It isn’t difficult for Malcolm Turnbull to bat away suggestions that he is betraying his position on gay marriage by supporting a plebiscite. After all, as he says, what could be more democratic than a plebiscite? What indeed?
The implicit proposition is that if 50% of voters-plus-one support gay marriage, Amen! Game, set and match. But, in this case, should a simple bare majority be sufficient to upend a longstanding institutional arrangement; and, separately, a majority of whom?
The outward show of democracy is government by majority will. Fifty per cent of votes plus one holds sway. For the most part, decisions are not directly made by the voting population but by their elected representatives. The 50%-plus-one still prevails, one level up as it were, from the underlying popular will. For deciding most issues, it is hard to think of a better system. But, for deciding some issues of far-reaching consequence, like, say, in passing, the portentous mass immigration of people with incompatible cultural values, it is not nearly demanding enough.
What does ‘far-reaching’ mean? A reasonable guide is that it should apply to a change which cannot feasibly be undone by the current or future generations and which goes to the heart of national culture, conventions, traditions or institutions. Constitutional amendments often fall under this category of change. And, appropriately and accordingly, usually more than a simple bare majority is required to make amendments.
In Australia, a majority of the population nationally, plus a majority in a majority of states, have to agree before a change to the Constitution is made. Special provisions governing constitutional change are par for the course in other countries. However, constitutional provisions are seldom all-encompassing.
In the life of nations there are at times far-reaching changes contemplated, such as the definition of marriage, on which constitutions are silent. This can potentially leave these kinds of changes in the hands of politicians of the day, when they ought to be beyond their competence to determine. This doesn’t mean that such changes should not be made. It simply means that they should be subject to a particularly demanding democratic process.
Plebiscites are certainly part of the answer. But even a plebiscite seems inadequate, if a bare majority of voters can bring about far-reaching changes.
It must be understood that the prevailing, transitory, body of voters in a plebiscite are committing future generations to immutable and profound changes which go to the character of the nation. The hurdle should be high. There is no magic about a particular figure but a bare majority seems totally inadequate. At the very least, in Australia, such changes should be subject to the same requirements as apply to a constitutional change.
Let me go further by questioning voting eligibility. Currently, voters would include those who are 18-, 19- or 20-year-old. Quite simply, as a general rule, they are too inexperienced. Premature suffrage has been foisted on us, supported and accompanied by non sequitur after non sequitur. “Young people are the future and deserve their say.” “They are more up-to-date and receptive to new ideas.” “If they are old enough to fight in wars, they are old enough to vote.” And so on.
Well, I say, no, actually, they aren’t old enough to vote. Those aged eighteen to twenty simply don’t have the maturity to participate in far-reaching national decisions. It is now accepted that the frontal cortex area of the human brain (which governs judgment, decision-making and impulse control) doesn’t fully mature until around age twenty-five.
Callow young people are not best placed to have any kind of defining say in national affairs at all, never mind those of a profound nature. It was a regrettable step that most parliaments around the world reduced the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen (and a few to seventeen or sixteen). Some like the Liberal Democrats in the UK, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and the Greens here, and undoubtedly like-minded parties everywhere, would like to see the voting age universally reduced to sixteen. It is likely they will eventually prevail. And, after that, why stop at sixteen?
To put it starkly, how is an 18-year-old, straight out of school, competent to vote on whether the millennia-old definition of marriage should be changed overnight. To change pace, the SNP saw to it that the voting age was reduced to sixteen in the recent Scottish referendum. Apparently, 16-year olds, too young to drink in a pub, were old enough to have a say (and potentially a deciding one) in the future of a 300-year union between two nation states. The mind boggles at the sheer, mindless, de rigueur trendiness of it all.
The motive of those wanting the voting age reduced still further is transparent enough. The policies they espouse, rooted in puerile pie-in-the-sky socialist-leaning nostrums, are more likely to be supported by those with little experience of life and whose brains are underdeveloped. Conservative politicians should push back while their dwindling numbers and diminishing strength of purpose holds out.
Of course, I am whistling in the wind if I think that the voting age will ever be moved back to 21. And forget about the sensible and desirable step of moving it to 25, at least for constitutional referenda and plebiscites. But this, if you like, illustrates my very point: a profound and irrevocable change to alter the voting age was made by politicians alone.
Do I know that this has had harmful consequences? I don’t, not specifically. But why think that policies and politicians promoted by voters with underdeveloped brains are likely to be beneficial? Jeremy Corbyn’s elevation to the leadership of the British Labour Party, reportedly heavily supported by the young, underscores the potential for harm.
 See, for example, Dr Jay Giedd, the National Institutes of Health, United States Department of Health and Human Services, September, 2005. (http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2005/September2005/docs/01features_02.htm)
 Rhiannon Lucy Cossett ,“Who’s backing Jeremy Corbyn? The Young.” New Stateman, July 2015.