Around the English-speaking Western world right now, we’re seeing a pattern in political shake ups, shifts towards conservatism. Trump has made it as the Republican candidate, Britain has chosen to leave the European Union and while Saturday’s election did see a swing towards Labor, it also saw a shift towards far right candidates – a situation with the lone silver lining of a potential Pauline Pantsdown revival. In these three instances, we see another pattern emerging: the political opposition and powerlessness of youth.
Following Brexit, the BBC reported that a whopping 73 per cent of 18–24 year olds and 62 per cent of 25–34-year-olds voted to remain in the EU, while voters over 55 and 65 hit 57 per cent and 60 per cent in favour of Brexit respectively. However, voting was not compulsory, and thus nearly double the amount of 55-year-olds voted in comparison to 18–34 year olds. In America, we see a similar difference in voter turnout and sentiments: in 2014, voters over 45 had double the turnout of those under 34. Now, in the lead up to the Clinton-Trump showdown, a recent poll shows that only 34 per cent of young voters are favouring Trump, in comparison with 42 per cent of voters over 40.
Here in Australia, the election hasn’t had a chance to be called, let alone broken down. However, Osman Faruqi took a terrific stab at what the outcome would be if only 18–24-year-olds were voting. Averaging out the last four Ipsos polls, the data shows that 64 per cent of youth votes would go to Labor or the Greens, proving that if it were up to us, the election would have been safely called on Saturday and we could all stop clutching at our Medicare cards.
The idea that youth voters are more progressive but under-represented is not a new one, not specific to the English-speaking world and clearly not to Australia. What’s new, and what I want to argue for, is the idea that we should be actively combating this well-known state of affairs. The youth vote is powerful and should be treated as such, but youth themselves can’t help but feel powerless.
In a country where voting is compulsory and new voters are often automatically enrolled, why do Australian youth still fail to vote? When we do, why does it feel so inconsequential? Finally, what can be done to remedy the situation? I put forward answers to all these questions and three approaches in an effort to remedy a very real imbalance in power: a weighted voting system; introducing a youth portfolio; and lowering the voting age to 16.
In the lead-up to the electoral roll deadline, Australian media was flooded with messages imploring young people to enrol to vote. Junkee, Pedestrian, Buzzfeed and the king of sensible and timely demands, Waleed Aly, all sent a message to Australian youth; enrol to vote, Enrol To Vote, ENROL TO VOTE. And it seems like young people listened. Earlier this month, the Australian Electoral Commission announced that the number of 18-year-olds enrolled to vote had jumped by 20 per cent since April, up to an impressive 71 per cent when compared with the national overall enrollment of 94 per cent.
Yet, despite being more politically engaged than ever before, young voters can’t help but feel powerless. Part of this is in the statistics: voters aged 18–35 make up only 19 per cent of the voting public. At the other end of the scale, voters aged 55 and over make up 38 per cent of voters, outweighing Gen X and Y’s voting preferences with double the representation, despite the fact that, again statistically, they will deal with the social and economic fallout of the government policy that they bring about for the shortest amount of time. To be blunt, they will die sooner and not feel the consequences of their decisions. Except for when they safeguard their family’s futures and reinforce class divides – but I’ll come back to that.
Take into account that 18–34 year olds have a similar, if not higher, participation rates in civic and political groups than their 55 and over counterparts and you can’t blame political apathy.
The biggest contributor to young people’s feeling of powerlessness is their lived experience. Political adviser and academic, Jennifer Rayner, has written extensively on the fact that we are the first Australian generation since the Great Depression to be worse off than our parents. Between housing, education and employment opportunities, not to mention our mental health, young people are living a reality completely removed from their parents’ rosy memories of their 20s and 30s. Our joints may be supple and hangovers brief, but Australia’s youth are dealing with the collapse following the boom that brought our parents free education, affordable housing and ample employment opportunities.
A 2014 paper by the Grattan Institute confirmed the disparity between the country’s youth and their parents, stating that since 2004, those aged 55–64 and 65–74 have become richer in real terms (that is, in figures adjusted for inflation) by $173,000 and $215,000 per household respectively. Meanwhile, those aged 25–34 have gone backwards in real terms. This incredible disparity is largely put down to a cutthroat housing market with most wealth in property and prices growing at a rate far higher than that of our incomes. Here, a picture is worth a thousand words:
A 2015 paper by BDO Australia stated that due to the high cost of property, the majority of Australians aged 18–29 years old who buy property are using direct financial help and/or guarantors, mainly from their parents. Through a combination of student debt (the average HECS debt for a three-year degree is $30,500), graduate employment rates being the lowest on record and youth unemployment having almost doubled in the last eight years, young people are increasingly being forced to rely on their parents. On the one hand, it’s a feeling of powerlessness. On the other, it becomes a reinforcement of the status quo, a transfer of capital and power down family and class lines; it’s a gap between rich and poor which widens and becomes insurmountable.
So what can be done? The first and most radical approach would be a weighted voting system. Weighted voting systems have been widely used in private corporations and the European Union, giving stakeholders with higher investments and countries with larger populations more power in a vote. Why should the same not apply to the Australian population? When long-term issues like the environment, refugee intakes and the privatisation of healthcare and education are being voted on, shouldn’t those with more of their future ahead of them – a future being adversely affected – have a higher stake in the vote?
This solution is the least feasible; giving more weight to a certain group’s vote can be rephrased as lessening that of another. So more reasonably, let’s look at policies that have already been proposed in regards to the youth vote. Firstly, simply having policy or even a mention of the youth vote in your platform is a commendable start.
To prove this, let’s look at everyone’s favourite (mostly-)English-speaking country, Canada. Following Justin Trudeau’s win in the 2015 federal election, a number of commentators were quick to point out that the Liberals’ success could be directly attributed to the youth vote. In a substantial jump, 11.5 per cent more 18–35 year olds voted than in 2011, while a staggering 45 per cent of 18–25-year-olds’ votes went to the Liberal party. Alison Harell and Tania Gosselin of Université du Québec à Montréal attributed this outcome, in part, to party platforms that directly targeted the youth vote, showing that out of the four frontrunners, the Liberals’ platform most frequently mentioned young Canadians, youth and students.
Here in Australia, the Greens and (to a lesser extent) the Labor Party are padding out their policies in a similar way. Just last month, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young stated in an interview with Buzzfeed that Australia should add a portfolio and minister for youth. To be fair, Australia already has a minister for youth, Kate Ellis, but with her full title being Minister for Early Childhood, Childcare and Youth, I don’t think she’s exactly what Hanson-Young has in mind.
Finally, a policy Labor and the Greens have both put forward is lowering the voting age to 16. Both parties have specified that voting would be voluntary for 16 and 17-year-olds, pushing the idea that if a 16-year-old can play a role in civil life through employment, healthcare choices, joining the military or marrying someone of the opposite sex, surely they should have some power in the system that rules them. What this approach lacks, I feel, is an accompanying education policy. Absurdly, Australians learn about our political system at a point in our lives when we don’t yet have the right to participate in it. So, when we finally can, is it any surprise that we have to rely on Junkee, Pedestrian, Buzzfeed and Waleed Aly to remind us what to do?
Though unlikely, if any of these solutions are implemented, the ultimate goal of their enactment should be this: to empower young people; to reaffirm the validity of our opinions; and to give us the means to shape the country that will one day be ours. If it’s an ideas boom you’re looking for, Malcolm, here’s one: give your young people more than an exploitative internship program, a lifetime of debt and a housing market dominated by boomer-funded investment properties. Give us back our future.