In his first speech after the Labor leadership spill, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd implored the youth of Australia to re-engage with the political system, asking them to “come back and listen afresh”. He said it was “hardly a surprise” that so many of Australia’s young people had “switched off”. Many Australians of all ages would agree that our country’s politics have not been something to inspire faith in the great democratic process of late.
Recent Lowy Institute research indicated that less than half of Australians between 18 and 29 believed that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”, and one in five believed the system of government we had in Australia did not matter. One ABC Radio presenter, in discussing the report, described this as “worrying” but attributed it to young people’s lack of understanding and historical insight.
I am a proud member of Gen Y. And like many Australians, not just the young, I have become disillusioned with Australian politics. But it wasn’t always so.
If I had a concern in my community, my mum used to encourage me to write a letter to my local member. But then my local member, Sophie Mirabella, criticised the headscarves of Muslim women. And when I watched question time, I felt like I was doing “eye yoga” as my irises continuously rolled around in total exasperation. This does not mean that I do not know the definition of democracy. Civics and citizenship has always been a major focus of my education, as it has been for many people my age. Almost every school in Australia offers at least one camp or excursion to Canberra to see where the decisions of our country are made. I can tell you about the history of Australian federation, and the fight for the indigenous and women’s vote. To dismiss the political views of the most educated generation in history as being based on “misunderstandings” is ludicrous.
Why might young people have shied away from democracy? Because we don’t understand it? Because we don’t recognise the historical importance? Of course we do. That’s why the same group of people who took part in the Lowy Institute’s research also acknowledged the importance of the right to vote. We respect the ideology of democracy, along with the role it has had in shaping Australia. The truth is, the reason why we don’t identify with democracy is because our voices are largely unheard and our interests are largely unrepresented.
“We are interested in the world around us, but we are using different tools, different mediums and different forms of activism to get our ideas and opinions heard.”
We see politicians bend to the will of big industry, backflip on policy and sidestep issues that may endanger their individual career progression. We see policies that are showcased as being “essential” or “the only way” come and go. We see leaders come and go. We see asylum seekers become the enemy in fear campaigns that argue more about person than about policy. These people cannot represent us. And to become a part of the discussion, we would need to engage with the same shameless rhetoric that they employ.
The Lowy Institute’s research shows that young people have “other interests” that differ to those of older generations. Today, young people choose to highlight their opinions through alternative forms of activism and are able to participate in moral, ethical and political discussions that extend beyond local and national boundaries, and effect change in a whole new way.
I am not so concerned with tax increases. I do not feel that my opinions could possibly have any weight. But I am concerned about the environment, global access to food and water, the growing disparity between the rich and poor — a list that could go on for longer than Labor’s leadership confusion. I show these concerns through the way I live, by buying fair trade and locally made where possible, by boycotting brands whose ethics I disagree with, by riding my bike, by putting on an extra jumper instead of cranking up the heater.
And I see results. Coles no longer offers home-brand caged eggs. Big brand clothing chains offer organic or fair trade alternatives. Fair trade is available in the supermarket, small producers are getting more and more recognition, and people are developing a growing awareness about the impacts of food and resource consumption. We have chosen to take a ground-level approach to politics, as our “top level” is so inconsistent, contradictory and ineffective. Young people have chosen to be the change that they want to see, incorporating their politics and ideologies into everyday decisions. Our politics is our lifestyle. It is our identity. That is much more of a commitment than writing an angry letter or discussing policy around the water cooler.
We are interested in the world around us, but we are using different tools, different mediums and different forms of activism to get our ideas and opinions heard. We are not always targeting the Australian government, but also businesses, individuals, media corporations, and even international governments. Just as Rudd implored the younger generations of Australia to reconnect with Australian politics, I implore the older generations of Australians to look past their own prejudices and assumptions about what it means to be “political”, and to acknowledge the contributions that Gen Y are making to help create a better world for us all.