Junior minister defends possible election of 16-year-olds as mayors

Junior minister Julia Farrugia Portelli: 'If you are capable of voting, aren’t you capable of making a change in the town you form part of?'

From left: Andrew Debattista, Julia Farrugia Portelli, Clifton Grima and Silvio Parnis (Photo: DOI/Omar Camilleri)
From left: Andrew Debattista, Julia Farrugia Portelli, Clifton Grima and Silvio Parnis (Photo: DOI/Omar Camilleri)

OPM parliamentary secretary for reforms Julia Farrugia Portelli has defended the possibility of having 16-year-old mayors, at the launch of a discussion paper proposing lowering the voting age to 16 at general elections and European Parliament elections.

16-year-olds already enjoy the right to vote during local council elections.

The consultation, which is open to the public on www.konsultazzjoni.gov.mt and Facebook, aims “to collect the primary perspectives and feelings of the Maltese citizens on this initiative,” which at one level is aimed at smoothing out inconsistencies in the rights of young people.

The questions were formulated after discussions were held with the youth wings of both of the country’s leading political parties. These included whether it was inconsistent that 16-year-olds are allowed to open bank accounts and pay taxes, but not allowed to vote and whether the reduction in voting age was going to lead to better representation of their interests.

The European Union had advised all countries to lower voting age to 16, Farrugia Portelli said. “We’re not stopping there, we aren’t afraid of discussion.”

She acknowledged that there were valid questions about the possibility of towns having 16-year-old mayors, but was not troubled by this.

“I have reflected on the issue over several days. There is nothing in life that can prepare you for political life.”

Andrew Debattista, who will be leading the Vote 16+ four-week consultation phase, after which the results will be analysed to formulate a policy, said that other countries allowed 16-year-olds the vote. Austria introduced the measure in 1992 and Scotland had also allowed the age group to vote in the recent referendum.

Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua allow 16 year old voters, he pointed out, adding that East Timor Ethiopia, Indonesia, North Korea and Sudan, allowed it at 17. South Koreans were allowed to vote at 19, Bahrain, Kuwait at 20, he said.

In order to have new energy in local councils Malta needed to look to the future, said Silvio Parnis, parliamentary secretary for local councils.

“I believe in young people and that they can be protagonists in local councils... I also want to see more female mayors and councillors. We must make it easier for them to participate.”

Parnis touched upon the thorny issue of whether or not 16-year-olds should be allowed to become mayors, saying:  “The discussion is that if you, as a 16-year-old are elected and have enough votes should you be the mayor? I believe that when you touch the seat of responsibility your priorities change overnight.”

Parliamentary secretary Clifton Grima hailed the proposal as “a message of hope, a sign that we truly believe in our youth.”

Grima said he had been working with a number of young people over the last few months and said he was “reassured that they are mature, occasionally more so than those older than them.”

“The question should be how much as adults we trust these youths,” he said.

He pointed out that 16-year-olds currently have rights and obligations at law. “They can start businesses and make a will. A glance at those laws means that the legislator had already recognised that there are obligations and rights on 16-year-olds that is why the way forward is to encourage youths to participate in civil society and politics.”

“When someone is chosen for an office, the perspective on life changes. If we have 16, 17-year-olds taking an active role in local politics I believe there is everything necessary for these to be a success.”

“I am certain that the young nowadays have all the tools necessary to be informed… It is the duty of the politician to encourage the young to participate in public life.”

Asked if the 16-year-old’s participation would extend to MEP and general elections, Farrugia Portelli pointed to the Labour Party’s electoral manifesto, which promised to give 16-year-olds the right to vote in general elections and to contest in elections for local councils and administrative councils.

The government was not going to bind itself to whether or not this will happen in the upcoming MEP elections, but would be discussing it with stakeholders including the Minister for Education, she said.

There were other considerations, Farrugia Portelli pointed out. “If a 16-year-old is elected mayor, how will this affect his schooling? I don’t want to rush things, but I don’t think it’s going to take five years, either.”

Asked if this was a simply a populist move, Farrugia Portelli replied that “youths aren’t simply an ornament used in an electoral campaign.”

“If you are capable of voting, aren’t you capable of making a change in the town form part of?”

The issue was empowering youth, she said, by not just giving them the vote but also by allowing them an active role in governing.