They’re no longer kids | Mark Said

Reservations about whether this new law was timely and needed abound, but I can only wish those 16-year-olds who dare contest in the upcoming local council elections the best of success

File photo
File photo

Winning the election is a good-news, bad-news kind of thing. Okay, now you're the mayor. The bad news is, now you're the mayor.

Ahead of next year’s local council elections, the government launched the legislative process to enable local councillors as young as 16 or 17 to become mayors and deputy mayors. Should this be good or bad news?

It was never a question of if, but when. Indeed, it had been promised in Labour’s electoral manifesto. The PN, too, appears of the same opinion. Once the legislator today deems a 16-year-old sufficiently and reasonably capable of reaching an informed and formed decision as to whom to vote, why shouldn’t he or she run for mayorship or as a deputy mayor?

Could it be, then, that the next move will be to lower the age required for eligibility for membership in the House of Representatives (currently 18 according to Article 53 of the Constitution) to 16?

So will the next batch of bait-and-switch mayoral races focus on grand visions rather than the skills needed to excel at the job? Grandiose visioneering gets a candidate noticed; the more so, the bigger the field. That's a pity because those visions typically differ just a bit, but candidate management skills often differ wildly.

How you get the job of mayor is very different from how you get the job done well once you have it. Reflecting on what the job really is—and what each candidate is capable of in managing a complex organisation — is vital because executive acumen is an essential skill for turning civic vision into civic reality. Resting on vision alone isn't nearly enough.

There are key skills and responsibilities that can make or break a newly elected mayor. Of course, the age factor does come into play. Undoubtedly, for many parents, though, there’s always the question of “when do kids become adults?” The idea that there is an age limit to childhood and a clean line in the sand for one’s entry into adulthood is a hard sell.

True adulthood is far more nuanced than you might think.

The day will come when kids go off into the world to live their lives using all the life skills they’ve learned from their parents through the years.

It used to be that a young person’s exit from high school and subsequent pursuit of higher education counted as a rite of passage into adulthood. For many families, kids graduating from secondary education and leaving their parents’ homes to become college students and their eventual strides towards financial independence equaled adulthood as well.

If we look through the eyes of the law for an answer, adult life starts when they are deemed competent enough to do certain things and participate in their society and government. In most states, including Malta, the age of legal adulthood is 18 years old.

While the law says one thing (at age 18, you’re legally considered an adult), science sheds some light on our brain’s inner workings to show us why adulthood is not a simple matter of age. As children mature past late adolescence into early adulthood, significant changes in their brain anatomy and activity are still going on, and brain maturation continues far later into development than previously believed.

The mayor's job is big and sprawling and a lot harder than one thinks, more so for 16-year-olds. It is a political office filled through a local council election. Voters choose who will make important decisions that affect those who live in the town or village. A mayor typically works with municipal officials and other leaders to oversee the day-to-day operations of the local government. At the same time, their responsibilities may vary depending on the local government structure.

A successful mayor should possess a broad range of skills that encompass both interpersonal and professional abilities. Key skills include political savvy, persuasion, negotiation, financial management, empathy, decision-making, communication and, most important of all, leadership.

There will be another curious aspect that this latest development might conjure up. It concerns the relationship between the age of a voter and the age of a candidate. What role does a candidate’s age play in the decision-making process of voters? Sometimes voters prefer experience; sometimes voters prefer energy. Older candidates will be considered to be more experienced; younger candidates will be considered to be more energetic. A candidate’s age is only an asset to that candidate inasmuch as their age makes them similar to the electorate.

Young voters have lately been notorious for their low turnout in Maltese elections. Young voters may be exhibiting signs of a generational gap between themselves and their elected officials, so the proclivity among young voters to support young candidates cannot be totally dismissed.

Despite the many hurdles that youngsters may have to overcome, registering a resounding electoral success is not impossible. Back in 2019, then-17-year-old Carlos Zarb, contesting on a PL ticket, was the youngest-ever councillor to be elected, receiving the second-highest number of first-count votes in the St Paul’s Bay local council election. Two other underage councillors were elected in 2019: Abraham Aquilina in Għargħur and Ilona Fenech in Sliema.

Reservations about whether this new law was timely and needed abound, but I can only wish those 16-year-olds who dare contest in the upcoming local council elections the best of success. Some might make it, while others might turn out to be flops.