Let the kids help hold the reins

Adolescence is tough, as everyone with a memory would attest if we were honest about ourselves. For me it was mood swings, upsets in the family, uncertainty about where I stood, fear of failing various tests and anxiety about the wider world.

In the latter case, with the Cold War in full swing between the capitalist West and the communist (“Red”) East, including a crisis over Soviet missiles in Cuba, it was fear of nuclear Armageddon. Some thought we put all that behind us decades ago, but nothing is ever that simple. 

In this new century, the past few years have been especially tough on adolescents. Covid forced them into difficult, sometimes totally unmanageable behaviour changes, while international tensions have resurrected some of those old West versus East demons.

On the back of Donald Trump’s presidency, the Ukraine war is another test for democracy. When Vladimir Putin sought to force young men into his army they fled the country, while in democratic Ukraine similar numbers volunteered to fight or to help in other ways. Not conclusive evidence in democracy’s favour, but compelling. 

The first year of this devastating conflict has underlined why we need democracies that work and why we should banish idle thoughts about benevolent dictatorship. A government that feels bound to accept the will of its people is the only government worth having. This is true for all kinds of reasons, but most emphatically for the sake of the climate.

Climate change has raised another question about democracy: how do we make it work for young people? In my adolescence a burgeoning economy helped to smother adolescent anxieties, but we didn’t grasp that growth has its limits. Now we know, and Putin’s war has only added to pressure for a global response. 

Attending to the climate is at or near the bottom of the list of priorities for Putin and others like him (Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro come to mind). Personal power and public adulation are what matter for them. 

So democracy is the best hope for strong climate action, but it is failing us. Everywhere, policies to cut emissions are getting bogged down in partisan dispute, questionable claims and blame-shifting. Worst of all, those it will affect most – people born this century – are sidelined. Most of them can’t even vote.

Young Australians have nutted out the implications of a failure to cut emissions, and now they’re agitating for more say in their long-term future. Frequent student strikes for stronger climate action are increasingly focused on a right of young people to vote.

The reasoning is rock solid. Facing the worst impacts of climate change, today’s children have no say in what their leaders do about it. That say is in the hands of older voters, who according to a Lowy Institute survey last year are less likely than young people to regard climate change as “a serious and pressing problem”.

It’s a reasonable democratic principle that children can be said to have become adult when they’re asked to perform adult tasks. While denying a vote to anyone under 18, we allow younger people to drive a motor vehicle, work and pay taxes, and enlist for military service. The Defence Department says that while it aims to keep 17-year-old recruits from going into battle, that may be unavoidable. 

In the 1970s most Australians were painfully aware that many young men whom our government had sent in their thousands to fight and sometimes die in Vietnam were unable to vote. So lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, which we did in 1973, was widely supported.

In Ukraine, too, 18 is the minimum voting age, but who knows what its war with Russia will bring? It has deemed young citizens to be fit for military service if they are 16 or older and can pass a medical. They don’t go to the front before they are 18, but they do train for battle.

A voting age of 16 may suggest a shift to the Left in electoral outcomes but doesn’t guarantee it. The same Brazilian electorate, including 16-year-old voters, that sent Bolsonaro packing last year had voted him into office three years earlier. In these climate-challenged times allowing younger people to vote isn’t a matter of ideology.

It’s about fairness. People 16 or 17 years old are surely mature enough and smart enough to become soldiers, because they already do. They must be old enough to drive motor vehicles and to work and pay taxes because they already do. Why would they not be ready to vote?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.