Empowering Young Australians

Today, more than at any other time in Australia’s history, the policy challenges affecting our nation’s future will play out not over a number of years, but over generations.

While no Australian under the age of 40 has experienced a recession in their adult lives, the need for reform to ensure that our economy remains productive, competitive and sustainable into the future will require generational decision-making.

These policy challenges include climate change and embracing renewable energy, demographic changes and an ageing population, the massive increase in the Asian middle class, the challenges and opportunities of digital disruption such as secure work, and greater inclusion arising from the march of women through the institutions of power.

In addition, current policy debates such as penalty rates, job security and the funding of education disproportionately impact young Australians and their voices should be heard on these issues.

What’s the issue?

For the young people of today, grappling with these policy challenges will be a centrepiece of their adult lives. 

Research by the Whitlam Institute has shown that ‘young people want to be involved in decision-making processes and should be offered opportunities to do so within existing political structures’.[1]

Encouraging their participation will encourage greater transparency and engagement, inspire short term issues-based or community-centred action to improve longer term decision making processes and value and acknowledge the contribution of young people through a process of accountability back to those young people.

Accordingly, Labor believes they deserve a say at the ballot box about the future direction of our nation.

What is Labor’s plan?

As part of a broad strategy to engage young Australians in the political system and empower them to drive and guide change, Labor proposes the following:

  • Expanding the electoral franchise to Australians aged under 18
  • Improving the enrolment of individuals once they reach voting age
  • Better ways to improve the engagement of young people with disability, young Indigenous people, and young people living in outer suburban, regional and remote Australia.

Reducing the voting age

A Shorten Labor Government will expand the electoral franchise so that more young people have the right to vote at future Federal elections.

The Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Youth, Senator Sam Dastyari, will undertake consultations with community leaders and young people across the country on Labor’s proposal and come back to the Leader with a recommendation of whether voting rights should be extended to 16 or 17 year olds.

The current generation of young Australians are more connected and engaged with the world than any which has come before it.

16 and 17 year olds are active participants in public life and active contributors to the taxation system. 

According to Australian Census and Taxation Statistics figures, in 2012/13 over 17,000 Australians aged under 18 paid over $41 million in income tax alone.[2]  This does not take into account indirect taxes paid by young Australians, for example GST.

16 and 17 year olds are already permitted to engage in a range of adult activities:

  • Military service: apply at 16 years 6 months and commence service at 17;
  • Drivers Licence: between 16 years 6 months and 17 (18 in Victoria);
  • Pilot Licence: 16 for balloons and gliders and 17 for other aircraft;
  • Firearms Licence: 14 years (some variation across States and Territories);
  • Making independent decisions about medical matters: 16;
  • Leaving home: 16.

If 16 and 17 year olds can be trusted to join the military, drive on our roads and live independently, they should also be trusted to directly participate in our representative democracy by having their say at the ballot box.

Directly involving 16 and 17 year olds in our democracy is an opportunity to engage young people in an important conversation about civic responsibility, community values and expectations and help them to become productive members of society.

According to a report by Ian McAllister of the ANU School of Politics and International Relations[3], by the end of the 20th Century, the mean voting age across established democracies had already dropped to 17 years old and there is a growing international trend towards extending the democratic franchise to 16 and 17 year olds:

  • 16 and 17 year olds were permitted to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and are now permitted to vote in all Scottish national and local government elections;
  • In November 2012 the Northern Ireland Assembly voted to allow 16 and 17 year olds the vote [although this requires ratification by the Parliament at Westminster];
  • In 2007 Austria implemented a minimum age of 16 for voting in all elections;
  • Germany and Switzerland allow voting at 16 for some State and municipal elections;
  • East Timor and Indonesia permit voting by 17 year olds; and
  • 16 and 17 year olds may vote in Brazil.

Extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds has previously been considered in several Australian jurisdictions.  Each jurisdiction noted arguments in support of extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds and recommended that the idea warranted further consideration.


In September 2009 then Special Minister of State, Senator the Hon Joseph Ludwig, released the Rudd Labor Government’s second electoral reform green paper, Strengthening Australia’s Democracy, which, among other things, canvassed the prospect of empowering 16 and 17 year olds to vote. 

The paper noted the communique from the 2008 Australia 2020 Youth Summit which recommended that:

“to build a more participatory 2020, the age at which people are eligible to vote must be lowered to 16.  16 year olds work, pay income tax, pay GST, drive, and can join the army.  They must be enfranchised so they can have a say in Government policies that affect them”

The paper also observed that arguments in support of empowering 16 and 17 year olds to vote include:

“that youth have a substantial enough stake in the nation’s governance to justify being given a voice in how the nation is governed, that 16 and 17 year olds are sufficiently mature and sufficiently educated to vote, and that a reduced voting age may improve the relevance and hence effectiveness of existing civic education programs and lead to more political engagement and participation”  


In 2004 the Victorian Electoral Commission published a discussion paper[4] canvassing issues in relation to extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds. The discussion paper noted that 16 and 17 year olds have a substantial stake in the governance of their community:


  • Those in schooling or intending to start university in the near future are certainly affected by decisions about education;
  • Those working are certainly affected by government decisions on a number of areas.  In addition, they may also pay income tax and certainly contribute their own money in GST; and
  • Those receiving support from the government clearly have a stake in government policy as well. 


The VEC went on to note that:

“It is hard to think of an argument that would show that 16 and 1 year olds do not have a substantial stake in government decisions.  Even if they have only a limited stake at 16/17, they can be expected to have a larger stake before the next election (ie when they are 19/20), and an argument could be made in favour of giving them a say based on their impending stake.  Indeed, arguments cited for not giving 16/17 year olds the vote generally rely on reasons to exclude them rather than on denying their stake” 

The VEC also found that:

“…the granting of voting rights to 16/17 year olds is likely to give younger people a feeling of greater empowerment and inclusion and has the potential to reduce apathy towards politics”

Australian Capital Territory

In 2007 the ACT Legislative Assembly Standing Committee on Education, Training and Young People tabled a report on the Inquiry into the Eligible Voting Age.[5] 

The Report noted that lowering the voting age to 16 would expand democratic participation:

“If voting is about democratic participation, then lowering the voting age expands democracy by increasing the number of people involved in selecting the representatives to the Assembly.  As a consequence, the case could be made that the views of the community will be better represented in decisions made by Members of the Legislative Assembly”

The Report also observed:

“At 16 and 17 years of age, some young people make decisions about whether to live independently, get married, have children, and gain full-time employment.  They also make commitments to study and choose career paths, are expected to pay tax, learn to drive and are able to take responsibility for medical decisions affecting them including applying for a holding their own Medicare cards…young people under 18 years of age demonstrate a capacity to make decisions in many spheres of their every day life”

Improving the enrolment of individuals once they reach voting age

Statistics from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) relating to the 2010 and 2013 elections indicate that one-in-five Australians are not voting and of those aged 18-24, 400,000 people did not enrol in time. This leads to a "democratic deficit".

The AEC commissioner also recently noted that it is: “clear from the evidence that the trend is for increasing numbers of otherwise eligible electors to remain outside the electoral system.”

The former Labor Government took steps to steps to improve participation in the electoral system.  In 2012 Labor enacted the Electoral and Referendum (Protecting Elector Participation) Act 2012. Among other things, this Act empowered the Electoral Commissioner to directly enrol a person if satisfied that person was entitled to enrolment, had lived at an address for at least one month and was not already on the electoral roll.  Labor also enacted the Electoral and Referendum (Maintaining Address) Act 2012 which allowed for the Electoral Commissioner to proactively update an elector’s enrolled address and inform them of that update.

More needs to be done to ensure that young people are engaged and enrolled to vote. Federal Labor will consider existing policies, State and Territory electoral laws and international examples to develop options to improve electoral participation by young Australians.  There should also be consideration of whether integrated enrolment and registration systems can be put in place to align with young people’s engagement in education through enrolments in school, TAFE and at Uni, the tax system in their annual returns and licensing.

Senator Dastyari’s consultations will also help inform this process.

Better ways to improve the engagement of young people with disability, young Indigenous people, and young people living in outer suburban, regional and remote Australia

As a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (ratified on 17 July 2008), Australia has committed to ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis; that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use; and to protect the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections and public referendums without intimidation.

However, major barriers still exist in access to information and polling places for those with disabilities, and voting for those who are blind or who have low vision (BLV).

For the 2013 federal election, polling places across Australia were rated for disabled access according to the Disability (Access to Premises—Buildings) Standards 2010 as follows:


  • 12 per cent of polling places were rated as ‘Fully accessible’
  • 70 per cent were rated ‘Accessible with assistance’, and
  • 18 per cent were rated ‘Not accessible’.[6]


This is still not good enough.

Further work needs to be done to improve polling places with greater information to enable disabled electors to make a more informed decision about how and where to cast their vote as well as enhanced training and support and better assistance to voters. Remote voting through technology should be investigated as an option for blind and low vision voters as well.

Senator Dastyari will consult with disability advocates, indigenous Australians and young people living in outer suburban and regional and remote areas to identify options for overcoming the unique barriers to participation faced by this cohort.

Options may include the provision of increased support services to address obstacles to electoral participation faced by Australians with a disability, tailored solutions to facilitate voting by indigenous Australians and the greater use of technology to engage with Australians living outside of metropolitan areas.

[1] Whitlam Institute (2009) Putting the politics back into Politics

[2] Australian Census and Taxation Statistics, 2012-13

[5] ACT Legislative Assembly, Standing Committee On Education, Training

And Young People, Inquiry into the Eligible Voting Age

[6] Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), Submission 20.6 to JSCEM, Inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 federal election and matters related thereto, July 2014, p. 18

You can access a printable PDF version of this fact sheet by clicking here.