Fri. Dec 2nd, 2022

Names can cheat. While many Kiwis might assume that our supreme court is actually supreme – that it can overturn laws and change the country – it’s not. Like the United Kingdom, New Zealand’s parliament is supreme. Even if the courts decide that parliamentary laws do not agree with the Bill of Rights, a democratic body can tell the court to stick to complex tax cases, thanks. Nothing restrains the parliament, nothing is above it.

Yet the supreme court he was he was recently given new power to force issues onto the parliamentary agenda, and he used it almost immediately to blow up the long-running youth vote debate, exposing the silly views of most of those involved.

This is done through a “declaration of inconsistency” – basically the court notes that the law is inconsistent with two New Zealand human and civil rights acts. The court made these statements only recently. Three months ago, the government passed a law that determines how parliament will react to these statements. An inconsistency is guaranteed to be discussed, but not necessarily corrected.

Earlier this week, the supreme court used that power and ruled in favor of Make It 16, a group that campaigned to raise the voting age from 18 to 16 – arguing that the right of young people to vote was violated without good reason.

Although Make It 16 should be congratulated for its victory, it won by default. The Crown made no substantive argument for maintaining the status quo, other than that it was the status quo, and the courts should not be considering the matter anyway.

The Crown has not made a good case for the voting age to be 18 because there is no good case for the voting age to be 18. It’s a completely arbitrary age – just like 20 and 21 were in the past.

As David Runciman has long argued, the arguments commonly made against youth voting can be equally applied to the elderly. Mental competence? The risk of cognitive decline increases significantly as a person ages. Tax contribution? Old people rarely work and generally withdraw a lot of government subsidies.

But of course, taking away the voice of the elderly would be barbaric. We got rid of those kinds of mental capacity tests or tax payments a long time ago, realizing that the right to vote is not earned, but born.

You could see this lack of a good argument in the responses of various politicians to the news. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has largely declined to take a position on the issue – apart from gesturing towards civics – said she personally agreed that younger people should be able to vote and announced her intention to introduce a bill to change the law.

The two main opposition parties have offered silly answers that don’t stand up to scrutiny. National Justice spokesman Paul Goldsmith said the law had been in place for more than a century (in fact it was last changed in 1974), then spent most of his press release talking about youth crime instead. ACT leader David Seymour hit out at the left’s perceived political benefit from the youth vote, saying New Zealand doesn’t need 120,000 more tax-exempt voters, but you want more spending. (Any 16- or 17-year-old who has a job or buys any goods or services in New Zealand actually pays tax, but never mind.)

Although he got the dates wrong, Goldsmith’s overall claim that he sees no need to change the law comes closest to a good argument for the status quo. You admit that 18 is arbitrary – but hey, it’s what we have. Change is always a risk. That in itself is the main weakness of the Make It 16 argument – ​​because 16 is just as arbitrary at 18. Wherever you draw it, you’re just drawing a line. That is why Runciman believes that the voting age should not be 16 – but six.

The court’s intervention pushed the issue onto the parliament’s agenda, immediately forcing all parties to actually state their point of view. But the idea itself was dead on arrival. The part of the electoral law dealing with the voting age is “entrenched” – meaning our shaky constitution requires 75% of parliament to vote for change or a referendum.

A referendum would be doomed (polls suggest almost no adults support lowering the age), and while National emerged from the last election weakened, the party still holds 27.5% of seats in the House of Commons, meaning any reform does not include National is doomed.

So, in this battle, the parliament emerges victorious – even if, ironically, it ends up being a minority in the parliament. But the supreme court is apparently very happy to use this new power on highly contentious issues. This will not be the last time he intervenes.