Kickstart our dire democracy by giving teens the vote


Bill Shorten and Tony Abbott struggle to attract young votersLatest polls have again proved what we all know: Australia's politicians are deeply unpopular and Australians are increasingly politically disengaged. Our political system is in a rut and we need a burst of energy, a democratic defibrillator to bounce our political system back to life.

Fortunately, we already have the answer — 500,000 known risk takers and constant innovators who embody more diversity of cultures, visions and interests than anywhere else in Australia. I'm talking about 16 to 17-year olds — a group who, if given the vote, could provide just the shake-up that our present democratic woes require.

Our democracy is in a downward spiral and all the indicators suggest that unless we do something substantial it's going to get worse. At the last federal election 25 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds did not enroll in time to vote. Only about 2 per cent of Australians are members of political parties, considerably lower than most developed Western countries.

And the current national leaders of our major political parties have consistently held approval ratings in the high negatives, with no indication either will suddenly become popular.

Many of us are frustrated with the lack of policy and leadership from our political leaders. But far more than frustration, the flow-on effects of this political malaise is that fewer people are engaging with politics. As a result, our political system is becoming less and less democratic.

Awarding 16 and 17-year-olds the vote would be an extraordinary injection of enthusiasm and energy into our political system, and force politicians to engage and understand the biggest group of new voters since 1973, when the voting age was dropped to 18.

One instant benefit of awarding 16-years-olds the vote is voter enrollment. All the international evidence tells us that young people are far more likely to register to vote while still in school. Voting is also a habitual practice, meaning the more someone votes at a young age the more likely they are to continue to vote throughout their life.

Building school yards into dynamic hubs of political engagement and activism will not only empower younger Australians to shape this country, it will also lead to a more politically engaged electorate for many years to come.

Sixteen-year-olds deciding our Prime Minister might sound ludicrous, but Australia's already off the pace on this issue. Germany, Switzerland, Norway, the Philippines, Argentina, Nicaragua, Brazil and Ecuador have allowed 16-year-olds to vote for years. In the recent UK elections, both the Liberal Democrats and the Labor Party committed to 16-year-old voting rights. It's time our parties did the same.

There is only ever one criticism of 16-year-old voting rights — they're too young. But is 16 really too young for rational thought, for making decisions, for wanting a voice?

We already trust 16-year-olds to drive, join the army, pay taxes, hold shooting licenses, care for family members, work, and even get married. To argue that they're not old enough to make a sound decision at the voting box doesn't give young people enough credit, and gives the rest of us far, far too much.

We don't often consider 16 and 17-year-olds as contributors to this country. But they consistently shape our society and culture through language, music, sport, arts and fashion. They challenge boundaries and push cultural trends up through our social fabric. They engage with technology and future ideas in a way that many older generations would fine overwhelming and confusing.

We need this enthusiasm, this creativity and proven inclination to take risks in order to question our society's established methods and bring colour and life back to the broader political debate.

If people question the capacity of 16 and 17-year-olds, point them towards a few Australian favourites. Ian Thorpe won Olympic gold and shattered world records for three years before he could vote. Jessica Watson sailed around the world at 16. Nicole Kidman made her screen debut in BMX Bandits at 16. ACDC guitarist Angus Young was just 17 when he first played with the band. The list goes on.

We all want a dynamic democracy that creates innovative policy and charismatic leaders. We all want politicians who are engaging, who produce a vision for our future and who talk to us with conviction. We all want more from our political system than is currently being delivered.

The introduction of 500,000 16 and 17-year-old voters into our democracy would bring an extraordinary burst of innovation, enthusiasm and life into an ailing political system. Because if a politician wants a 16-year-old's vote, they're going to have to twerk, talk and work for it. They're going to have to inspire and articulate a vision for this country, and the more our politicians do that the happier we'll all be.

Clancy WrightClancy Wright is a political analyst and commentator. He has worked across the not-for-profit, public and private sectors to examine cultural change and develop high-level strategy. He was a co-founder of the dynamic youth led NGO Step Back Think. Follow him on Twitter @ClancyWright.



Topic tags: Clancy Wright, voting age, Jessica Watson, Ian Thorpe, Angus Young, ACDC, Nicole Kidman



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Existing comments

I'm not sure about this. The law regards a 17-year old as a child; can we really have a country whose future is determined by what children think? Or perhaps the said law needs to change.
Frank | 17 August 2015

Well, I think it's a great idea. And so what if 16 & 17 year-olds are regarded as 'children'? Many immature people are far older. it's time to jolt Australia out of it's comfortable conservative rut. This may be the way...And please encourage any 18 yo's you know to register to vote, an election could happen at any time.
Karen | 17 August 2015

I completely agree with your views, Clancy. Young people whom I know are vibrant, committed and mature. In reply to 'Frank,' the future of our country is already being determined by childish leadership. The legal distinction between child and adult is no measure of the ability to lead a nation.
Michael Hardie | 17 August 2015

Good thinking. We must let our 16 and 17 year olds know that we have this confidence in them.
Mahdi | 17 August 2015

I know two medical students, one 22yrs old and the other 20 years old, both with all the adventurous traits and inexperience of the young, one in first year and the other in second year. Should you or your family require life-saving surgery, Clancy Wright, I am sure that I could ask either one of them to do it for you without having to wait and at a more than reasonable fee. Inane??
john frawley | 17 August 2015

We are all aware that only ourselves and the few people who agree with us really deserve the vote. So obviously only those 16 and 17 year olds who think similarly to me deserve the vote. But we allow all those 18 plus year old dunderheads to vote so I can't see any reason to deny the 16 year olds. They best of them will be as well informed as the best of us oldies, and the average just as ill-informed as the average voter. And it will be hilarious watching Tony and Joe trying to talk teen speak!
Vin Victory | 17 August 2015

What a great idea. As a recently retired high school principal who was somewhat aghast at the large number of 18 year olds I knew who were not registering to vote in the last election, I feel sure that the development of habits a little earlier would be excellent. The bluntness and challenge of a 16-17-year-old would certainly challenge politicians to avoid double speak and be more upfront and honest. I was surprised to also learn from this article, of the countries already employing this approach.
Jeffrey | 17 August 2015

Recent reported research suggest that we humans reach maturity at around 25 years of age. We should be increasing the age of voters to 24+? Looking at what passes for political discussion these days, it is highly influenced by or dependant upon, bubble thought social media where activist vigilantes quickly mobilise around snappy twittering. And politicians respond carefully. we need mature voters not immature thinking.
Keith Martin | 17 August 2015

John Frawley, emotional intelligence is very different to technical skills which we could probably one day program a robot to do. I'm sure a teenager has a better and more humane and less jaded view of the world and politics than older voters. (That's the 'problem') Inane?
AURELIUS | 17 August 2015

Do the countries that allow 16yo voters have compulsory voting? I am all for having the entitlement if we can bring back some civic responsibility into our education system.
Chris | 17 August 2015

Clancy forgot Scotland in his list of countries allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote. It started with the independence referendum last year and will continue in elections for the Scottish Parliament next year. The backward UK has not allowed them to vote in Westminster elections. Our youngsters demonstrated great political maturity that engaged the rest of the population politically last year. Go for it Australia. The 16-17 year olds might make Abbott more compassionate and bring him into the 21st century. More compassionate
Duncan MacLaren | 17 August 2015

Aristotle said that the young are not suitable students of ethics and politics because they lack worldly experience, and because they tend to follow feelings rather than reason. Catholic moral and political teaching has accepted what Aristotle says. Success in the study of ethics and politics demands people be in possession of certain experience and moral formation. Consequently, allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to vote will benefit only those who appeal to feel-good morality which will compound, rather than solve, society’s real problems.
Ross Howard | 18 August 2015

Interesting point of view. One I don't really agree with. I would be in favour of 16 - 17 year olds who work over 20 hours a week given the right to vote. However, I don't think most 16 and 17 year olds would want to vote. Maybe if there was more relevant political education and discussion in final years at school.
Cate | 18 August 2015

Aristotle is entitled to his opinion and having the study of ethics and politics in our education system would overcome one barrier. Lack of worldly experience is a concern but is not limited to 16-17 year olds; some that I know are quite mature and capable of making well-reasoned decisions. Maturity does not always come with age. But as well as old fogies like me voicing their views, I would like to hear what 16 and 17 year olds think about the idea. They are the ones who will have to run with it if it is to succeed. Given the current Government’s aversion to courageous decisions, I doubt it will happen soon… but that is no reason to give up.
Brett | 18 August 2015

I am completely opposed to give these children a vote in Federal Elections. Clancy's statistics are wrong. Germany's voting age is 18 except for some regional areas who allow 16 year olds in regional elections. Switzerland's voting age is 18 except for one small State which allows 16 year olds to vote in State Elections. Modern politicians are unpopular in most countries, and we deserve them in Australia since we voted for them. What is needed in Australia is to abandon compulsory voting and to educate people better!
Peter | 19 August 2015

Brett, and others, make an interesting point, that maturity and age do not always correlate. There was an interesting article by David Leser in the Age earlier this week that points to aspects of Abbott's behaviour that suggest that he has never really grown up. See

Ginger Meggs | 21 August 2015

A study by The Australian Institute in 2013 revealed that 45% of persons aged 17-25 were either "disinterested or not really interested" in politics. To suggest that schoolchlidren be given the vote is ludicrous. Furthermore, is voting going to be compulsory as it is now; or optional?
William J. Player | 25 August 2015


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