The Make It 16 campaign has every right to feel jubilant and justified after receiving the decision it sought from the Supreme Court.
Justice Ellen France and Justice Mark O’Regan ruled that an earlier decision by the Court of Appeal to decline the case of the Make it 16 group to lower the voting age from the current 18 years should be set aside. Justice France declared it was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights not to allow 16-year-olds to vote, and the decision of the Court of Appeal was overturned. The ruling means the matter must be referred to Parliament for debate.
Understandably, there were tears from members of the Make It 16 group in court, who have been campaigning for years to have the age lowered, with one co-director declaring, “this is history”.
But wait. This “historic” court decision hasn’t yet changed the course of New Zealand’s electoral system.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded at the next post-Cabinet stand-up by confirming a conscience vote would be held on whether to change the law. Ardern added her support for the change saying: “For me, it is alignment around some of the responsibilities and rights that are reapportioned at these different ages.”
By doing this, the Government must be feeling pretty deft. The confirmation of a debate to take place, with a draft piece of legislation ready to be viewed by the middle of next year, fulfils several objectives.
Most importantly, it complies with the Supreme Court’s declaration that such a debate must occur.
By adding her support, Ardern has sided herself and the Labour Party with a popular cause among the young, particularly, and the left. Green MP Julie Anne Genter says she also shed tears of happiness at the Supreme Court decision.
However, Ardern’s support doesn’t go so far as to take the easiest and quickest route by picking up parts of another Green MP Golriz Ghahraman’s members’ bill, including amending the entrenching provision, which could be done in time for the 2023 election. The Prime Minister will be well aware that every media report of wayward youths will be greeted by critics with the comment “... and Ardern gave these louts the vote”.
Instead, a super-majority rule will kick in at the Committee of the whole House stage, after the second reading, meaning it will also go through select committee and public submissions. This means it requires a three-quarter majority to pass and pushes the process out past the next election.
Ardern will know that the conscience vote is unlikely to be unanimously supported by Labour MPs. And with unequivocal opposition from National and Act parties’ leaders and key shadow portfolio holders, the law change faces implausible odds.
By doing all this, the Government has neatly positioned itself on what it sees as the right side of history, as well as preserving the status quo preferred by a majority of present voters.
Once this sinks in, the tears from supporters of a lowered voting age are more likely to be born of further frustration.