Why are so many voters so reluctant to vote? The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) released figures after the last election that revealed 20 per cent of eligible voters did not cast their ballot in the last federal election and 25 per cent of young voters failed to enrol for the next election.
Of those aged 18-24, 400,000 people did not enrol in time, meaning they were ineligible. In the 2010 Election 3 million people didn’t vote. And a large portion of these were young people. It is evident from the polling and surveys that young people are turning away from politics.
It is a problem that deserves serious attention because it is affecting the spirit of our country’s democracy.
“It is clear from the evidence that the trend is for increasing numbers of otherwise eligible electors to remain outside the electoral system,” Electoral commissioner Ed Killesteyn said.
Are the young not participating in the political process simply because they are uninformed morons, feel disenfranchised or are they actually intelligent individuals exercising some form of protest?
“When you guys get your act together we might consider voting.”
It is a topic that has interested me for some time and some time ago I had the opportunity to test some assumptions. My daughter is PA to the Campus Director, Doug Doherty, at the Lavalla Catholic College, Traralgon in country Victoria. The College enjoys a reputation for academic excellence and was about to hold their Annual Student Elections. The elections are overseen by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) and in part duplicate some facets of the electoral system.
On the same day I was invited to conduct a focus group with final year students who would be eligible to vote in the next Federal or State elections.
Two members of the AEC sat in as observers together with the Campus Director. My purpose was to ascertain how well versed the students were politically. Were they cognisant enough on the subject to render an informed vote?
With such a broad agenda facilitating a group such as this can be challenging, even thorny. One has to keep moving things along and not become bogged down on particular issues.
I began with all the required protocols and opened with this statement:
“People need to wake up to the fact that government affects every part of their life and should be more interested. But there is a political malaise that is deep seated.”
After a short discourse into the meaning of the word malaise, and a little reticence of unfamiliarity, the group of six boys and six girls quickly displayed a vibrant disposition to engage in the proceedings.
I asked a couple of starters. Who was Australia’s first Prime Minister? What does the name Parks mean to you? To my surprise the name Barton came forth as did a reference to Parks being the father of the constitution. I noticed one of the AEC people raise an eyebrow. I followed up with a question on the date of Federation. A couple of boys quickly identified the date and it became apparent that they were more politically attuned than the others. It didn’t however prevent the others expressing a view. The discussion was lively, animated and thirsty for quantitative expression.
With the preliminary questions out of the way I entered unchartered waters. What policy areas do you feel strongly about? One lass ripped into the Queensland bikie laws which rather took me by surprise. I let it go for a while before introducing the matter of Climate Change. This really got them going and a consensus of opinion arose that politicians were treating the matter flippantly. After all it was their future that was at stake, not theirs. The group raised the matter of equality and when I steered it toward Gay Marriage (a delegate subject for a Catholic environment) I was taken with their maturity. These young people are being taught how to think and not necessarily what to think, I thought to myself.
Eventually the Asylum Seeker issue raised its head with a united consensus of altruism. “How could we treat people like we do?” asked one young lass. I concluded that they had an elevated view of social justice.
Even when I broached the subject of the Separation of Powers they were inclined to the view that the Church had too much sway relevant to its influence in society. I wondered if they knew how many Catholics were on the front bench. On the separation subject they did not have a definitive knowledge but unhesitatingly displayed a willingness to jump in the deep end. Such was their zeal for learning.
All this of course eventually led to the inevitable question. What do you think of politicians in general? There answers took me by surprise because they came out in support of our pollies, thinking that in the main they had honourable intentions. Opinions varied when lying entered the discussion. They became quiet animated with their disapproval of the amount of lying in current politics. Did Julia Gillard lie? Empathically ‘no’ was the answer. How was she treated? Appallingly, they answered.
The group felt that it was the media that characterised and shaped the personality of politicians. When I mentioned the word Murdoch a look of total contempt crossed their faces.
What informs you? I asked. Is it your parents, TV, newspapers, social media? Overwhelmingly the answer came back ‘’Social Media’’ This was unsurprising. It would seem from this group that family had little or no influence. They didn’t trust newspapers or commercial television. They were independent thinkers.
What they had little tolerance for was older people’s reluctance for change, their inflexibility to consider new ideas. It wasn’t a narcissistic display of youthful know all sagaciousness I was hearing, but rather a genuine desire for change for future prosperity and environmental necessity.
The group as a whole did fall down when I broached Ideology. However, it was an area where they showed the greatest thirst for learning and it is an area in which the school curriculum lets students down. When I asked. Do you think the school curriculum teaches you enough about politics? They answered with a collective no. And in what year should it be taught? Year 12 came the reply.
They described Political Philosophy in terms of a predictable Left versus Right argument. The Labor Party tried to do things for people but the Liberal Party was for the rich and big business. A familiar response. I read to them differing explanations of various ideologies and their eyes opened with an eagerness for more information.
I moved on. Does our Constitution guarantee free speech? The assumption was that it did although the two knowledgeable lads differed but couldn’t quiet nail it. “It’s only implied” I said and the assumption disintegrated with looks of disbelief. “We just assumed it was in the constitution!” the group voice chorused .
Could they explain Australia’s system of Government and how the voting system works? Definitively, no, they could not but they made a fair stab at it. They didn’t think there was too much Government citing our geographical isolation and diversity of population. They all identified the three tier structure, understood the voting process if not its methodology.
My time was running out and there were many questions I wanted to cover. Do you know the name of your Member of Parliament? What electorate are you in? What is a gerrymander? How does a bill pass the Parliament? Do you know what hypocrisy is?
I managed to get through them all in my allotted time and finished with one final question. Should Australia become a republic? On this one I found their answers to be simplistic, even thoughtless. But then as one who fought for the referendum with much vigour I might be a little biased. Still, I thought if this college had debating teams, the question “should Australia have its own head of state” would make a good one.
So what did my focus group accomplish? I confess that I expected the group to only have a rudimentary knowledge of politics and its complex machinations. I was pleasantly surprised with their depth of insight into policy and current events. They were indeed informed, bright, well-mannered, articulate and educated. What they lacked in practical knowledge they easily made up for with desire and an enthusiasm to know.
An old adage states: “There is no sin in not knowing, the sin is in not wanting to know.” They expressed a desire to know.
Their school was indeed fostering observation and curiosity but the pity is, I thought to myself, is that we have young adults eager to embrace social political enlightenment and we don’t accommodate the learning of it in our schools. I am sure that in the hour or so that I had with them their knowledge of the political process increased exponentially.
How difficult would it be to foster a few discussion groups such as this?
The young are not voting, this is a serious issue, a serious democratic deficit that we need to attend too.
My thought for the day.
“We exercise our involvement in our democracy every three years by voting. After that the vast majority takes very little interest. Why is it so?”