Australian politics has been in a tailspin for the last five years, with prime ministers barely in the job long enough to leave a bum print on their ergonomic office chairs. Commentators are full of theories about what this means for the country. Economic instability, some claim. Embarrassment on the international stage, say others. But despite abundant analysis of Canberra’s leadership turmoil, there’s one question that nobody’s asking, and one forlorn demographic we’ve neglected.
Won’t somebody think about the children?
But seriously. How are today’s youth affected by Canberra’s volatile political climate and five-year game of leadership Jenga?
Well, in Victoria, it’s doing little to encourage the study of politics. In 2006, in the days before Rudd came to — and went from — the Lodge, 692 young people started the year enrolled in the VCE’s “national politics” subject. Eight years and four prime ministers later, just 252 students signed up for the rebranded “Australian politics”. Forty-four schools offered the subject during the dying days of the Howard era. And now, as Malcolm Turnbull takes the reins from Tony Abbott, a meagre 19 schools teach Australian politics at year 12.
Perhaps its Australia’s production-line approach to leadership that’s responsible for driving high school students away from political subjects.
Blame certainly can’t be levelled at the national curriculum, which attempts to coax malleable young minds into these classes with its lessons in civics and citizenship. At year 7, for example, students learn the key features of the Australian constitution and how Australia’s legal system aims to provide justice through the rule of law. All the while, the curriculum asks them to reflect on their role as a citizen in Australia’s democracy.
Hang on. What precisely is young people’s role in a democracy? Or, more accurately, what do they perceive their role will be once they’re old enough to participate at an election, particularly in the current political climate?
Well, for those who’ve grown up in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott-Turnbull era (can we call them RuGRATS?), who’ve seen government after government decapitate itself on the back of public polling, they might well think their democratic right to a vote doesn’t count for much. And if they believe their voice won’t be heard, or heeded, then it’s unlikely they’ll have the inclination to pick up politics.
But never fear. It’s not like Australian politicians are abandoning the next generation of voters completely. In fact, they’re introducing young people to a new subject, one that could perhaps be called “modern Australian politics”.
While Rudd’s unceremonious dumping from the top job was followed by a 13% drop in national politics enrolments, his exit certainly gave students a crash course in workplace relations. After all, it was his apparently megalomaniac leadership, and his own colleagues’ dissatisfaction, that cost him the top job.
When Gillard went back on her solemn vow to not impose a carbon tax, young people lapped up the lesson in broken promises. And as she was hounded by the bully tactics of Tony Abbott’s Liberal opposition, they received vigorous training in sexism. Sure, 44% fewer Victorian students were studying Australian politics after her prime ministership, but those kids were much more literate in how to white-ant a sitting government.
This new subject isn’t all new-age thinking either. Over the two tumultuous years of Abbott’s reign, the PM and his team schooled students in the classics. Attorney-General George Brandis put Nineteen Eighty-Four on the prescribed reading list in preparation for his Orwellian data retention laws, while recently retired treasurer Joe Hockey encouraged students to critically re-evaluate the economic merits of Robin Hood’s give-to-the-poor plot points.
Benjamin Bowman, a PhD candidate at Bath University in England, wrote in The Conversation that young Brits were interested in politics, but they didn’t like the politicians. Maybe that’s the case in Australia. But politicians help shape the country’s political model and set the tone for public discourse. And at the moment, that model and its accompanying tone are failing to capture the interests of young people.