It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the government was delighted with this week’s ruling from the Supreme Court that excluding sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds from the right to vote was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. Not because of the weight of the legal argument, nor the morality of the cause, but simply because the ruling provided the government with a huge distraction from all the other problems confronting it at present.
Under Section 7 of the Bill of Rights Act, whenever a declaration is made that an action is inconsistent with the Act, the Minister responsible is required to report to Parliament within six months of the declaration what actions the government is proposing to take. In this case, the government has until the end of May next year to advise Parliament of its response to the Court’s ruling.
But rather than waiting six months to make its response known, the government waited barely six hours, so gleeful was it at the distraction the Court had provided. The Prime Minister did not even wait for the Labour Caucus to meet, before announcing the government’s response. Legislation to lower the voting age to 16 will be drafted immediately, she promised, and introduced to Parliament as soon as possible.
That immediately ensured all the right headlines and focus for the next couple of days at least, during which time the Reserve Bank is expected to lift interest rates by the biggest amount yet, further hitting already struggling household budgets. The cynicism of the decision is highlighted by the fact that for the voting age for Parliamentary elections to be lowered, a minimum 75% of Parliament (90 MPs) must vote in favour. When she made her announcement the Prime Minister said she did not know whether all Labour MPs, let alone MPs from other parties supported the move, which she hoped would be determined by a conscience vote. Her promised legislation was therefore nothing but smoke and mirrors.
Subsequently, National and ACT MPs said they would oppose the Bill, meaning it will not get the 75% support level it needs to pass, which is the ideal outcome for the Prime Minister. In contrast to the cannabis referendum a couple of years where she scrupulously avoided taking a public position for fear of influencing the outcome, the Prime Minister showed no such scruples this time, and was quick to express her personal support for lowering the voting age to 16.
The current outcome could not be better for her – thanks to National and ACT, nothing will change, but the Prime Minister will be able to keep empathising with young, upcoming voters about how much she “personally” supports their cause, even though, like so much else, she cannot deliver it. More importantly, by doing so, she potentially locks in their support for when they are eligible to vote. So, the government’s response is far more about securing its political advantage, than addressing the principle raised by the Supreme Court of whether it is right to exclude 16–17-year-olds from being able to vote.
But political opportunism over principle runs just as strongly in the National/ACT position too. Both parties fear that new young voters may be less likely to support them, so why risk widening the franchise to their detriment? At the same time, what little polling has been done amongst existing voters shows just under 80% opposition to any further lowering of the voting age, so why risk antagonising them, especially older and more conservative voters, more likely to support the centre-right bloc? Arguments about whether 16-year-olds are mature enough to make an informed vote are smokescreens for this basic position.
There is another aspect to this debate that might end up being the path followed. While lowering the voting age for Parliamentary elections requires the support of at least 75% of MPs, a change to the voting age for local body elections, requires only a simple majority in Parliament. So, it could well be that Parliament, by virtue of Labour’s current majority, changes the voting age to 16 for the 2025 and subsequent local body elections, while keeping the age for general elections at 18.
That would be a messy situation but would allow for a post-2025 review of how effective that change might have been. If a lowered voting age for local body elections proves to be successful in terms of increasing turnout and engagement, then consideration could be given to reducing the age for general elections. The most likely date for that to happen would be the 2029 general election, by which time most of the current crop of politicians will have moved on.
But that is all too far in the future for the government to be concerned about at present. All it knows, is that right now the Supreme Court has presented it with a wonderful diversionary opportunity of which it must take full advantage. Given there is little else flowing its way at present, it is hardly surprising it will milk the issue for all it can over the next little while, secure in the knowledge that nothing is actually going to change.