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Why are young voters overlooked on issues affecting their future?

By Simon Castles - posted Monday, 26 April 2004

There is only one thing surprising about the Federal Government's plan to close the electoral roll as soon as the poll is called, and thus prevent tens of thousands of young Australians from voting. That is that someone in government actually remembered young people do vote in this country.

You certainly wouldn’t know it from watching politics in action in 2004. Young people (those aged 18 to 24) are the great unwashed of the electorate - ignored, rarely spoken about, and never, ever spoken to. (I challenge you to recall an occasion.)

At the 2001 election, 83,000 first-time voters signed up in the first seven days of the campaign. Last week the Coalition, citing spurious concerns about electoral fraud, said they wanted to prevent the same situation occurring this election. (Read: want to stop some unlikely supporters from casting a vote.)


In all, about 2.5 million Australians are aged 15 to 24 - not an insignificant number. As a demographic, though, they are increasingly crushed and buried beneath an aging population - beneath 12.5 million voters, all of us shouting ourselves silly about real estate, retirement, superannuation plans and other issues as grey and lifeless as a politician’s suit.

I mean, c’mon, did you care about superannuation when you were 18? So how come we suddenly expect young people to care about it today?

But the young things had better get used to it. Politics has never exactly been a hip and funky arena but it’s only going to get greyer in the years ahead. For all the talk of generational change (welcome Messrs Latham and, er, Costello), politics is growing old with the population. The elections of the future are going to have all the youth appeal of seeing Johnny Farnham play the RSL.

In 1971 - not long after Farnsey released Sadie (The Cleaning Lady) - the median age in Australia was 27 years old. That was the rough age of the person political leaders had in mind when they made their pitch to Australian voters. Today, the median age is 36. And rising. By 2031, according to the Bureau of Statistics, it will be 43.

Yes, the voters of the future will be older and more staid, and politicians are already chasing them with the vigour and slick determination of door-to-door Mormons.

Our leaders talk about the so-called “barbecue stopper” issues real estate, interest rates, superannuation, balancing work and family etc - with little or no concern that young voters are either not particularly interested or aren't even at the barbecue to begin with. (Who wants to discuss negative gearing with pissed Uncle Ted anyway?)


Okay, I’m being cynical. Of course political leaders can’t please - or address - all of the people all of the time. But can’t they at least try to please some of the young people some of the time? And sorry, but this means more than appearing on FM breakfast radio or Rove Live and joking about pop culture ephemera.

It means attempting to engage with young people about issues they face right now. It means having the courage to put yourself in their shoes. It means having the imagination to picture the world through an 18-year-old's eyes. Politicians need to think about these questions:

  • What's it like to know that no amount of education will guarantee you stable employment?
  • What's it like to hear everyone talking about security, and yet feel so insecure?
  • What's it like to have elders talk about the benefits of work for the dole for you, not for them?
  • What's it like to have a mobile phone bill you can¹t possibly pay?
  • What's it like to begin adulthood in debt?
  • What's it like to be gay, knowing your Prime Minister would be "disappointed" if his child was the same?
  • What's it like to have a million options, and yet feel you have none?
  • What's it like to feel priced out of higher education because you lucked out in a generational lottery?
  • What's it like to know you will pay rent forever?
  • What's it like to know your generation is exhibiting signs of depression up to 10 times that of previous generations?
  • And what's it like to know that the current government would rather you off the electoral roll than on it?
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This article was first published The Age on 19 April 2004.

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About the Author

Simon Castles is a contributing editor to The Big Issue and a fellow of OzProspect.

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