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Shorten’s plan to lower the voting age could help increase political engagement

Bill Shorten said politicians and government must find ways to re-engage a generation of young people. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Shorten’s plan to lower the voting age could help increase political engagement

Bill Shorten said politicians and government must find ways to re-engage a generation of young people. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Speaking at a NSW Young Labor conference over the weekend, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten called for Australia’s voting age to be lowered to 16. In a bid to “tackle the apathy and cynicism of young people towards politics”, Shorten said politicians must find ways to re-engage a generation of citizens who no longer seem interested in government affairs.

Though Liberal MPs were quick to dismiss Shorten’s announcement as a political gimmick to help Labor win votes, recent research shows that lowering the voting age to 16 can positively boost voter turnout.

Researchers discovered that first-time voters who were 16 or 17 were significantly more likely to enrol to vote and participate in elections than first-time voters between the ages of 18 and 20. Such findings are important because they confirm that young people are far from politically disengaged. Not only that, they disprove arguments that assume low electoral participation of 16- and 17-year-olds because of lack of political interest.

In Britain, it has become clear that denying youth a say in matters affecting their lives has left them hostage to a government that seems to care little about the welfare of society’s youngest citizens. As Gareth Evans, an MA student at Sheffield University, put it earlier this year, all this:

… serves as a very real, very painful, argument for lowering the voting age to 16.

After all, if a government can hurt the young this much, surely it’s only fair to give them a chance to hit back?

Shorten, it seems, agrees.

Shorten and ‘uncoupling’

But with all the media attention so far focused on Shorten’s proposal to lower the voting age, maybe the speech’s most important aspect has actually gone unnoticed.

Speaking about the challenges faced by today’s youth – from the rising cost of education to climate change to housing affordability – Shorten confessed he wasn’t surprised by young people’s decreasing interest in politics. If government ignores the stark realities faced by Australia’s youth, it’s only natural that many will be disgruntled with the system.

Shorten said:

You look at these challenges, you weigh them against the daily experience of life, and then you turn on your TV and see a parliament that isn’t shaped by your views or your reality. Perhaps it’s no wonder that our democracy has a participation problem – especially among young people.

What Shorten is referring to here is what governance scholars call the problem of “uncoupling”. This is the growing canyon now separating politics as understood and practiced by political authorities from the political practices of everyday people.

The situation is this: politicians – even where well-intentioned like Shorten – have become accustomed to seeing young people largely from a “civic deficit” perspective. In their eyes, too many young people simply do not care enough about politics to fulfil their democratic duties by voting at important national elections. When this happens, young people not only let themselves down, they also weaken the very fabric of representative democracy.

For their part, many young people express a sense of alienation from their political representatives. What they care most about – social and post-material concerns – rarely rates a mention against the big-ticket issues contested at most national elections.

How young people choose to engage – through campaigns, social movements, online networks – is also unjustly condemned as illegitimate political participation.

At its worst, some young people do not see what they understand and practice as politics. Politics, for them, is something largely reserved for political elites in Canberra.

All of this points to a fundamental disconnect – an uncoupling.

And now for the good news

The good news is that politicians such as Shorten now seem more aware of this disconnect. They are beginning to realise that Australia’s civic deficit is not simply the fault of an “apathetic” and “cynical” youth. Politicians and government must also be held to account.

Shorten’s solution, for now, is to lower the voting age. But a much more fundamental shift in thinking may be required to overcome the issue of uncoupling. Simply put, politicians must learn to see voting at elections as merely one of many legitimate forms of political participation.

UK-based youth researcher Benjamin Bowman recently wrote in The Conversation that:

… young people can be voters, but also abstainers, protesters, organisers, union members and ethical buyers.

Politicians interested in more than winning votes would do well to embrace all these as ways of doing politics in the 21st century.