It’s a pleasure to take an opportunity today to talk about something that has been an issue of importance to me since I was elected to this place a little over 18 months ago and something I’ve spoken about at community events and in media interviews since, and that’s the issue of young voter engagement in Australia—or youth apathy when it comes to politics! I myself am very keen to see younger Australians take a more active and interested role in the future of Australian politics, government, the policies we make in this place and how the processes operate. I had the pleasure of awarding to an individual by the name of Olivia Richardson the inaugural scholarship that I fund privately through the Hobart residential college Jane Franklin Hall—a scholarship provided for northern Tasmanian students who wish to study at the Hobart campus of the University of Tasmania with an interest in governance, public administration policy or politics. It’s been great to work with Olivia, who is an extremely professional individual who I believe has a great future ahead of her. Olivia, as part of her time in my office and as part of this scholarship, undertook some work which I’ll be referring to a little later on.
Everyone who occupies a seat in this chamber, and anyone who has any interest in the political sphere, would acknowledge that young people in Australia have become somewhat disengaged with the political process. It’s not a recent phenomenon; it’s something that has been happening over a significant period of time. And that is an alarming thing. As a result, we have a weakened democracy. When a certain part of society doesn’t want to engage and doesn’t feel it is necessary or important for them to engage, then their say isn’t being had; their voices are not being heard. That does, as I say, result in what I believe is a weakening of our democracy.
Despite that apparent youth apathy towards the political process, young Australians haven’t stopped being engaged in other areas of civic life, including volunteer work for specific organisations, NGOs, community groups and being part of other social movements. From all the evidence I’ve read, young Australians are motivated by issues based politics—and the issue of the day is the result of the postal survey on marriage equality. Looking at the response rate for the younger cohorts, 78.2 per cent of those aged between 18 and 19 responded, 72 per cent of those aged between 20 and 24 responded and 71 per cent of those aged between 25 and 29 responded. That proves, to a degree, that when there’s an issue they feel strongly about they will engage—they will get out of their living rooms or whatever they’re doing and participate in the issue that they are confronted with.
The work that Olivia Richardson undertook in putting together her research paper on the issue of youth apathy indicated that it’s not politics as a whole that young Australians are not engaged with; it’s more our formal institutions that they are disengaged with. The Australian Election Study in 2010 found that young people aged 18 to 29 consistently exhibit the highest levels of voter apathy. You see this manifested through statistics like this: only one-fifth of all people aged 18 to 24 register to vote. With the postal survey we saw an increase in that, but, as I have pointed out, that was an issues based registration. In 2005 the International Social Survey Program asked the question: ‘How important is it to vote?’ The results revealed a significant degree of youth apathy. Older respondents were twice as likely to answer that voting is very important to them.
There are a number of factors, through all of the research that Olivia has done, that influence youth apathy towards politics. They are as follows: they state that they’re unsatisfied with political process—and, when you watch question time from time to time, it’s hard to argue with why they would feel that way; they feel their interests are not represented by those who are elected to parliament—this one hurts me, that they don’t trust politicians; there’s a perception also that politicians are all the same and that we don’t stand for anything different; they feel that their one vote won’t make a difference; and, finally, they feel that the big issues don’t affect them. As people get older and as they have more responsibility in life—as they take on bigger decisions like buying a home and starting a business—the political situation and the decisions we make in this place will impact on them. Typically, you do see voter engagement increasing as people get older.
We are seeing young Australians being increasingly disenfranchised by institutional politics, something I believe we need to address. Looking at the youth membership of political parties, statistics show that in 1963 only around 13 per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds didn’t identify with a political party or affiliation. By 2010, the figure had jumped to 24 per cent. I suspect that if you took a snapshot today you’d find something of a much greater number. Some of this has been attributed to a breakdown in the generational chain, where parents aren’t sharing their political views like they used to around the dinner table with their children. All of this is not new. We know that the problem is out there. I suppose the key issue for me is how we address that.
Olivia, as part of her paper—which I’m very grateful for her having completed—points to a couple of recommendations, and I’m pleased to go through a couple of those. The first recommendation Olivia pointed to was around civics education in schools, something we don’t see enough of. There are certainly some good programs out there. The Parliamentary Education Office here in the Australian parliament does an excellent job both remotely, through provision of resources to schools that would like to participate in the program, and also through hosting thousands of children through this fine institution every year. My two older sons go to a school that every year sends their grade 5-6 class off to Canberra to understand the political process. But I don’t know that it is enough. To have one trip to Canberra doesn’t educate our youth on what the parliament does, why it’s so important, how this place and the laws we make impact on everyday Australians’ lives and how having a vote and being active in the process is important. Olivia has recommended that we should look at interactive online education, something that can assist teachers in promoting civics and a better understanding of how laws are made. Of course younger people and all of us in this place live on our iPads, iPhones and through social media. We should embrace this technology to assist in educating young people about how laws are made and what we actually do here.
As I’ve said before, young people typically engage through non-electoral political issues and that’s a way we should be drawing attention to the political process. This establishment, the Parliament of Australia, is about to go through something with regard to the laws around marriage as a result of a very public and long debate. I think this is a great opportunity for us to show young Australians how important what we do here is and how a single vote in this place can change the outcome of a piece of legislation. This is our opportunity to show why it’s important to be actively engaged in what we do and for them, as voters, to be actively engaged.
Olivia also states that the programs that could be run in these classes—something I’d like to pursue, certainly, with the minister for education—would facilitate mock debates, passage of a bill, managing a budget, taking on votes, putting issues on the agenda for debate, negotiations, diplomatic assignments and the like, even staging a protest as part of the democratic rights we have in this country, just to name a few. It would be great to do all of that on an issue that is of interest and relevance in the current debate. There is a great degree of interest from teachers. I think it’s about providing those resources to teachers to be able to assist with civics education and make sure that our young Australians do have the knowledge to participate in their future years.
I take this opportunity to commend Olivia for her excellent work in putting together this paper, which I will be working on and trying to see some results come from. She’s a very professional young lady, who, I think, has a great future ahead of her. I look forward to working with the next intern of my Jane Franklin Hall scholarship to see what problem we can tackle next.