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Slackers or delinquents? No, just politically engaged youth

Students who are marginalised from formal politics use what is left to them, their bodies, to protest against decisions that have direct impacts on their lives. AAP/Julian Smith

Political participation is about more than voting. But when young people engage in politics their actions are deemed illegitimate. This is the supposedly apathetic generation that never gets off the couch, but when they do they are told they are acting inappropriately. “Slackers” or delinquents: in popular conceptions of “the youth” of Australia, there is no middle ground.

This has been brought into sharp relief by protests across the country against the federal budget. The harshest impacts hit those who are marginalised in various ways: women, unemployed, disabled, pensioners, students and, of course, the young. They are marginalised in formal politics too. This isn’t a coincidence.

At a recent Melbourne protest against cuts to higher education, 15-year-old Tallulah was carried away by three police officers. The Herald Sun ran a photograph on the front page above the patronising headline, “Hey mum, look at me”. Tallulah was one of many tertiary and high school students protesting budget cuts and new debt that would directly affect their futures.

‘Good girls’ don’t protest

In response, Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said it was “inappropriate” for a schoolgirl to be protesting. He added:

I mean, who likes seeing a schoolgirl being dragged away by police officers?

Doyle suggested that writing a nice, polite letter to the prime minister would be more effective. This pearl-clutching response to the age and actions of the protesters was echoed by Victoria Police Inspector Paul Binyon, who was “surprised at the age of some of them”.

These reactions tell us a lot about dominant ways of understanding and discounting political engagement by young people. There is an understanding that “children” shouldn’t protest in this way, that it is somehow offensive to a stable moral order.

There is also the obvious gendered implication of an older man policing the behaviour of a young woman: good girls don’t protest. This is the tone of the critique: good girls do what they are told.

On the same day, prime minister Tony Abbott and education minister Christopher Pyne cancelled a visit to Deakin University amid concerns they would be the targets of student protest. Pyne said the decision was in part due to concern:

…about the safety of the innocent bystanders who might be impacted upon by the Socialist Alternative.

Without the protest even occurring, these students could be narrowly defined as potentially dangerous: as a threat to those in power, as well as broader society. These young people were discussed and described by adults acting to limit the sphere of potential participation in a particular, exclusionary way.

National Union of Students (NUS) president Deanna Taylor noted this pre-emptive construction in her response:

The prime minister and minister Pyne are trying to portray protesting students as violent rabble rousers out to cause trouble.

Such constructions of these events carry the implication of a correct and incorrect form of political engagement. Writing a letter is correct; protesting on the street is not. Tallulah told the media that:

… the budget cuts are wrong … I may not be able to go to university, which I want to do for my future and for my family’s future.

Marginalising the voices of youth

A 15-year-old cannot vote. When she engages in one of the fundamental freedoms of democracy – protest – she is told she cannot do that either.

Often when young people are discussed in relation to politics their participation is constructed in one of two ways. They are objects of concern, victims who need protecting, on whose behalf action is taken. Or they are potentially dangerous, out of (sanctioned) place, constructed as a threat.

Children and youth aren’t allowed to appear legitimately on their own terms in the political realm, and yet Tallulah’s protest is an expression of her participation and active membership in a political community.

Politics is an elite institution that excludes many people. Those in power get to set the rules of engagement. As Jason Wilson writes:

When popular anger intensifies, those at the centre … become all the more preoccupied with moderation and civility.

A 15-year-old protester gets the patronising treatment. Herald Sun

Thus, Doyle and Herald Sun with one hand are able to determine how “children” generally (and Tallulah specifically) “should” protest and with the other ensure that those means of protest are seen as ineffective. Engaging outside sanctioned forms of protest must inevitably, according to this view, be the response of disengaged, inappropriate and disruptive fringes of “proper” society.

Political commentator and journalist Annabel Crabb reprimanded students for their “outdated” protest tactics, asking:

How can it be, as even our phones get smarter, that protesters are somehow getting dumber?

Apart from the patronising and insulting tone, this approach has two effects. While Crabb wants students to explain the consequences of fee deregulation, she reiterates a pre-cast, expected performance by these students: young people are “getting dumber” and their protests are an inauthentic, unproductive and useless engagement.

Former Howard government education minister Amanda Vanstone also used her privileged platform in a national newspaper to call students “selfish thugs” and “bullies”: again, a dichotomy of lazy, self-indulgent, young people or disobedient, uncooperative youth.

If those with power – whether politicians or media columnists – act to silence students’ voices and discredit their actions, and in doing so disrespect the political agency of young people, why should they sit quietly on the sidelines in supposed “respect”?

The terms of debate are being set up to pre-emptively discount young people’s experiences, voices and contributions. No place is being left at the table for them. So while Crabb extols the virtues of “innovative” protest, and Doyle proffers pen and paper to write a letter, it would seem no amount of innovation or letter writing is going to get young people the mutual respect and participation they deserve.

A right to fight for their future

Being on the margins of formal expressions of politics does not mean young people are marginal to the politics of our nation. They are protesting against the budget because it will directly affect their future. Those on the margins without access to platforms and privilege use what is left to them: their bodies.

This embodied politics that occurs on the streets, in the everyday, cannot be accounted for in dichotomies of victim or delinquent. Despite the best efforts of those in positions of power and privilege, the youth of Australia cannot be swept away by exhortations to manners and politeness.

Regardless of what the old guards of the media and political institutions might say, the protests have demonstrated that Australia’s young people are politically engaged and they defy easy categorisation as “lazy” or “delinquent”.

The predictable, outdated reaction to a young women fighting for her future in the only way available to her prompts the question: if our accounts and understandings of politics miss youth, what might be missing from our accounts and understandings of politics?

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