Government to propose legislation reducing voting age to 16 to allow Parliament to consider issue

The Government will draft legislation to bring the voting age down to 16 to allow all of Parliament to consider the option.

It follows the Supreme Court declaration on Monday morning that the current voting age of 18 is inconsistent with the right found in the New Zealand Bill of Rights to be free of discrimination on the basis of age.

But given the voting age is entrenched - meaning it requires a supermajority in the House to change - any adjustment would require the support of the National Party, which has already expressed opposition.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the announcement at a press conference following a meeting of Cabinet on Monday.

"It is our view that this is an issue best placed to Parliament for everyone to have their say," she said.

Under the current process, when an inconsistency with the Bill of Rights has been determined by a court, the Attorney-General has to notify the House of Representatives within six sitting days and a Government response has to be presented within six months.

"The most natural response, in our view, was to give Parliament an additional opportunity, alongside those steps, to share their view," Ardern said.

"So rather than just having a debate, they can have a vote. That is essentially what we're tacking on."

Ardern said she wants to see politics removed from the issue and allow every MP to have a voice. She said it would be up to the Speaker to decide if it will be a conscience vote.

If supported, the proposed legislation would not take effect at the next general election. The Electoral Commission would have a role in deciding when it would take effect.

Changes to electoral law require 75 percent support, meaning it would require the support of both National and Labour to come into law.

Labour is yet to decide its position on changing the voting age. Both National and ACT oppose lowering the age, while the Greens and Te Paati Māori have expressed support. 

Ardern said she personally supports lowering the voting age to 16.

"My vote will be one of 120... For me, it is alignment around some of the responsibilities and rights which are already apportioned at these different ages. I accept different politicians will have different views."

She wouldn't make an assumption about how National and ACT would vote, despite both releasing press releases saying they opposed the change.

National's justice spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said the party has other priorities. 

"National’s priorities in justice are reducing violent, youth and gang crime, as well as clearing court backlogs," Goldsmith said.

"With violent crime up by 21 percent, a 50 percent increase in gang membership and a 500 percent increase in ram-raids, these are pressing matters the Labour Government are failing to get under control."

ACT leader David Seymour said: "We don’t want 120,000 more voters who pay no tax voting for lots more spending.

"The Supreme Court needs to stick to its knitting and quit the judicial activism.

"There is nothing stopping 16-year-olds from getting involved in politics already if they’re so inclined and ACT encourages them to do so. The more politically-savvy and tuned-in people are when they do become eligible to vote the better.

"My proposition to 16 and 17-year-old voters is this. There's only a two out of three chance that you'll get an extra vote out of this, but you will pay extra tax for whatever crazy thing 16 and 17-year-olds voted for at the last election."

The Greens justice spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said Parliament should listen to the court.

"Young people deserve to have a say in the decisions that affect them, both now and in the future. We are calling on the Government to come to the table with a plan to change the law to extend the voting age," Ghahraman said.

"Today’s Supreme Court decision that 16 and 17-year-olds do have the right to vote is a testament to the hard work and passion of all the young people who fought tirelessly to uphold their basic right to have a say in how their country is run. It is a massive win for democracy."

David Clark, the Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister who was at the press conference with Ardern, said he favoured a younger voting age.

"I think that the decisions that politicians make affect younger age groups for far longer than they do for those of us who are already of voting age and there are some crucial decisions that Parliament act on," he said.

He said decisions about some issues, like climate change, have a greater impact on younger generations. 

Earlier on Monday, Make It 16, the group which took the issue to the Supreme Court, welcomed the court judgement. 

"This is history," said Make It 16 co-director Caeden Tipler.

"Today New Zealand’s highest court has confirmed that stopping young people from voting is a breach of our human rights. Preventing me and other 16 and 17-year-olds from voting is an unjustified breach of our right to be free from age discrimination. The Government and Parliament cannot ignore such a clear legal and moral message. They must let us vote."