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Bill to Lower Voting Age to 18: Fred Daly Second Reading Speech

One of the Whitlam government’s first legislative acts was to introduce a bill to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.

The Minister for Services and Property, Fred Daly, introduced the Commonwealth Electoral Bill 1973 at 3.30pm on February 28, 1973. It was debated and passed in both houses over the next two weeks, receiving bipartisan support. It received Royal Assent on March 16, 1973.

This is the bill:

Second Reading Speech by Fred Daly on the Commonwealth Electoral Bill 1973.

Mr DALY (Grayndler) (Minister for Services and Property) – I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

DalyThe purpose of this Bill is to bring forward legislation to lower the franchise age and the age of candidature to 18 years for Federal elections. At present, the Commonwealth Electoral Act provides that persons who are not under the age of 21 years are entitled to have their names placed on. the roll and, when enrolled, to vote at elections for sena tors and for members of the House of Representatives. However, under a special provision, a member of the defence forces serving in a war zone outside Australia, who is under 21 years of age, is entitled to vote at a Federal election.

This is an historic occasion – an occasion, Mr Speaker, too long delayed. This Government when in Opposition endeavoured to extend the democratic right of the franchise to the youth of Australia. Private members Bills were introduced into both Houses of the Parliament in 1968 and 1970 and debated at some length. The Liberal-Country Party Government declined to bring these Bills to a vote. It preferred to deny this well recognised democratic right to an important section of the Australian community – the youth of this country – although the franchise for those 18 years and above is well recognised throughout the world. I am delighted that the privilege of introducing these historic measures – of rectifying this denial of natural justice – has fallen to me and that it is one of the first legislative acts of this Parliament. For me it is a proud and significant moment. After many years in Parliament and in Opposition I am indeed honoured to be asked by the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) to present this, the first legislative proposal of the new Government, in the first session of the 28th Parliament.

The reasons why the Labor Party attaches such importance to this legislation were summed up in the most pertinent way by the Prime Minister when, as Leader of the Opposition, he spoke on the second reading of the Adulthood Bill which was introduced by him on 21st November 1968. The Prime Minister said:

By any standards men and women are as mature at 18 years now as they were at 21 only a generation ago. They are more mature intellectually, physically, socially and economically. They stay at school longer. They go on to tertiary and technical education in much greater numbers. They are physically bigger, stronger and healthier. They conduct themselves with greater aplomb. Their consumption in all respects is greater. They make their presence felt and their ideas known much more readily. They appear in the mass media and respond to them. They attend the theatre and perform there. They practice a knowledge of the performing and plastic arts at a much younger age than men and women did a generation ago. Psephologists, psychologists and political scientists assert – as a result of their investigations- that people are as mature, articulate and informed in their political views now at 18 as they are at 21 years of age. As far as can be determined they are as informed at 18 years of age now, as they used to be a generation ago at 21 years of age.

These facts are undeniable. The Prime Minister’s statement is even more valid today than at the time it was made. This Bill, therefore, symbolises the commitment of the Labor Government to the youth of this country – to a new Australia of equal, political, social and economic opportunity for all. It recognises in the only tangible way that those who accept responsibilities to the community should enjoy an appropriate status. At 18 years of age young Australian men and women may – or soon will be able to – enter into contracts, dispose of property, take and defend legal action, drink, drive a motor vehicle, marry without parental consent, and under the previous Government could be called up for military service. Thousands of them pay taxes. Their status as full citizens of Australia will now be properly and legally recognised. There is a world-wide trend towards lowering the age of majority. In the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States of America and the Federal Republic of Germany the franchise age is 18 years. Indeed, some 53 countries have adopted a franchise age of less than 21 years. I seek leave of the House to incorporate in Hansard a list of those countries prepared for me by the Chief Electoral Officer.

Mr SPEAKER – Is leave granted? There being no objection, leave is granted. (The document read as follows) –

  • Afghanistan – All citizens over 20 years.
  • Albania – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Algeria – All citizens over 19 years.
  • Andorra – All male heads of families.
  • Argentina – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Austria – All citizens over 20 years.
  • Barbados – Universal adult suffrage – 18 years.
  • Bolivia – All single citizens over 21 years. Married citizens over 18 years.
  • Brazil – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Bulgaria – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Burma – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Cambodia – All citizens over 20 years.
  • Canada – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Ceylon – All citizens over 18 years.
  • China, Republic of – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Costa Rica – Citizens over 20 years.
  • Czechoslovakia- All citizens over 18 years.
  • Dominican Republic – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Ecuador – All literate citizens over 18 years.
  • El Salvador – All citizens over 18 years.
  • German Democratic Republic (East Germany) – All citizens over 18 years.
  • German Federal Republic (West Germany) – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Guatemala – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Honduras – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Hungary – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Indonesia – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Israel – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Japan – All citizens over 20 years.
  • Jordan – Every male Transjordanian over 18 years. Bedouins may not vote.
  • Korea (South)- -All citizens over 20 years.
  • Korea (North) – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Liechtenstein – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Mexico – All citizens over 21 years and married citizens over 18 years. Mongolia – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Netherlands – All citizens over 18 years.
  • New Zealand – All citizens over 20 years.
  • Nicaragua – All citizens over 21 years. Literate or married persons over 18 also, ‘Bachelors’ i.e. school leavers degree under 18.
  • Poland – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Rumania – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Sweden – All citizens over 20 years (not confirmed).
  • Switzerland – All males over 20 years.
  • Tanzania – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Thailand – Thai nationals over 20 years.
  • Tunisia – All citizens over 20 years.
  • Turkey – All citizens over 20 years.
  • United Kingdom – All British and citizens of Irish Republic living in the United Kingdom over 18 years.
  • United States of America – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Uraguay – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Venezuela – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Vietnam (South) – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Vietnam (North) – All citizens over 18 years.
  • Yugoslavia – All citizens over 18 years.

Mr DALY – I thank the House. That Australia has not fallen into line long ago with the trend in these countries remains one of the regrettable features of the policy of the previous Government. It is absurd and anomalous that persons in the 18-20 years age group are able to vote at some elections and not at others. The Prime Minister wrote to all State Premiers in December 1972 advising them that the Commonwealth Government would lower the franchise age for all men and women to 18 years early in the sittings of the new Parliament. The position with regard to the franchise in the 6 States of Australia is as follows: South Australia and Western Australia have enacted legislation to reduce the voting age to 18 years; New South Wales passed legislation in 1970 lowering the franchise age to 18 years but the Act has not yet been proclaimed; in Victoria the Premier has announced that the franchise age will be lowered to 18 years before the next State elections which, I understand, are expected to be held about the middle of this year; the Queensland Cabinet approved the towering of the franchise age to 18 years but the Government deferred consideration pending information as to the Commonwealth Government’s intentions; in Tasmania a Bill which included the lowering of the franchise age was passed by the Lower House of the last Parliament.

Honourable members will be aware that under the provisions of section 41 of the Constitution, no adult person who has, or acquires the right to vote at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of a State shall, while the right continues, be prevented by any law of the Commonwealth from voting at elections for either House of Parliament of the Commonwealth. The franchise age question came before the High Court of Australia last year. The High Court decided that under the terms of section 41, adult person’ meant a person not less than 21 years of age. However, it was made clear by the High Court that the way was open for Parliament to extend the vote to 18, 19 and 20-year-old citizens 6y legislative action.

The Bill before the House contains transitional provisions which are designed to exempt the 18, 19 and 20-year-olds from the compulsory enrolment provisions of the existing law within the period of 3 months from the date of commencement of the lower franchise age. This period is considered necessary in order that appropriate publicity might be given to the entitlement of the newly enfranchised persons and to provide them sufficient time to become acquainted with their entitlements and obligations before the compulsory enrolment provisions are applied. Of course, any person who turns 21 years of age during the 3-month period will automatically come under the compulsory enrolment provisions upon attaining 21 just as he would at present. The Bill provides that the proposed amendments will come into operation on a date to be fixed by proclamation and efforts will be made with the respective joint roll States – other than South Australia – to fix a common date from which the lower franchise age will operate for Commonwealth and State purposes. In South Australia the 18-year-old franchise has been operative for State elections since June last year.

I now turn to that part of the Bill which deals with the lowering of the age for candidature. As honourable members may be aware, the age qualification for candidature at Federal elections has been coincidental with the minimum age for enrolment and voting since federation and the Government takes the view that there is no logical reason to depart from the uniform age practice under Commonwealth electoral law. We believe that, in conjunction with the extension of the right to vote at 18 years of age, young people of this age should also have the right to nominate for election if they so choose. They already enjoy this privilege for the South Australian House of Assembly elections.

Accordingly, the Bill proposes an amendment of the Commonwealth Electoral Act which will have the effect of bringing the age qualification for candidates into line with that proposed for enrolment and voting. The age for candidature for Australian Capital Territory House of Representatives elections is governed by the Australian Capital Territory Representation Act and a separate Bill will be introduced to amend that Act. Separate legislation is not required in respect of age for candidature for Northern Territory House of Representatives elections as this matter is covered by the amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act proposed by this Bill.

This Bill is one of the most far-reaching reforms within the Australian political community for generations. Although the distribution of 18 to 20 year old persons is not yet available electorate by electorate, the Commonwealth Statistician estimates that there are almost 700,000 young Australian men and women in this category, all of whom will be entitled to the franchise under this measure. In consequence at the next Federal elections a wider and more representative Australian electorate will choose their political leaders. In his policy speech, the Prime Minister proclaimed to the nation that the 3 goals of the Labor Government would be: Firstly, to promote equality; secondly, to involve the people of Australia in the decision-making processes of our land; and thirdly, to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people.

With this measure we make a significant advance towards these goals. We commit this Government, this Parliament and this nation to ensuring that the views of the young people are listened to and are properly understood and considered by the Parliament. In so doing we hope to remove one of the causes of discontent from the past. Our young people inevitably will be involved in the political life of the nation and will be able to divert their creative energies and enthusiasm to a better Australia. This Bill deserves the support of all honourable members, and I commend it to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Snedden) adjourned.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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