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Our democracy is the loser when voices of youth are marginalised

Young Australians are significantly less willing than the rest of the population to register and turn out to vote. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

In the current political environment, young people are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Typically stereotyped as having an inflated sense of entitlement, uninterested in civic participation and apathetic, when young people do speak up they are readily dismissed in very public ways.

Student protests at federal funding cuts to higher education, for example, have met with derision and disdain. One protest briefly interrupted an ABC broadcast of Q&A involving education minister Christopher Pyne. Some described the students as “ferocious” and an “embarrassment”. Q&A host Tony Jones labelled them “unruly” and “undemocratic”.

Turning away from politics

Perhaps this begins to explain the troubling findings in recent years of the Lowy Institute poll on attitudes to politics and democracy. The annual poll suggests an entrenched ambivalence about democracy among some young people.

This year’s poll found that only 42% of 18 to 29-year-olds see democracy as preferable to any other kind of government (compared with 65% of those 30 and over). This is down 6% from last year. A third of 18 to 29-year-olds agree that:

In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable.

Nearly one in five say:

It doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.

Interpreting this data raises several questions, such as: how do young people define democracy? Is it different to how others define it? Have the divisive and intensely personal politics of recent years shaped this view?

The main reason for not preferring democracy in the poll is that:

Democracy is not working because there is no real difference between the policies of the major parties.

Also strongly supported was the belief that:

Democracy only serves the interests of a few and not the majority.

The wider evidence confirms that young people see politicians as remote and party politics as unappealing. Research such as the Youth Electoral Study has found that “career politicians” make it almost impossible for young people to differentiate political parties from their members. Possibly as a result, party identification among youth is low.

Voter registration continues to be low among 18 to 24-year-olds. Australian Electoral Commission records suggest that more than one in six young Australians was not registered to vote in the 2013 federal election. This was more than twice the rate for the population as a whole.

Conventional institutions and methods of participation have been characterised by some young people as tokenistic, old, closed, controlled, institutional and irrelevant. Maybe this is in part why the youth vote remains untapped by Australia’s political parties.

Shutting the front door

Politicians such as federal treasurer Joe Hockey have implied that their own protesting years were a rite of passage and that their opinions change and become more conservative over time. But why deny the former rite of passage to young people today? And when so many politicians speak of a passion to make a difference, why stifle this in young people?

It is argued that young people should use other means to make their voices heard. But it is unimaginable to consider a youth campaign similar to the A$20 million spent by mining companies on advertising attacking the Rudd government’s original mining tax and other tax increases. And attitudes to youth protest need to be understood within a broader curtailing of the legal right to protest.

In Victoria, for example, the Summary Offences Act passed in March this year enables police to “move on” groups of people, including those involved in peaceful protests. The courts are able to issue an exclusion order preventing those repeatedly told to move on from entering a particular public space for up to 12 months. Breaching such an order could result in two years’ imprisonment.

Young people turned out in large numbers for the ‘Occupy’ protests. Victorian authorities responded with laws restricting the right to peaceful assembly. AAP/Julian Smith

Even other channels for expression, debate and protest, such as “ethical consumption” through consumer boycotts, are under threat. In 2013, Liberal senator Richard Colbeck indicated that the government might ban consumer and environmental activists from launching secondary boycotts to pressure companies to change their ways. This is despite the view that this is “a completely legitimate way to express political views”.

Nevertheless, research has found that young people continue to be civically engaged in politics, but in more informal ways. Many are values-driven and attached to issues rather than traditional political institutions such as parties.

The closure of political channels may be forcing participation between the cracks of rigid institutions. This can happen through online campaigns, social enterprise and volunteerism in ways that do not register on blunt measures of participation such as the General Social Survey.

More mixed messages

Contradictory messages are sent to young people about both when they qualify to be adults and the value of their participation.

In some states, 16-year-olds are treated as legally independent and at the age of sexual consent, but cannot vote on issues such as the legalisation of abortion. They can work and be taxed by a government that they cannot elect. At 18 young people can vote but be paid less than someone over the age of 20 doing the same job.

Added to this is a government that selectively supports freedom of speech, such as its effort to partially repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, while discouraging protest, free political debate and the political expression of civil society actors.

Common interests forgotten

When the 2014 Lowy poll asked people to choose between having a good democracy or a strong economy, only a small majority, 53%, chose “a good democracy” while 42% nominated “a strong economy”. Other surveys have found young people rank the economy and financial matters as the number one issue of national importance.

But even on economic matters, mixed messages are sent to young people about their place in the economy. For example, the recent federal budget seeks to enforce a six-month waiting period on Australians under the age of 30 before being able to claim unemployment assistance. As Veronica Sheen observes, this kind of policy serves “to infantilise, disempower and disenfranchise this group”.

Ironically, other surveys show that the concerns of young people are not all that different from the “adult” population. Young and old alike are concerned about the economy, the environment and personal financial security.

A big difference, though, is that young people inherit the future. To deny them the opportunities to speak about and participate in shaping this future risks the prospects of all Australians. To put it another way, young people seeking to voice concerns about access to higher education and training, as well as issues such as the environment, would argue that they are fighting for their future – and by extension ours.

Either way, if the current state of politics is what having the “adults in charge” looks like, no wonder young people are fighting back or opting out.

See the rest of the Another Country: Youth in Australia series here.

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