Australia’s youth are an untapped election resource
At the last federal election, hundreds of thousands of young Australians were not enrolled to vote. Many more submitted informal ballot papers. Their reasons were many and varied, but for most it came down to a sense that politicians weren’t listening to them or that their vote wouldn’t make a difference.
Together, these lost voters could have changed the outcome in nearly a third of electorates, radically redrawing the Australian parliament.
The situation is unchanged this year. The Australian Electoral Commission estimates 381,738 eligible voters aged between 18 and 25 are currently missing from the electoral roll. This included half of all 18-year-olds and a quarter of 19-year-olds.
While older voters are often “rusted on” supporters of a particular party or candidate, Australia’s youth are an untapped resource, ready to shift the middle ground towards those parties or candidates who genuinely engage with them.
Young Australians are more issues focussed, but they also want results. Politicians making yet more promises does little to engage them. What they demand is action by their elected representatives to deliver genuine outcomes.
But they need to be engaged early in the campaign. In just two weeks, on May 23, the electoral roll will close. Leaving the sales pitch to young Australians too late, without inspiring them to enroll to vote now, risks winning over supporters who aren’t able to vote.
Despite the huge importance of this demographic, this year’s Federal Budget once again remained broadly silent on youth matters.
What was delivered was a continuation of the Abbott Government’s 2014 cuts to investment in youth support and engagement, which removed funding for all formal mechanism for young people to connect with or be heard by their political leaders.
Unfairness in the current tax system, which makes it virtually impossible for young people to buy a house, remained undressed.
The failure to reverse cuts to universities and vocational training will make it harder for young people to get the skills they need to find secure employment.
And while the shift away from the ineffective work for the dole program towards a model aimed at providing genuine work experience was a welcome step, far more still needs to be done to address youth unemployment — which remains more than double the rate of the general population.
And if Federal Budget’s are truly about preparing Australia for the future, the lack of measures to address climate change was among the most stark omission.
Young people, more than any other group of Australians, will face the brunt of the damage that humans continue to do to our planet. Long after the baby boomers are gone it will be the current generation of young people who are forced to live with the social, economic, and environmental consequences of this failure.
The 2016 Federal Election can be won or lost on youth issues. Marginal seats like Parramatta, which was decided by 915 votes last election, or Barton, where the margin was just 489, are prime examples. In Parramatta, it is estimated that around 14,000 people aged between 18 and 30 either weren’t enrolled, or voted informal. In Barton, that number was around 9,000. In total, 46 electorates were won by margins that were smaller than the number of young people who didn’t engage in the election.
When young people are genuinely engaged, seats will swing and governments will change.
Politicians from both sides of the parliament must start this process by demonstrating a genuine desire to engage with young people on their issues. This would begin with restoring the position of Minister for Youth to ensure a voice for young people in government decisions, along with the overturning the decision to axe funding for the national body representing the interests of young people.
The next steps would be offering genuine solutions to the issues young people are facing daily. Unaffordable housing, intergenerational inequality, funding cuts for schools and universities, and unemployment levels that remain at crisis levels.
While young Australians have increasingly disengaged from the formal political process, on many issues they have never been more active. But they are driven by an attachment to values, not political parties. To issues, not personalities.
For political parties and candidates across the country, the question is simple. Are you going to listen to the voice of young people and drive genuine progress? Or will you be left behind by more than a million young people who together have the power to reshape our political system.
Katie Acheson is the chairperson of the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, the national peak body representing 4.3 million young Australians aged 12 to 25.