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On the turning away

By EJ Cook - posted Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The tectonic plates of Australian politics and society are shifting. Australians are not becoming disillusioned with the political landscape - it has already happened, sometime between the 2007 and 2010 Federal Elections. Australians are actively turning away from mainstream democracy.

On of the rarely discussed but most significant results from the 2010 Federal Election was the highest number of informal votes since 1984 (5.55%, a big jump from 3.5% in 2007), and the first ever House of Representatives election where blank ballots outnumbered incomplete ballots (28.9% to 27.8%). Increasing numbers of Australians are demonstrating, through their vote, that they don't think any party is worthy of their support, and are forgoing their democratic right to have a say in who runs the country.

It seems likely that those numbers will only increase this election, if the mood of those who have recently become eligible to vote is a guide. A quarter of young Australians (aged 18-24) are not even enrolled to vote in the 2013 Federal Election. More than a million young Australians don't feel that any political party has anything of value to offer in exchange for their vote - 40% of young voters, in fact.


Of even more concern, their biggest worries are survival-focused, such as housing, study costs, and getting a job. Marriage equality was fourth on the list of concerns, lower than many would expect based on the vocal support for legislative change by so many young Australians. A Mission Australia survey of young people in 2010 showed that the top issues for Australia were the environment, and alcohol and drugs. When the survey was run again in 2012, environment and alcohol and drug concerns had been pushed further down the list by worries about the economy and population. Equity and discrimination were even further down the list.

This tells us that young people are becoming more concerned with day-to-day problems like having a safe place to live and food on the table, than with the bigger-picture social cohesion and global issues that we usually attribute to youth. Whether this is due to increased financial pressures on young people, or perceived disenfranchisement as they see major parties fail to address those big-picture social issues, is hard to determine.

That so many young Australians are not more confident about their personal future should worry all of us. We look to our youth for optimism, new ideas, and a fresh resolve to make this world a better place for all of us. Young people are overrepresented among Australians on low or no incomes, and in housing stress or homeless. Too many of them have first hand experience of marginalisation. They understand that what's happening is not just a case of others' suffering. Without a rowdy younger generation pushing us forward, it is much harder to achieve progressive policy such as improved public health and education, or the NDIS.

Some say that we can tell an organisation no longer holds power when it allows women to be in charge. Based on this, Australia's political system must surely still hold power within our society, because former Prime Minister Julia Gillard's leadership was comprehensively denied when the Australian electorate (including young people) responded so positively to her ousting by Kevin Rudd. But it is more likely that the two major parties' alpha-male leadership tussle during this election campaign is driven more by a desperate desire to convince the electorate to care about politics at all, than by any actual power still held by politics in Australian society.

If our elected representatives are no longer the deciders of our societal fate, then who is? It seems inarguably true that advertising executives, business bosses, media magnates and news editors, unions, and lobbyists are the power brokers in modern Australia. It might look like our elected representatives are making up the rules as they go along, but the reality is that they're playing a game of fast reaction to the demands of those who control money and popular opinion behind the scenes.

And this is why the next generation of Australians aren't bothering with such tedious tasks as voting. Why waste your energy on an election when you could volunteer for campaign groups like GetUp!, or get paid to work for big mining companies like Fortescue Metals Group? Instead of using only your own vote, which seems to have little to no weight amongst the hordes of other votes out there, you could influence everyone else's vote to change the rules that govern our daily lives. If there's one thing that can be said about the new generation of eligible-but-maybe-not-enrolled voters, it is that they are smarter and more efficient with their use of democratic resources than previous generations have been. A small number of politically active and economically aspirational young people have taken effective action through volunteering or career moves, while a large number have decided not to bother with an activity they see as pointless.


But every time we admonish young people for their low enrolment numbers, or chide them for not showing more interest in staged-for-TV debates, or sigh and roll our eyes because they're better able to repeat slogans than policies when we ask their political opinion, we remind them why they're turning away from participating in democracy. Democracy is delivering nothing of value to them, so why should they keep up their part of the democratic contract?

Kevin Spacey said it of film and TV content, but the same is true of pretty much anything we want people to care about, including politics: "Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they'll more likely pay for it than steal it." If we fail to listen and respond to what young people tell us is important, they will have to take drastic action to steal democracy back from us. And I hope they do.

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About the Author

EJ Cook is a Canberra feminist, roller derby skater, and general troublemaker who tweets at @msejcook

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