Mr. Speaker, I would like to deal with the substance of Bill C-261. Ten minutes does not permit me to name all of the young members of Parliament who are on this side of the House.
I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the debate on Bill C-261. My understanding is that the hon. member's major motivation in bringing the bill forward stems from his desire to do something about declining rates for voter participation, particularly among young persons. That is obviously a laudable objective and one that I am confident we all share.
Just allow me to predicate my remarks by saying that the member for Ajax--Pickering is very well regarded on this side of the House, I dare say on all sides of the House, and represents his constituents in a very exemplary fashion.
He is aware, as we are, that declining voter participation is a trend that has afflicted many western industrialized countries in recent years, and Canada is no exception. For a long period after the second world war, voter turnout averaged 75% and, as recently as the 1993 election, the participation rate among the electorate was 70%. From that point on, turnout has been in steady decline, falling to 67% in 1997 and 64% in 2000.
The Chief Electoral Officer recently released the participation rates for the election last year and it is not a positive picture. Turnout has declined to a level of 60.9%. In 10 short years we have gone from 70% turnout to less than 61% turnout. I dare say that we cannot afford to go much further without raising fundamental questions about the nature of our democracy.
If one looks at the province by province breakdown, the figures become even more alarming. Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, had a turnout rate of only 49.3%. A number of other provinces are only marginally better. I think we all can certainly agree that there is a problem that needs to be addressed and quickly addressed. The question is whether Bill C-261 would do that.
The legislation before us today raises a number of questions: Is lowering the voting age a good idea? Are we confident that citizens younger than 18, on the whole, possess the necessary knowledge and maturity that is required to make an informed decision? Is lowering the voting age to 16 part of the solution? Are there better ways of achieving our objectives? I do not pretend to have the answers to all of these questions but I have had the opportunity to give the issue some thought.
In examining any policy issue it is always illuminating to look at what other jurisdictions are doing. Of the 191 member states of the United Nations, the vast majority, including all the European Union member states, Australia, Canada and the United States, have a minimum voting age of 18 years. There are only a few which have minimum voting ages less than 18: Iran, Brazil, Cuba and Nicaragua.
It is interesting to note that several countries have minimum voting ages greater than 18. For example, Japan has a minimum voting age of 20 and Singapore has a voting age of 21 years. As we all know, the provinces all have a minimum voting age of 18 years.
These inter-jurisdictional comparisons give a strong indication that 18 is generally regarded as an appropriate minimum standard. Let me be clear. The point is not that Canada should use 18 years because everyone else does, but that our own assessment echoes a widespread consensus.
The next question is: Why does there seem to be such a widespread view that individuals should be at least 18 years of age to cast a vote?
I found it worthwhile to refer back to the work of the royal commission on electoral reform and party financing, the Lortie commission, which examined this issue in detail in its 1991 report. This report is the most comprehensive look at our electoral system that has ever been undertaken. It is the bible of electoral reform as it were.
Lortie examined the evolution of the franchise in the context of four criteria which have been used implicitly to determine who should be allowed to vote. These criteria include: holding a stake in the governance of society; the ability to cast a rational and informed vote; conformity to the norms of responsible citizenship; and the need to maintain the impartiality of election officers.
Throughout our history, these criteria have been used to include certain groups in the franchise. By the same token, these criteria have occasionally been used to wrongly exclude certain groups, the exclusion of women from voting in our early history being a primary example and the more recent exclusion of aboriginal peoples being another.
One of the key assumptions underlying the criteria, of course, is that voting requires the exercise of independent judgment and the capacity to engage in political discourse with other citizens. While wrongly applied in some cases, the Lortie commission concluded that these four criteria remain the cornerstone of electoral law in regard to determining who should vote. They provide a benchmark against which to assess whether an exclusion from the franchise is justified in a free and democratic society as required by the charter of rights.
It was against these criteria that the Lortie commission examined the issue of minimum voting age. The commission noted that any decision on voting age involves the judgment of society about when individuals reach maturity as citizens. The report noted that under most statutes a person is not considered an adult until having reached the age of 18. It also noted that a minor requires parental consent for many important decisions, such as applying for citizenship, getting married or seeking certain medical interventions.
Following its comprehensive review, Lortie concluded that the evidence for reducing the voting age to 16 years was not sufficiently compelling. The final recommendation was that the voting age remain at 18 years. Of course, it is trite to say that societies and understandings change, so it is useful to revisit these questions occasionally. Electoral reform is fluid, a work in progress and nothing is cast in stone. For my part, however, I remain convinced that the analysis and conclusions of the Lortie commission remain sound.
At the beginning of my remarks I raised a number of questions that need to be asked in the context of this proposed legislation. While I certainly do not purport to have even scratched the surface, my own examination of this issue has led me to conclude that the time is not yet right to lower the voting age to 16. There seems to be a consensus which extends across nations, cultures and various political systems that 18 years is the appropriate age of majority when it comes to having the capacity to make a decision about whether to cast a vote and which candidate or party one should support.
Of course, not being able to vote until 18 years of age does not mean that young people are excluded from the democratic process. On the contrary, the years between 16 and 18 provide a critical time in the development of overall political knowledge and civic values, both of which foster and form decision making in the polling booth.
We all know firsthand the invaluable contributions which young people make to our own political parties and local organizations. It is a two way street. Knowledge about how the system works and about the key participants is, in my mind, critical to making an informed decision. Rather than lowering the voting age, we should be doing whatever we can to ensure that young people are receiving the education they require and that they are encouraged to contribute to the civic life of their communities.
I congratulate my colleague, the member for Ajax—Pickering, for bringing this important issue before us today. I will be voting against this bill, but I believe it is essential that we get to the bottom of why young people seem to be increasingly disengaged from the political system.