The age of enlightenment?

Not that I needed to be reminded of this fact, but last week once again demonstrated that politics is an unpredictable animal. The simple – at least on the surface – idea of reducing the voting age from 18 to 16 created a debate that has clearly stirred up a lot more controversy than I ever imagined when we decided to introduce the private member’s bill following the plebiscite last year when 16 and 17 year-olds were allowed to vote for the first time in Canada.

Initially it was my intention to introduce the bill, and to sit back and facilitate a reasoned discussion about the pros and cons of the notion. It may shock a lot of people to read that I have mixed feelings on the proposal myself. On balance, I think it will be good for democracy to include Islanders who are 16 and 17 in elections. My own experiences, a review of literature, and the global trend towards lowering the voting age in other jurisdictions tips the balance for me towards including them. But unlike many other issues about which I have very resolute opinions – the urgency of climate change, the value of preventative health care, the importance of diversity in agriculture, for example – this is an issue on which I am much more equivocal. It is, after all largely a philosophical debate, and therefore one which does not lend itself to evidence-based deliberation or definitive conclusions.

The first disappointment to me in discussing the issue appeared when we opened debate in the legislature. Rather than finding myself as a mediator, inviting discussion and differing opinions formed through introspection and critical thinking, I immediately found myself on the defensive, fending off some pretty odd challenges and ideas. Over two separate sessions, we “debated” the bill for over an hour. Debate is defined as: “serious discussion of a subject in which many people take part” offering opposing arguments. Opposing arguments were hard to find, but many concerns were raised about, amongst other things, under-age drinking, conscription, and juvenile criminal offences. To be fair, some MLAs did support their lack of enthusiasm for the bill with somewhat relevant (if mildly offensive and disparaging) thoughts – how tidy one daughter’s bedroom is, whether teenagers are capable of critical thinking and reasoned choices – but for the most part it was farcical, with straw men arguments continuously appearing, despite repeated assertions that the legislative implications of this bill do not go beyond the scope of how old voters in a provincial election should be. Period.

I am disappointed the bill did not pass, but I am far more disappointed in the level of debate that accompanied my proposal. Parliament (derived from the French, “the speaking place”) should exist as the pinnacle of reasoned discourse, where the best minds debate complex ideas and come to coherent, rational conclusions. Instead we have a place where all too often the strength of a rgument in favour or against an idea – whether that be electoral reform or child advocacy or perimeter highways – has nothing to do with whether it gets adopted in the House. Partisanship and prejudice overrule reason and persuasive argument, and frequently profound decisions are made based on flimsy rationale and closed-mindedness.

The stark irony here, of course, is that some of the arguments made against allowing Island youth to participate in democracy – that they aren’t capable of independent critical thinking, or that they will vote the way their parents voted, based on Party alignment – can be applied to the manner in which this debate unfolded in the House.

As I said in an interview following failure of the bill “It comes down to a difference in attitude. Either you trust and have faith in young Islanders and you encourage them to express their opinions and you respect what they say, or you don’t. You can choose to distrust them, suppress their voices and question their ability to make sound choices.”

I prefer to have confidence in our Island youth.