IS IT time to lower the voting age to boost youth engagement in Australian politics?

That was the first question put to a group of high school students on Monday night as they took their seats on the ABC Q&A panel for the first time. But it wasn't the question many had tuned in to hear.

"Someone better ask the student from MacRobertson Girls about #poogate," one social media user wrote.

"Will the MacRobertson student comment on the 'Poo Protester' who is unhappy with education standards at the school?" another asked.

But more on that later.

MacRobertson Girls’ High School student Jacinta Speer on the Q & A panel.
MacRobertson Girls’ High School student Jacinta Speer on the Q & A panel.

Among the student panellists were Williamstown High's Aretha Brown; Parade College's Pinidu Chandrasekera; Kaniva College's Jock Maddern and MacRobertson Girls' High's Jacinta Speer.

They were joined on the panel by host Tony Jones, Environment and Energy minister Josh Frydenberg and opposition Health Minister Catherine King.

Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of the youths revealed they were happy to wait until they were 18, to legally vote.

"I can't speak for everyone but I'm kind of happy with the age that we're entitled to vote," Ms Brown said.

She said voting requires people to "be politically conscious" so they know who they're voting for and why.

"Not to say that people who are younger don't have the capability but I think it's something that comes with a great deal of responsibility," she said.

According to Mr Maddern, "it should probably stay at 18 but it could be lowered to 16 (if) the education about the politics and how it works (was) upgraded.

Williamstown High School student Aretha Brown on the Q & A panel.
Williamstown High School student Aretha Brown on the Q & A panel.

Ms Speer said it wasn't important for 16-year-olds to vote because they have the rest of their lives ahead of them to do so.

"But I think what is important is youth engagement in politics from a very young age," she said.

"Campaigning and door knocking (is) exactly the kind of action we need. It allows us to gain insights into the political system.

"And it helps us really make informed choices.

"So I think maybe rather than making the age limit 16, the government should be trying to implement more political awareness within the youth by listening to their concerns, addressing their concerns, having panels like this one, where we get to address ourselves in the broader debate."

Ms Speer was a powerful and impressive voice on the panel who also spoke on youth suicide rates, freedom of speech and home affairs.

One social media user described her as an "outstanding representative" for MacRobertson Girls' High School. "Our future is in good hands," another commentator wrote. The positive reception was in stark contrast to an incident that cast a dark shadow over the school just days earlier.

The ABC put high school students on the panel to take on two federal politicians in front of an audience. Picture: ABC.

MacRobertson Girls' High School gained nationwide attention after an anonymous student left faeces and a note as a "protest" on the school grounds. News.com.au does not suggest Ms Speer was involved.

"I know I have resorted to the most extreme method to make a symbolic point but you NEVER listen to student voice," the anonymous note read.

"We all know you're not going to do anything, but at least my behaviour has punished the school for what it has done."

Opposition Health Minister Catherine King on the Q & A panel, left, and right, Minister for the Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg.
Opposition Health Minister Catherine King on the Q & A panel, left, and right, Minister for the Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg.

The disgruntled student wrote that the teachers were "sh*t" and explained she "left symbolic droppings of what the education is like at this school. CRAP!!!"

"You can't silence me like you have silenced all my other peers that have come before you," the note continued.

"But at least at least this time the symbolism can't be forgotten. The mark has been left."

In a statement to news.com.au, MacRobertson Girls' High Principal Dr Toni Meath said the school had earlier this year become "aware of a student who was dissatisfied and we've reached out to offer her support and address her concerns".

"We listen to our students and their input is valued by the whole school community, and we work with all of our students to help them get a great education," Dr Meath said.

While the incident - which has since been dubbed 'poogate at Poo High' - was not addressed on Q & A, some of the issues outlined in the protest letter did arise indirectly, including the quality of Australia's education system.

"In regards to education especially, I think it's very easy to blame the Government for this," student panellist Pinidu Chandrasekera said.

"It's not just up to the Government to throw money at us, we need to develop an attitude of resilience to keep going and make sure we get around our peers instead of trying to always get more money."

The young panellists were overwhelmingly in favour of legalising same sex marriage.

Teenager Aretha Brown said she was "kind of left, kind of broken when I think about it" when drawn on her feelings about marriage inequality.

"Telling someone that they can't love who they love is criminally unfair," student panellist Jock Maddern said. The audience responded to his comments with a round of applause.

Mr Chandrasekera said it was only fair to legalise same sex marriage if agreed by a public vote. "Because that gets you a broader range of opinions," he said.

"In the parliament, it will still be a broad range of opinions but it's a lot more condensed.

"I think the public should decide."

Minister for the Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg said the government "made it very clear that we would go to the election with a plebiscite policy".

"And dare I say if the parliament had voted for the plebiscite, based on the polls today, we would have gay marriage in this country," he said.

"And I personally support that."

But opposition Health Minister Catherine King wasn't having it.

"You have changed policies all the time," she said.

"I don't know why you won't change your policy on this. We should just get this done."

News Corp Australia


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