Liam Hehir: What the voting age debate tells us about our disconnected political media

Liam Hehir: What the voting age debate tells us about our disconnected political media

New Zealand’s media and online politics often reflect the values of liberal and progressive agendas. According to Liam Hehir, the current proposals to lower the voting age to 16 years – which the media overwhelmingly supports – is indicative of a wider mismatch with society, which is not good for democracy.


Not the first time, the question has been raised as to whether we should lower the voting age to include children at least sixteen years old. The national paper of record has also come out as a supporter this weekend. For those in support, the question is a straightforward one about being on the right side of history. For those against, the proposal flies in the face of common sense about the differing responsibilities of children and adults.

While the matter is furiously debated by the extremely online and, by extension, political media, the issue is not particularly divisive in the wider world. Curia, a polling firm, undertook a survey last month of about 700 New Zealanders on whether the voting age should be eighteen or sixteen. The survey was conducted scientifically in accordance with the standards of the Research Association of New Zealand Code of Practice.

The results were unambiguous. 88% of adults believed that eighteen was the correct age. Of those remaining, 8% favoured lowering it to sixteen and 4% were undecided.

This appears to be the only recent poll on the voting age in New Zealand. Furthermore, Curia provides internal polling for the National Party, which opposes reducing the voting age. Advocates of a reduced age may be tempted to discount the value of the study as a result (fairly or not).

However, the results are broadly aligned with results overseas. Polling performed in the USA and Australia and the UK all shows strong voter sentiment against lowering extending the franchise to sixteen-year-olds. In each case the margin was overwhelming.

The UK result was particularly fascinating because it showed that, even where the question was asked in the manner most likely to elicit support for the move, only a third of voters were in favour.

What this illustrates, and not for the first time, is the yawning gulf between the often-radicalised cohort of politically active progressives and he more circumspect views of the population at large. The “divide” over the voting age closely mirrors the flag debate. In that episode the clear preference of the very online – and by extension political media – was the “Red Peak” option that was rejected by almost 91 per cent of the population.

We might also look to the saga of the Internet-Mana Party at the 2014 general election, which failed to ride a much believed in but in fact non-existent wave of popular revulsion against John Key into Parliament. Then there is TOP, which seemed to perform credibly in the last election until you take on board the enormous amount of money and media coverage it enjoyed. This year, there is a lot of online handwringing about the conspiracy theory-based NZ Public Party which has yet to even make a blip in public consciousness.

We passed an abortion law this year that gave us a very liberal regime by world standards (there are, for example, no set gestational limits). A majority of the country is basically pro-choice, though perhaps not to the degree now enshrined by law. Still, for every five pro-choice New Zealanders there are around three who describe themselves as being pro-life.

But how many of the nation’s TV presenters, radio panellists or newspaper columnists would describe themselves that way? If you were to peruse the social media feeds of our media movers and shakers, how many of them were counselling MPs to vote no? Would it even rise to one per cent?

Set aside your views on the merits of the question for one minute. That’s not the point. The point is that it is much more normal to have opposed that bill then it is, for example, to vote for the Green Party. What tendency is more commonly found within the halls of state-owned and establishment media?

But the most recent example of disconnect can be seen in the difference between the approaches Labour and the Greens have taken this year.

While Jacinda Ardern is essentially the patron saint of progressivism in New Zealand, she pays very little attention to political media. The prime minister understands that a cautious – even conservative – approach to government is what will keep her in the Beehive. She understands that the storms that rage in the teacups of Twitter are not worth responding to.

The Green party, by contrast, is very sensitive to the online realm. James Shaw would not have abased himself over the Green School fiasco if he took Ardern’s approach to responding to criticism. The Greens are, of course, struggling to connect with the electorate right now and that is probably not a coincidence.

So should all media institute quotas to ensure more “viewpoint diversity” that more closely mirrors the real world. Probably not. For one thing, private media is and should be perfectly free to develop and cultivate their own editorial line and most do so without sacrificing on excellence. For another, it seems to simply be the case that those most interested in a career in journalism tend to be of a liberal persuasion (in both its left- and right-wing permutations) and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

Furthermore, the distracted nature of political media is probably not much of a problem for New Zealand right now. Overall, we have a relatively high degree of confidence in our political institutions and national direction compared to our peers. We have been a bit of an outlier in that regard for some time, and most of our compatriots simply get on with life largely oblivious to the mostly irrelevant fights that dominate the political media.

What if that were to change? What if New Zealanders were to become more politically engaged and worried for the future of the country? Would they find a political media able to lay out the issues of the day in a way they find engaging, fair and relevant?

Again, probably not. Because they would happen upon a political media that sees as “controversial” the idea that only adults should vote – a view that the vast majority of New Zealanders hold to be common sense. And that may well create problems.

The rise of Fox News in the United States, for example, reflected dissatisfaction with the homogeneous but often out-of-touch opinions of established media institutions in that country. Many liberals in New Zealand cannot stand the contrarian takes of Mike Hosking as it is. He is a social liberal, however, and is largely contained within the existing media framework of the New Zealand Herald and Newstalk ZB.

Imagine, on the other hand, a broadcasting juggernaut where every host, presenter, copywriter and other person shaping coverage had the views of, for want of a better example, Leighton Smith.

Neither conservatives nor liberals should want that for New Zealand. And that is not because of any particular objection to Smith per se. It’s more that it is hard to see how the national interest is really served by following the American route of conservatives and liberals constructing parallel and entirely self-contained political realities.

Wittering on about the voting age in the face of massive popular disapproval is probably pretty harmless in of itself. It is, however, a handy illustration of how off-track our bien-pensant media can be at times. And it probably wouldn’t be the worst thing for our self-contained commentators to log-off social media once in a while to take stock of what people in the real-world think about the things they take for granted.


Liam Hehir lives in the small Manawatu village of Rongotea. He has been a conservative columnist since 2013. He is a practising Catholic and sympathises with the aims of the National Party, for which he formerly volunteered in a variety of low-level roles.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.