A study of voter intentions published by The Whitlam Institute earlier this week provides insight into the shifting role and influence of young people's participation in contemporary electoral politics.
The study shows that in contrast to the more stable voting habits of older members of the population, younger voters are more fluid, and vote more according to issues, "political moments" and values, rather than along specific party lines. This affirms the findings of other studies conducted throughout the last 15 years. The author of the study, Ron Brooker, puts it this way: "Throughout the 14 year, five-election period covered in the 2011 analysis of Newspoll voter intention data, younger voters were consistently at the extremes in terms of their frequency and scale of changing voter intentions such that as a group they are not so much 'swinging' as in constant electoral motion." His analysis suggests that in recent elections young people have continued to favour 'progressive' parties over their conservative counterparts, especially amongst females aged 18-24. Males aged 25-34 has shown a more conservative orientation. Their overall support has echoed the trends of middle age voters - notably, however, their support is more volatile.
These trends need to be understood within the broader context of electoral trends related to young people.
Firstly, lack of enrolment continues to be a significant issue. Australian Electoral Commission data from August indicates that a quarter of young voters failed to enrol for this weekend's election, numbering around 400,000 of those aged 18-24. According to the very limited data available, younger people engage less in activities such as volunteering and voting in comparison to older age groups.
A review of four Newspoll surveys in 2012 provided insight into how significant this issue is. Conducted fortnightly between August and September 2012, the polls found that young people were over-represented in the 1.5 million eligible voters not enrolled. Combined with a persistent reduction in turnout for elections, in which people aged in their 20s often number approximately half of that of older citizens, the study suggested just how disinterested many young people are in electoral politics. Lack of enrolment has a number of implications. As Ian McAllister has pointed out, "in the past decade increasing under-enrolment among the young has undermined the compulsion that once made our electoral system predictable".
The evidence suggests that lack of civic engagement starts early in life. A study of 14-year-olds' civic knowledge and attitudes conducted by Suzanne Mellor over ten years ago found that not all expected to vote in elections, and very few intended to join a political party.
Voting habits are formed early in life and tend to endure. Family plays a major role here in influencing young people's voting behaviour, and research has found that mothers are more active than any other family member in talking to their children about enrolment. Nevertheless, some young participants in studies conducted several years ago in the Youth Electoral Study (YES) suggested that their parents lack resources to inform them or assist them to enrol. In addition, a 2013 survey by the Australia Institute found that 32 per cent of young Australians didn't know how their parents vote.
So why do they enrol to vote? The YES study found that most young people enrol to vote because it is considered the right thing to do, however only half reported they would vote if it were not compulsory. They did not feel confident in their understanding of political issues and parties to make a decision about voting and that they are further disinclined by the overwhelming view that political leaders are dishonest and untrustworthy. The Australia Institute study found that young Australians rate trust as the most important factor influencing their vote in the election, followed by integrity.
The fact is that young people are turning away from formal institutions and processes like voting and party membership. Journalist Michael Short observes that "Young people are simply not joining political parties. Most AFL football teams have more members than the ALP... That's less than half that of the Australian Youth Climate Commission (AYCC), a political movement mobilising young people to advocate for policies to ameliorate anthropogenic climate change".
A significant finding of research into the influences on voting behaviour is that 'career politicians' make it almost impossible for young people to differentiate political parties from their members, and possibly due to this, that party identification among Australian youth is low. Importantly, however, the authors of the YES study suggest that this does not mean young people are apathetic, but rather that they do not consider political parties as representative of issues that impact them.
Disadvantage and marginalisation appear to be related to low levels of enrolment by young people, as well as civic disengagement. Similarly, young people who are Indigenous, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD), living in low socio-economic circumstances, or have a disability are not widely engaged in decision-making processes.
Lack of direct and meaningful engagement by politicians with young people is another key factor in shaping young people's perceptions.
Yet the evidence also suggests that interest in politics is still strong, just not in the conventional contexts and institutions in which they are played out. Recent measures to boost enrolment, such as direct enrolment (in which data from government agencies such as vehicle registration and higher education authorities are used to enrol new voters directly as they become the eligible age) will have limited effect if young people remain discouraged by current political processes and party politics.
There is going evidence that young people are participating in ways that don't register on the conventional radar, such through social enterprises, organisations such as the AYCC, "ethical consumption" (i.e. boycotting certain brands on moral grounds) and social media campaigns to raise awareness and galvanise action.
The rejection of parties and conventional avenues/spaces of participation is not confined to Australia. During the 2013 protests across Brazil, which coalesced around a range of issues ranging from public transport fees to the significant cost of hosting a major sporting event, 28-year-old protester Maria Vidal made a telling statement: "This is a social movement, not a political movement. This has nothing to do with ideology… We don't want parties in the demonstration". The rejection of party politics seems to be taking place throughout the world. And in Australia, as young people face increasingly insecure working conditions (such as the rise of casualised and part-time work that I have discussed elsewhere) and the foundations of stability such as home ownership become more elusive, should we be surprised that their voting behaviours are more fluid? Nevertheless, given that voters aged 18 to 34 accounts for 26.4 per cent of all registered voters, their voices will directly and indirectly play a critical role in Saturday's election, despite low levels of enrolment.