Philip Greatrex: Fairness demands we lower the voting age to 16

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Teenagers don't need to cross an invisible line to be able to have a say on the running of the country.  Photo / Getty Images
Teenagers don't need to cross an invisible line to be able to have a say on the running of the country. Photo / Getty Images

Scotland's referendum on independence was announced this week, and while the majority of Kiwis probably couldn't care less, it is nonetheless a significant piece of news. Not because of the potentially historic outcome, but because 16 and 17-year-olds have been allowed to vote.

This is a bold move on the part of the Scottish political leaders, and will no doubt lead to many raised eyebrows and snorts of derision. Yet while this may be the instinctive reaction to the idea of giving teenagers political influence, the idea of lowering the voting age to 16 has a great deal of merit.

Young people get a pretty bad rap. Every other day we're confronted by more news of boy racers, the drunken shambles of Queen St on Friday nights and teenage drug use. Compound this with rising youth unemployment and high school dropout rates, it is easy to see why "youths" - as we're usually called bythe news media - get the reputation we have.

But there are two sides to every coin, and while I have seen more than my fair share of these lamentable behaviours from my generation, the majority of young people are kind, polite, smart and insightful. They contradict the stereotype of the rebellious teenager every day.

Recently I have become involved with UN Youth, the youth arm of the United Nations in New Zealand.

Every year this group co-ordinates dozens of events for university and high school students alike, and last month I had the privilege of helping to staff the Model European Union.

More than 100 high schoolers spent the day discussing and debating topics ranging from the eurozone crisis to terrorism with remarkable intellect, engagement and understanding.

Similarly, as a teenager I was heavily involved with the New Zealand Cadet Corps, a youth organisation that every day teaches self-discipline, teamwork and builds an environment that creates the future leaders of society.

The quality of character the young men and women in these groups display is inspirational to say the least, and leaders of New Zealand's countless other youth groups will testify to this.

I wouldn't have the slightest hesitation in letting them help choose our MPs. Indeed, many of them have a much greater political understanding than their parents - people who, simply by virtue of age, are allowed to vote.

One of the biggest problems with age-based laws is that they assume the existence of an invisible line that, when crossed, makes that individual smarter, more mature, more capable and more respectable as a person.

Of course this is not true, and it is simply an unavoidable reality of the way in which laws are written to ensure fairness. But this is precisely why the voting age should be lowered to 16.

Teenagers, upon turning 18, do not suddenly gain more political knowledge or understanding; chances are they have about the same amount they had when they were 16, given most 18-year-olds haven't yet left school.

But with a voting age of 18, hundreds of thousands of people are being deprived of having their say in the way their country is run.

At this point, you may argue that, being legally dependent on their parents, teenagers have their interests reflected in their parents' vote. But this is not the reality.

At 16, I was having lively debates with my family about our diverging political opinions, and a good deal of my peers were too.

Take the youth wage. I doubt many 16 and 17-year-olds support the reintroduction of this policy, but chances are their parents do. Yet this legislation is able to pass without any way for the very people it affects to express their dissatisfaction.

If teenagers are old enough to have found themselves a part-time job and to drive, chances are they're well on their way towards independence, and it is unfair to treat them like children who have to leave voting to the grown-ups.

Returning to the examples of wayward youth behaviour, many people would be right in pointing these out as legitimate reasons why we should not let young people influence the makeup of Parliament. But what these people fail to appreciate is that delinquent social behaviour is by no means limited to 16 and 17-year-olds. Most people prosecuted for speeding and dangerous driving are much older than 18, and the same goes for drunkenness. There are people of all ages who I would not want influencing the Government, but they are able to if they have crossed that sacred barrier of 18.

It is unfair to deprive young people of the right to have their say on laws that affect them simply because of the actions of a minority of delinquents - a minority that probably won't even bother vote even if they could, much like the million adult voters who didn't turn up last election.

The Scottish independence referendum affects the next generation equally and, accordingly, they have been allowed to have their say.

It is time we recognised that same right for 16 and 17-year-olds to have their voices heard. We will be better off for it.

Philip Greatrex is a student of political science at the University of Auckland. He is 20 years old.

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