The potential influence of our youth

Seize the day: Members of the Young Votes group pictured in Melbourne last weekend, ahead of the Victorian state election. The group is encouraging young people to vote and reminding them of the power of the youth vote. Picture: Penny Stephens
Seize the day: Members of the Young Votes group pictured in Melbourne last weekend, ahead of the Victorian state election. The group is encouraging young people to vote and reminding them of the power of the youth vote. Picture: Penny Stephens

How many times have you heard it said that, “the future of our nation is in our youth”?

Equally, how often have you heard our youth disparaged as “couch potatoes”, “dole bludgers”, “layabouts”, and so on, with a lack of focus, commitment and sense of responsibility? “Not what they were in our day”!

Our youth are also often easily dispensed with as “still finding themselves, their life purpose and meaning”, etc. On other occasions, they are recognised and hailed as “our best and brightest”.

Clearly our society can be quite schizophrenic about our youth, just as our youth can be very genuinely unsure of their role and potential – what they want and what is expected of them. Reflecting all this, our governments have come and gone on the significance of our youth and youth affairs, as evidenced by the coming and going of Ministers for Youth Affairs.

The reality is, of course, that our youth can be quite influential in our national affairs, and in our governments. The under 40s account for some 35 per cent of our electorate and, if they were to co-ordinate and act collegiately, could be determinant at most elections.

With their skills and experience with social media they clearly also have the capacity to launch and sustain “movements” on significant public policy issues and challenges of importance to them and our nation, and at elections, and more generally.

Youth have played a very significant political role on several defining occasions around the globe in recent years. Much of the Arab Spring that sought to restructure government, politics and the society in Egypt was driven by youth and delivered by social media.

Youth have played a very significant political role on several defining occasions around the globe.

 A major reason why Obama became the first black president of the US was his campaign’s ability to marshal “the youth vote”, among several key minorities and independents, in turn reflecting, in part, the very effective use of social media.

Also, the youth played a defining role in the unfolding of the BREXIT process in the UK. Basically, the youth didn’t turn out and vote in significant numbers on the occasion of the Cameron Government’s initial referendum on “remaining” or “leaving” the European Community, so the decision to leave was dominated by older residents.

However, when the new PM Theresa May presumptuously called an early election, seeking something like a 100-seat majority in the Commons to underwrite a strong bargaining position against the Europeans, the youth (who didn’t agree with the decision to leave) turned out to vote, and she was reduced to a minority government.

Most recently here in Australia more than 100,000 new voters, mostly young, joined the electoral roles to participate in the same-sex marriage, non-compulsory, postal vote, and, in total, over 1 million either registered for the first time or updated their details.

The result on this issue was a much stronger voter turnout than was expected, and a very strong “Yes” vote overall. Indeed, the strength of the votes in some seats caught many politicians by surprise – for example, 15 of the 16 National Party seats voted “Yes”, when most expected a significant “No” vote, and some on the “no” votes in safe Labor seats were also much stronger than expected.

The circumstances have never been better for our youth to express their political influence. With overall politics having become incredibly short-term, populous, opportunistic, and mostly negative, with our politicians almost completely self-absorbed, scoring points on each other, shifting blame, changing leaders, and the like, the big issues, of particular significance to our youth, are just being “kicked down the road”, rather than dealt with effectively and sustainably.

Issues such as climate change, housing affordability, education, health and tax reform, cost of living, and job security, have been conspicuously neglected.

 The recent Wentworth by-election clearly demonstrated how a few major issues – climate, refugees, and integrity in government – can be determinant, and result in a historically significant, widely unexpected, outcome.  With both major parties “on the nose” with their primary votes collapsing for over several decades now, there is a unique opportunity for the voice of our youth to be heard and their potential influence to materialise.

 Carpe Diem – but for both now, and for our future.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.