Vote at 16, drink at 18?

Does it make sense to lower the voting age to 16 while raising the drinking age to 18? JAMES DEBONO takes a look at the discrepancies in age limits for different activities in Malta and around the world, and finds that maturity is a very relative concept

As things stand a 17-year-old Maltese teenager can drink alcohol, get married, work, pay taxes and be held criminally responsible for his or her actions. But the same person cannot vote, have sex or drive.

But if the voting age at local level is lowered to 16, as has been suggested by all three Maltese political parties, and the drinking age is raised to 18, as proposed by the Commissioner for Children, a 17-year-old will be able to choose his local representatives, but won't be able to drink, smoke, drive or have sex.

ANDREW AZZOPARDI Youth need to be 'enticed, excited' into voting

In countries like Austria, a situation already exists wherein teens cannot drink spirits (but can consume beer and wine) but can vote in general elections.

Similar discrepancies in age limits for different acts exist in different countries.

In most US states the drinking age is set at a draconian 21, three years higher than in most of the rest of the world.

But while the US is very restrictive on alcohol sales, the car-obsessed nation is very liberal when it comes to issuing driving licences. In Idaho 15-year-olds may drive. But under-16s may only drive during daylight hours, unless supervised by a licensed driver 21 or over. In New York State, junior licences allow anyone aged 16 1/2 years unaccompanied driving from 5am to 10pm

In the province of Alberta, Canada, a driving permit can be obtained at 14 years of age, but can only be used when a licensed driver over the age of 18 accompanies the driver.

The age of consent

Great discrepancies exist in the age of sexual consent between different countries. Spain has the lowest age limit in Europe at 13, while Malta and Turkey are at the highest end, with both at age 18.

Malta is one of the few European countries where the age of consent for sex is higher than the age of consent for marriage.

In 2010 six marriages took place in which one of the spouses was a minor. Otherwise, no marriages involving minors occurred from 2008 to 2012, according to statistics obtained from the Home Affairs Ministry.

In Malta, sexual activity with people between 12 and 18 - typically by people over 18 - can be considered the defilement of minors by lewd acts or corruption of a minor, which, at the discretion of prosecutors and the courts and depending on the circumstances, may result in a conviction.

In the UK, 16 is the cut-off age for both sexual and marital consent. The Catholic Italians have set the age for sexual consent at 14. But the Italians are beaten to the game by the equally Catholic Spaniards. The age of consent in Spain is 13. However, if deceit is used in gaining the consent of a minor under 16 years, upon a parental complaint an individual can be charged under Article 183(1). In 2013, the Spanish government announced plans to raise the age of consent to 15.

In both Spain and Italy, marital consent can be given at age 18, though Spain allows certain marriages to take place at 16.

In both France and Denmark the age of sexual consent is less liberal at 15 but not as stringent as Germany, where it begins at 18. In all three countries, marital consent cannot be given until a person reaches 18 years of age.

Criminal responsibility

In Europe, Switzerland has the lowest age of criminal responsibility - that is, the age when a child can be held responsible for his or her actions - at seven years. Belgium has the highest at 16 to 18.

In some states the age of criminal responsibility can be reduced according to the gravity of the crime committed, so that juvenile perpetrators can be held responsible for their actions. For example, New Zealand lowers the age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 10 years if the crime is murder or manslaughter.

Twenty years ago in the UK, where the age of criminal responsibility is set at eight years, 11-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were imprisoned for the murder of two-year-old James Bulger. Judge Morland surrendered to public pressure to name the children and condemned them as guilty of "unparalleled evil and barbarity".

In Malta, the Juvenile Court Act seems to point out that a juvenile is any person below 16: article 6(2) states, "Where in the course of any proceedings before the Court of Magistrates it appears to the court that the person charged or to whom the proceedings relate is under the age of 16 years, the said court shall adjourn the case and refer it to the Juvenile Court."

Article 35 of the Maltese Criminal Code stipulates that minors under the age of nine years are exempt from criminal responsibility. It adds that minors under 14 years of age shall likewise be exempted, unless they have "mischievous discretion". However, if a minor who is above nine years but below 14 is found to have mischievous discretion, he or she can be held responsible but given only the punishments established for contraventions. However, the court can impose the punishment allotted to that particular offence, less three years, and under no circumstance can the punishment exceed four years' imprisonment, if taking into account the age of the offender, his previous conduct, the gravity of crime and the degree of the mischievous discretion.

Voting age

Brazil lowered its minimum voting age from 18 to 16 with its 1988 constitution. The presidential election of 1989 was the first one with the new minimum voting age.

In 2007 Austria became the first country in the European Union to grant its 16-year-olds the right to vote in a general election. The move was designed to offset what is seen as a demographic imbalance caused by the Alpine state's rapidly aging population. Austria's 65-year-olds already outnumber the 15-year-olds. In Austria teenagers can purchase beer and wine, even though they cannot drive or do military service.

The idea of granting the vote to 16-year-olds is spreading to other countries.

The commitment to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 will be included in the next Labour manifesto.

British Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan argued the move would help to reinvigorate politics by involving teenagers at a younger age. He also pointed out that 16 and17-year-olds already can work, pay national insurance and tax, have sexual relationships, get married, enter civil partnerships and join the armed forces.

In Malta all three parties agree with granting voting rights at the local level to 16-year-olds, something that is already the norm in countries like Germany. Alternattiva Demokratika also proposed giving the vote to 16-year-olds in national elections. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has not ruled out lowering the voting age for all elections, and his Labour government intends to present the amendment to allow 16-year-olds to vote in the upcoming local council elections on 30 November, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of local councils in Malta.

But debate, the prime minister has said, would not stop there.

"We want Malta to be the country setting trends and not following them. This process has opened up another debate: should 16-year-olds be allowed to contest an election if we're giving them the right to vote?" Muscat has asked.

How Maltese age limits compare to other jurisdictions:

 MaltaSpainAustriaSwedenNew York
Smoking 18 18 16 18 18(1)
Voting at local level 18(2) 18 16 18 18
Voting at national level 18 18 16 18 18
Drinking 17 18 16/18(3) None(4) 21(5)
Driving 18 18 18 18 16/18(6)
Sex 18 13 14(7) 15 17(8)
Work 15 16 15 16 14
Marriage 16 14 18 None 14(9)
Criminal responsibility 9 12 14 15 N/A

(1)In New York, a bill is being considered to raise the smoking age to 21.

(2)In Malta, a cross-party agreement exists for the voting age to be decreased to 16 at the local level.

(3)18 is the required age for distilled beverages in some regions of Austria.

(4)In Sweden is legal to drink under 18, but it is illegal to sell, lend or give alcohol to someone under that age.

(5)In New York persons under 21 are prohibited from purchasing alcohol or possessing alcohol with the intent to consume, unless the alcohol was given to that person by their parent or legal guardian.

(6) In most of New York State, under 18s may drive while accompanied by a licensed driver over 21 from 5am to 9pm. Junior licenses are available to those age 16 1/2 and allow unaccompanied driving from 5am to 10pm.

(7)The Austrian penal code contains an exception to the general age of consent: if one of the partners is younger than 16 and "not sufficiently mature to understand the significance of the act", then it is punishable.

(8)In the state of New York, sex with a person under 17 is a misdemeanour if the perpetrator is 16 or older.

(9)In the state of New York 14 to 15 year olds must present the written consent of both parents and a justice of the Supreme Court or a judge of the Family Court to be able to marry.

Youth need to be 'enticed, excited' into voting

Andrew Azzopardi, a senior lecturer in the Department of Youth and Community Studies, sees no contradiction between decreasing the voting age to 16 and raising the drinking age.

"I think that, with all due respect, we are not comparing like with like here, at least the way I see it."

According to Azzopardi, bringing the voting age down to 16 years is basically "giving back the right to young people, a right that along the years has been taken away from them to engage in society". For Azzopardi, youth is nothing more than a social construction, developed during the ages to demarcate a period of transition prior to adulthood.

Essentially, the term youth was created as a response to how the employment sector was developing. Moreover, according to Azzopardi, young people do not need to be socialised into participating but "enticed, excited and given that space once again, so that they can engage constructively in their community".

One of the ways to bring this about is by decreasing the voting age.

"I believe that once they acquire the right to vote in the local councils and hopefully soon enough in the general, MEP and other elections and polls as well, I am pretty sure they will be doing a good job out of it."

On the other hand, when it comes to access to alcohol it's a completely different story. "There is enough evidence to suggest that alcohol, when consumed easily and when it's readily available and when taken in volumes from an early age, might affect the person drastically and potentially can lead to suicidal thoughts, mood swings, can disrupt sleep and so on."

Empirical data also indicate that Maltese youth have a problem with alcohol.

"The easy access in clubs, buying from grocers and shops makes the problem even bigger. All of this is compounded by the fact that the police and regulating agencies feel that it's OK to close both eyes, for example, at feasts, during BBQs and in public events. Young people are applauded for consuming alcohol and the only big concern we seem to have is that it will affect business and sales."

In this context, Azzopardi supports the proposal made by the Commissioner for Children to raise the drinking age to 18 years.

But on its own this will not resolve the problems created by alcohol consumption. "This will not be a resolved issue until we tackle this matter top-down: strengthening legislation, taking enforcement seriously, getting the industry to regulate and respect current laws and regulations and getting politicians to champion this change in culture."

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