Do children deserve the right to vote?

 Professor Janna Thompson

Professor Janna Thompson

First published on The Conversation on 24 June 2013





People tend to prefer present gratification to conserving resources for the future. This tendency is made worse by election cycles that encourage politicians to concentrate on policies that will get them re-elected.

The worst effects of our short-sightedness will fall on our children and the generations that follow. We do not know what kind of lives people of future generations will want to live. But we can probably assume they will not want to be poisoned by pollution, subjected to extreme variations in weather or faced with the problem and expense of obtaining basic necessities in an increasingly hostile world and unforgiving environment.

In all likelihood they will want to have jobs and opportunities when our mineral resources are used up.

The failure to look after the welfare of future generations is a serious deficiency in our form of government.

The intergenerational reports of the Howard and Rudd governments were a step in the right direction. The Rudd government report [PDF 1MB] in 2010 proposed measures for improving educational facilities, health care and conserving our soil and water resources. The carbon tax was supposed to be part of the strategy for securing our future.

But most of the objectives were either abandoned or watered-down. The report has been put on the back shelf. There needs to be a more systematic and effective way of representing the interest of young people and future generations.

Rise of the guardians

How can the democratic deficit be fixed? Reformers have made a number of proposals [PDF 512KB] for representing future generations. Some have been tried out in other countries [PDF 2.4MB].

One measure is to appoint an ombudsman with the responsibility of bringing to the attention of government and citizens policies and decisions that could be harmful to young people and future citizens.

In 2008 the Hungarian government appointed an 'Ombudsman for Future Generations' who has the job of identifying and revealing to the public information about government policies that are likely to have impacts on the future of their families and communities. He is supposed to have the power to stop activities that are likely to have a serious impact on future citizens.

Another proposal is to allow court actions to be taken on behalf of children and future generations by specially appointed 'guardians of the future'.

The Philippines Supreme Court allowed representatives of young people and future generations to sue the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources for engaging in unsustainable logging.

Another idea is to appoint experts to a commission for overseeing government actions. The Israeli government experimented with a “Commission for Future Generations” that was not only able to review proposed legislation but also to veto anything judged to be detrimental to the interests of future generations.

Some people think that it would be a good idea to give extra votes to parents. An interesting proposal made by a philosopher Rupert Read at University of East Anglia is that citizens be selected much like members of a jury to sit on an independent commission which he calls 'Guardians of Future Generations' [PDF 840KB]. The Guardians would have the power to force a review of legislation relevant to the interests of future generations.

What should Australia do?

In Australia future generations might be represented by an arrangement that operates like the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities [PDF 1.3KB]. Public servants and parliamentarians at state and federal levels would have to take the interests of future generations into account when making decisions or presenting legislation. They would have to provide impact statements.

If there is a dispute, then 'Guardians of Future Generations' could be appointed to represent young people and future citizens in court cases.

What we need right away is a public discussion about how best to fix a system that discriminates against future people. None of the proposed measures are likely to come into existence or be effective unless we care about the fate of our descendants.

Janna Thompson is a Professor of Philosophy at La Trobe University.