Give them the vote too – Michael Briguglio

Last Saturday, the Green party declared that the voting age for local, European and general elections should be lowered to 16. I am not aware of any excitement by the other political parties and their media, despite their usual rhetorical enthusiasm for youth empowerment.

The Green proposal is based on the premise that young people should be entrusted with key decisions in their life just as they are entrusted to take up employment and further their education.

As chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika and as the youngest leader of a political party in Malta I urge other political parties to endorse this proposal in order that policies for youth empowerment will go beyond rhetoric.

AD’s position on this matter has been evolving over the past years and our youth wing has been a key driving force in this regard. It has been speaking on this since before the 2008 election. I have also taken much interest in this issue given that I believe in extending, and not restricting, voting rights in Malta. In itself, this is a key aspect of everyday democracy.

Indeed, young people should not simply be considered by politicians and policymakers to be the future of a society but, rather, as an integral part of the social, cultural and political spheres of today’s society.

We Greens believe that apart from lowering the voting age in Malta, other changes need to take place to enhance youth empowerment. For example, we believe that one’s political formation should be given more importance in secondary and post-secondary education, particularly in subjects such as social studies, PSD and systems of knowledge. Young people should be encouraged to discuss politics so that the “sacred” status of this topic, erstwhile dominated by the two-party system, can be appropriated by all through open debate and discussion of ideas.

Another political issue which is of great concern to youth voters concerns the Electoral Register. Paranoic fixations on who is to be included or excluded on this list should be done away with. Instead, cross-party consensus should be reached to introduce a mechanism whereby all those who, at the date of an election, have reached the legal voting age would automatically be given the right to vote.

Bureaucratic considerations in electoral registers should serve as enhancers and not as excluders on who is to vote in elections.

Notwithstanding the above, youth empowerment also requires additional policies in various spheres including education, employment and culture. As regards the former, it should be ensured that more young people continue their studies after compulsory schooling. Despite the advances in recent years, participation rates in post-secondary and tertiary schooling in Malta keep holding rock bottom positions when compared to other EU member states.

More emphasis should be given to students with working class and/or disadvantaged backgrounds in order that education can really serve as a tool for a more equal society. For example, the foundation course offered by the Malta College for Arts, Science and Technology for students with low achievements should be strengthened and extended to other educational facilities.

As regards employment, sociological research I co-authored showed that young people who are on unemployment benefits prefer to be in employment rather than being on welfare, thus contradicting myths of welfare dependency by such persons.

One policy that can be adopted in this respect is the further encouragement of apprenticeship schemes, yet participants should receive full wages, rather than being used as cheap labour. The state should also increase sponsorship of young persons involved in voluntary work, sports and cultural and artistic events in other EU member states.

As regards culture, the state can introduce schemes to assist youth involved in art, music, theatre and other areas, for example by renting appropriate structures for such activities to take place. As things stand, young people pay commercial rates to practise such activities.

Yet, it should be emphasised that the state should act as a trampoline that enables youth to have more tools at their disposal and not as a Mullah which aims to homogenise the expression of youth. As Bertold Brecht put it, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”.

In the final instance, youth empowerment does not simply depend on policies by the state and civil society but also on what youth do in their social life.

In this regard, it is misleading to assume that “youth” is a homogeneous category simply characterised by one’s age.

On the contrary, this category is represented by plural identities characterised by factors such as class, gender, sexual orientation, race and so forth and also by the reflexivity of youth themselves.

Maybe young persons are less likely to be loyal to the PNPL duopoly. Or, maybe not. But perhaps this is one reason why, beyond rhetoric, flashy billboards and targeted information campaigns, the two main parties, to date, are apprehensive on trusting 16- and 17-year-olds with the right to vote.

(published in The Times – )

The author, a sociologist, is chairperson and spokesperson for economic policy and culture of Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party.