be both eligible and competent. To be eligible, one must be a member of the society, usually a citizen. To be competent, one must not be mentally impaired to the point of being unable to exercise civic responsibilities.
In Australia, individuals who have been sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment are ineligible to vote (for the duration of their sentence), as are persons who are of ‘unsound mind’, and non-citizens. While the minimum age for voting is set at eighteen in the vast majority of countries, a minority comprising Brazil, Argentina, Austria, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua have a voting age of sixteen, while in Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds can vote if employed. A study of the Austrian context, where sixteen-year-olds have had the vote since 2007, indicates that contrary to common perceptions, voters aged sixteen and seventeen are not less able or less motivated to effectively participate in politics.
So why do we relegate teenagers to the same status as those the state has deemed of ‘unsound mind’ or those it has convicted of serious crimes?
Childhood has long been a politically contested arena. The interests of children have been cited as a sort of moral trump card in almost every politico-moral controversy this country has seen in recent years. In this context, the statement that we do not want to politicise the playground must be recognised as the hypocritical charade that it is as well as being a timely reminder that there is much more at stake in this debate than an extra 600,000 votes.
The idea of childhood as a time of innocence was pioneered by French philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau in 1763. Rousseau’s proposition that children should be kept pure and shielded from harmful influences has become so widely accepted that to challenge it has become a form of heresy. But this paradigm of childhood, Kathryn Stockton reminds us in The Queer Child, is the fond fantasy of adults. The resulting mythical, vulnerable, passive, child figure that haunts the imaginations of adults makes the ideal political football, as evidenced by the use of ‘children’ as pawns in Australian political debates of recent years.
For example, in 2004, an episode of Playschool was broadcast depicting two young girls playing in a playground, while two women waved and smiled at them. ‘My mums are taking me and my friend Meryn to an amusement park,’ a girl’s voice told the viewer. The episode provoked a media and political backlash that corresponded with the Howard government’s push to amend the definition of marriage. A campaign for that amendment ensued, harnessing the moral panic provoked by the episode about the supposed risk posed to ‘innocent children’ by exposure to same-sex relationships.
The interests of children, in the abstract, are used again and again to shut down calls for progressive social reforms without reference to any verifiable effect on any child, much less any consultation with the children supposedly affected. The playground is well and truly politicised and it is the exclusion of children from an arena in which their interests are repeatedly foregrounded that makes this politicisation so problematic. The refusal to acknowledge the evolving capacities of young people, by lumping seventeen-year-olds into the pejorative ‘playground’ category, flies in the face of the reality that by our late teens we can have all sorts of responsibilities. And in democratic societies, where a person has responsibilities, they have concomitant rights.
The homophobia of the right is perhaps matched only by its ephebophobia. The latter flies largely under the radar because the fear of adolescents has never been mainstreamed as a political issue. Yet just as the Equal Marriage campaign provoked all manner of homophobic bigotry, the suggestion that we enfranchise the young garners equally disturbing attitudes. While children are cited QED-ishly as the bottom line in every argument, the suggestion that they could be invited to exercise political agency (if only during years where many of them are operating largely as adults) evokes contempt.
When Labor floated the idea, former Howard government adviser Terry Barnes claimed such a move would be ‘an insult to democracy’, citing young people’s lack of judgement, wisdom and life experience and claiming they ‘are not thinking too much about the narrow world in which they are the centre’. Such comments are not surprising when young people are often derided in terms that, were they directed at any other social minority, would amount to hate speech. It’s a curious paradox of this civilisation that we simultaneously prize and protect our children above all things and hold them, collectively, in the utmost contempt.
The arguments advanced against female suffrage were strikingly similar. Women were ‘politically inert masses who take no interest in politics and do not desire to do so’. The proposal to give them the vote was doomed because ‘the mental equilibrium of the female sex is not as stable as (that of) the male sex’ and ‘women’s inherent delicacy and purity would be at risk by having the vote’. Opponents of enfranchising teenagers are using the same spurious and tautological arguments that their forebears used in trying to retain their stronghold on political power. Arguments that revolve around the need to protect a supposedly delicate social group by perpetuating discrimination against it must be recognised as the doublespeak they are. The stay in the playground/kitchen mentality is the catch cry of a hegemony that knows it is losing its grip on society’s reins.
Political economist John Stuart Mill argued in 1861 that ‘it is a personal injustice to withhold from any one, unless for the prevention of greater evils, the ordinary privilege of having his voice reckoned with, in the disposal of affairs in which he has the same interest as other people.’ When Australian women gained the vote in 1902, the country could rightly be called a leader in human rights. We were only the second nation to give women the vote (after New Zealand). We were later instrumental in developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, human rights in this country have fallen to an all-time low, and Australia is regularly condemned by the UN for failing to meet human rights norms.
Australian youth, however, were overwhelmingly engaged in the Equal Love ‘plebiscite’ debate, making up 66% of new enrolments to vote. They are the heirs to the damage wrought by climate change inaction and mismanagement of the housing market. They have the same, nay, greater interest than other people in these issues. Young people need a place at the table: to elect representatives, have a say in public debates and civic processes, and to cease to have their interests expounded and misrepresented by others. Opponents of female suffrage claimed men would vote with their husbands’ and daughters’ interests in mind. When opponents of this movement make a parallel claim, they fool no-one.
When Australia voted in the 1999 republican referendum, I was a first-year student at the University of Melbourne. I was eking out a living with Youth Allowance and a part-time cleaning job, renting a one-bedroom flat in Ascot Vale and doing my writing in laneway cafes, prolonging each drink, savouring the atmosphere but saving my pennies. I didn’t vote in that referendum because I was sixteen, a fact that my colleagues and lecturers didn’t even know. As an underage worker, I was paid a lesser wage, but nonetheless, paid tax as well as rent.
In the intervening years, there have been a few advances for young people: (some) adults have started to recognise and respect the right of teenagers to identify as LGBTQ and non-cis gender. Young people have increasingly been able to broadcast their views to the world thanks to social media, at times taking on leadership roles in political campaigns. But we still hear the young being denigrated and negatively stereotyped by politicians, the same ones who cite them in a faceless, abstract void as the bottom line in every politico-moral argument.
It is high time for young people to become enfranchised not because they have chosen to be concerned with politics but because politics consistently chooses, in ways that should not go uninterrogated, to be concerned with them.