Last year, John Howard was caught on camera surrounded by a flock of teenage girls, seeming admirers of the Prime Minister. One of these young women exclaimed, “You are our favourite politician”. That was a TV moment that sent chills up the spine of many older Labor supporters, who are wont to dismiss young people as “Tories with baseball caps”.
I often get asked about this moment, to confirm it as “evidence” that young Australians are enthusiastic supporters of the Howard government. My first response is that the comment is less of a compliment than it appears. Considering the levels of interest in politics amongst younger Australians, John Howard may well be the only politician these women know. Indeed, Howard is a familiar, even comforting figure, but this should not be confused with a broad generational endorsement of Howard’s politics, or indeed, evidence of widespread conservatism amongst this generation.
That being said, federal Labor may not be faring as well with the under 30s as it could be. I say this on the basis of my ongoing research on the political attitudes of this group, which includes some focus groups and individual interviews conducted in mid February as part of the research for the latest Ipsos Mackay Report.*
First and foremost (and not exclusive to this age group) is their disengagement from party politics, an increasing sense that government is either unwilling or unable to help us solve our problems with, for example, balancing work and family commitments or housing affordability. This disengagement has helped strengthen the force of incumbency in politics, seeing State Labor governments, no matter how ineffectual and unpopular, be re-elected time and again. This has worked for Howard too. Basically, we may find that some in the under 30s will simply vote for Howard because their disinterest compels them to retain the status quo. As one young woman put it: “And the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who gets in, it’s not going to affect us”. “I don’t see a problem with how it is at the moment”, said one man in his early 20s, “so I’ll leave it as it is.”
Second, there is something to be said for familiarity. For many in the under 30 bracket, Labor prime ministers are a dim memory. Howard is the Prime Minister they know, are familiar with and to some extent associate with the decade or more of economic stability that has coincided with this group’s coming of age. Many under 30s are happy to acknowledge they are comparatively lucky. In the words of one young man: “We’ve had such a good economy, we’ve got such a good lifestyle, it’s hard to see what’s really wrong.”
Finally, the question remains – has Labor given the under 30s a compelling reason to switch from what they know? As the electorate ages, there is an understandable tendency within mainstream politics to focus on the needs of the majority, to ignore the under 30s until they get a haircut and a real job. Or until they have kids and get a mortgage, and become “the working family”. This isn’t just a criticism of Labor, mind you. As one young woman put it: “Before an election, everything is aimed at older people. It’s just not interesting for us”.
Howard has made comments in the past about his rapport with younger voters. He’s no JHo but, but there are signs out there that Labor needs to engage more with our newest generation of voters.
* This report, on Living with Debt, is based on discussion amongst 16 affinity groups (eight people per group) and 14 one-on-one interviews with men and women, held in Sydney, the Southern Highlands, Melbourne, Brisbane and Ballarat. All participants were drawn from the upper-middle to the lower-middle socioeconomic strata, ranging in age from early 20s to early 60s.