Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Flag Referenda: Who Should Vote?

As thing currently stand the electorate for the referenda will be the normal electorate. That is, all New Zealanders (citizens and permanent residents, as it should be) aged 18 and over. However, there has been a call, admittedly out of a school, for this to be changed. Effectively, 12 year olds would also be able to vote and maybe the odd 11 year old as well. Here I will present a selection of the views from the article on the question (i.e. should intermediate and secondary school pupils be able to participate in the referenda?) and try and explore the issue.
"I think the government should let secondary and intermediate school pupils vote; it's not like it's a political party vote or anything. But it is a vote for a flag that we will have for the rest of our lives."
That's from the 12 year old who seems, as it were, to be leading the charge. It's a pretty good point. What is being weighed here are ideas of nationhood and identity... not policies. I think only an idiot would agree with the notion that even pre-teens have views on national identity and the such. If I remember a year seven exercise correctly, for instance, we had to muck about with various kiwiana (which are symbols and/or of New Zealand or kiwiness), and we often were asked to work with these sorts of symbols throughout. I would also imagine that teachers used the flag question to ground exercises or set exercises on it (current events, yeah?). Presumably, the stupidity of this line of criticism was why the actual criticisms were more about engagement.
For all Ben's enthusiasm, not all youth may have the same passionate interest in flag change. There are so far no plans to have the voice of youth heard in this month's referendum - and youth representatives at the Summit say most young people are not interested anyway.
"A lot of young people don't really care," said James Hansen of St Kentigern's College, "so if that's the case it's probably best they do not skew the results. It's better to have mature people having a voice."
Well, maybe I was wrong just before because some of the above is completely stupid. What is the difference between Johnny who is a year thirteen and aged eighteen and Jonathan who is year thirteen and is aged seventeen, with a birthday a fortnight after Johnny? This is a question that people who think about voting ages spend time on because the answer is "Nothing". We know absolutely nothing about the respective levels of political participation, awareness and interest that these two example pupils have from the information I've given. It could be that neither care at all, or maybe both are frothing at the mouth with excitement at the prospect of voting. This is why some people have proposed a tethered voting age... you can vote if you turn 18 within x period of time after the date of the election (18 is also variable, of course). There is also the issue that if we have a mandatory schooling age of 16, we are pretty much saying that we expect people to be doing adult things and having adult lives from an age two years younger than that of the voting age. So, in this context, to argue "maturity" is daft. (We must also consider how likely it is that Hansen's opinion accurately represents the state of youth apathy, but as we shall see we're pretty much stuck with hoping his like are right.)

But, even if we accept the implicit notion of maturity above (i.e. anyone currently enrolled) it still doesn't make sense. The people who have shown interest in the flag change question are, fairly universally, John Key. No-one else. Sure, there was that spate of out-rage after those horrendous options were drawn up in accordance with Don Key that led to Red Peak but, even online, there has never really been any particular interest in the question. So, in this sense, if flag change representation is being extended to everyone over the age of eighteen because of the few with Facebook posts, Tweets, blogs and John Key why not do the same with those under eighteen? The other reasons? Well, that's satisfactory if only the other reasons make sense in and of themselves. As we have seen, notions of maturity and understanding are dubious themselves, which would suggest that the other reasons don't make sense in and of themselves, and, thus, it isn't logical... On the other hand, the onus is to establish that there needs to be some change not that the status quo is fine, which means you need to be able to point at something and say, "Look, these school pupils are widely interested and aware". The problem with this is that no-one polls school pupils (because they can't vote) and we don't have any real classroom activities which enough people do to be able to find the evidence we want (at least, in time).

There's another thing to criticise Hansen here on: "skew the results". What does that mean? You could argue that he's saying that because apathy reigns among young people. their votes are sort of going to be randomly allocated between the five options, thus distorting the referendum's ability to represent what New Zealanders actually think about the four awful and one okay designs. He probably is saying something like that. However, this is nonsensical. Not caring is, in fact, an opinion itself about the flag. What it means is that someone doesn't think the flag matters all that much to those people. And as Dalton (the 12 year old) points out, 12 year olds have to live with the outcome just as much as the next person. In fact, if the next person is 82, the 12 year old probably has to live with the outcome much more than the next person. That, to my mind, is reason enough to, for these specific referendums, to have a voting age closer to 12 than 20. On the other hand, assuming that an apathetic person is just as likely to vote for "a" as they are for "b" is unwise. After all, something must function as a decision factor. If it's prettiness then it's okay (in fact, almost ideal*) but if it's based on geography (flags at top get ranked higher etc.) or alphabetical order then that is a problem, and things would be altered in such a way that "skewed" makes sense. As a final note on skewness, we already know that there are several different ideas on how to tactically vote and that people will be voting tactically to best ensure Option Zero (the current flag) wins, so maybe more skewness doesn't matter?

Dave Atkinson, a Parenting Place presenter and youth worker and member of the panel, said: "If young people don't care and we give them a percentage of the votes, it could be quite dangerous."

So, yes, you can maybe guess at what Atkinson means by dangerous. But he could be talking about hereditary politics, which is when a child votes in the way that the family votes (this is a big problem in the US). In the context of these referenda, if you have kids you basically get to have more votes than someone who has none. Is that right? Of course not.

To conclude, I would actually agree with Dalton. There are some risks associated with the proposition but, at the same time, I just don't think that is fair to lump people with something that they will have had no say in, when there was an opportunity in their politically aware lifetimes, to have a say for maybe a century or more. If you have to live with something and a reasonable person would consider that you have the awareness and knowledge to make a reasonable decision in the course of that something, you should have a say. This is, basically, the principle underlying democracy... rule by the people (reign by the people is somewhat different mind).

*It's an aesthetic question. What we want is voting that lines up best with a person's ideas about what flag best represents New Zealand, but if we have to settle for "This one of the options looks best" then that is, theoretically, okay because the flag panel (as crap and poorly thought out as it was) filtered things through a more NZ people rather than NZ person lens.

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