Election 2016: Major parties ignoring what young people want
Published: June 18, 2016 – 12:15
Yassmin Abdel-Magied dined with the Prime Minister on Thursday. She was seated right beside him at the PM’s Iftar dinner, one of many young Muslims on a table that included broadcaster Waleed Aly and footballer Bachar Houli.
Hours earlier, the 25-year-old writer, engineer and activist had told me what she thought about her dinner companion. “There was a lot of excitement about Malcolm Turnbull becoming the Prime Minister,” she explained. “He was somebody we thought was answering our prayers, so to speak.”
Since then, like many others, Abdel-Magied had been left disappointed on big ticket issues like marriage equality and climate change. Breaking bread with the PM inside Kirribilli House, she came to understand a little more about why that might be so.
“I get the sense he’s somebody that is constrained more by his situation than by who he is,” she says. “He’s a good conversationalist, willing to accept that perhaps his social views are different to his policies.”
And there’s the rub. Social views and social policies dominate the priorities of young Australians heading into this election. A pre-election survey by non-political NSW organisation Youth Action showed people aged 17 to 25 nominated asylum seekers, marriage equality and climate change as their most important issues. Pro-refugee policy was singled out by more than a fifth of all respondents.
Which goes some way to explaining why young people might feel disconnected from this campaign. On the issue where they most want to see change, the major parties are in agreement. Neither side wants to dwell on gay marriage, either. Climate change has figured occasionally in discussions about the Great Barrier Reef, but sans the heady rhetoric of Kevin07.
As such, more young people are flocking to the Greens. Youth Action found that of those aged 17 to 25 who had already decided how they will vote, 44.6 per cent would support the left-wing party. Fairfax-Ipsos polls have put the Greens’ primary vote among 18- to 24-year-olds as high as 32 per cent (but with an 8 per cent margin of error). It was enough for Greens leader Richard Di Natale to declare on ABC’s Q&A: “If there was a vote amongst people who are under 30 in Australia, there’d possibly be a Greens prime minister.”
Whatever the numbers, they pose a problem for the two major parties, especially Labor. And the prevalence of young people on the electoral roll is only growing. Just shy of 3 million Australians under 30 are due to vote in this election – 19 per cent of all electors. A recruitment drive saw enrolments of 18-year-olds increase 20 percentage points since May.
For better or worse, the majors have focused their attention on the bread-and-butter election issues of economic management, jobs and bits of local pork barrelling. But interspersed among the slogans are policies that really will affect young people in the long-term.
“A lot of my friends are at the age where the ones who have jobs are thinking about buying a house,” Abdel-Magied says. “There is this real sense that intergenerational wealth accumulation is something that is at least going to be looked at, and not allowed to flagrantly continue in the way it has,” she says of Labor’s manifesto.
Part of the problem is that superannuation and negative gearing can seem very distant, nebulous concepts for those struggling to find a job or live on a low income. Youth Action policy manager Jacqui McKenzie explains: “There’s a bunch of young people for whom home ownership is a distant dream, if at all. For them, it’s about stronger rights for renters, about rental properties being affordable, and transport.”
The key point, McKenzie presses, is that young voters are not a homogenous group. Their passions run high but their interests are varied. And her research indicates a degree of frustration and scepticism about politics. She points out that 60 per cent of those surveyed (in April) had not decided how they would vote.
“Young people are very sure about what issues they want their government to focus on,” McKenzie says. “[But] the fact that most young people still couldn’t say who would be best able to represent those issues is telling.”
Lizz McCarter, 23, knows that feeling all too well. The University of Canberra student was leaning towards voting for Labor until the party announced it would lower the HECS repayment threshold to $50,000, as part of a raft of savings measures designed to blunt the Coalition’s budget attacks. For McCarter, who has a spine condition requiring long periods off work, it means her partner will have to start paying back his university debt as soon as he graduates.
“I was pretty disappointed when [Labor] announced it,” she says. “I was going to back them, I’m not too sure anymore.”
Labor insists it still has a lot to offer young voters, citing a commitment to the Gonski school funding model, a marriage-equality promise and climate-change policy. There is actually “a lot at stake” for young people in this election, says Young Labor president Todd Pinkerton, though he concedes there is a high degree of disengagement. “I’d say that’s probably a broader trend across society,” he says.
Pinkerton also lends a hand on Labor’s digital team, which is tasked with engaging the disengaged. Often that’s through social media, which he says is “one of the only effective ways” of talking to Millenials, who rarely answer doors on a Saturday morning, pick up landline calls or read pamphlets. Instead, they are targeted with videos, memes and other digital goodies. “We’re trying to keep Labor interesting and positive,” Pinkerton says.
It’s a struggle faced by both sides. At his regular morning doorstop on Friday, the Coalition’s campaign spokesman Mathias Cormann was asked for three reasons why young people should support the government at this election. His reply repeated a familiar refrain: jobs and growth, fixing Labor’s budget mess and new employment pathways. It was brutally on-message, but hardly an inspirational call-to-arms for a cynical demographic.
Leo Fieldgrass, director of the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, says one of the simplest things a government could do is create a Minister for Youth. “We need someone in cabinet who is going to join the dots for young people,” he says. The youngest member of Parliament, Wyatt Roy, is now in the outer ministry, assisting on matters of innovation. But Fieldgrass says a national youth strategy is needed to repair a “complete disconnection” with young Australians in recent years.
Perhaps the truth is that large, complex policy questions will only gain traction among young voters once those big social justice questions, like marriage equality, have been tackled and resolved. “These are the pressing issues,” agrees Abdel-Magied. “Until we get them sorted, everything else is unimportant.”