Every year more than 120,000 school students make the trip to Australia’s Parliament House. But for many kids growing up in the nation’s capital, politics is more than an excursion.

Generally speaking, Canberra’s socioeconomic conditions make for connected and politically aware youth. The latest census figures show its employees have higher than average wages and qualifications: 45% completed a university degree compared with 30% nationally, and pay is 11% higher than elsewhere. Plus one in three Canberrans work in the public service, which must make for some interesting dinner table talk. And then you add in the diplo-brats — children of diplomats.

While the family home can only reveal so much, the results of the latest National Assessment Program further demonstrate early political engagement. In the Civics and Citizenships assessment, year 6 ACT students have consistently achieved the highest national scores, while year 10 ACT students outperformed the other states and territories for the first time in 2016.

My first encounter with politically engaged Canberra kids happened at an Australia Institute event. Among the cheese-nibbling, wine-sipping crowd of public servants and journalists at the Quarterly Essay launch were school students. One boy who looked no older than 14 approached ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury and said, “I’m thinking about joining the Greens and I heard you’re the right person to talk to”.

Young people in the ACT are “very well informed,” Rattenbury told Crikey. “There is a strong level of youth engagement on issues rather than enrollment in formal political parties.” He says this is nurtured by supportive parents and adjoining activities like school programs and community volunteering.

If the results of the same-sex marriage postal survey are any indication then the ACT has issues-based champions in spades — the capital recorded the nation’s highest participation rate (82.4%) and those aged aged 18-19 years had the second highest turn-out (81.1%), just surpassed by Victoria.

Rattenbury told Crikey he was “overwhelmed” by the community reaction in a consultation about L and P plates earlier this year where the ACT government received more than 4000 responses, predominantly from young people. Considering the territory’s population is just over 400,000 that is a substantial group.

So could Canberra actually have an overabundance of minor members in political groups? Data from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) revealed the youth organisation has more members under 18 in the ACT per capita than any other state or territory except Tasmania (Tasmania is the founding place of the first environmental party in the world after all). But political parties were unwilling to share their member info so I wasn’t able to apply this member theory more widely.

However, it turns out the ACT is home to the Greens’ youngest member — a 10-year-old. So young is this affiliate that her mother, Emma who has since become an ACT Greens co-convenor, has to chaperone her to policy workshops, conferences, and member meetings.

“I asked why she wanted to join, and she showed me an essay she had written about Bob Brown and that she thought his work for the environment had been heroic,” Emma told Crikey.

She says the ACT Greens initially suggested her daughter join AYCC because “she might find people closer to her age (or at least in high school!) … [but] she really wanted to join a political party, because she wants to join policy committees rather than activism campaigns”.

Asked if there is anything special about Canberra for young #Auspol aficionados, Emma said it’s probably the availability and access to protests or policy groups. “I grew up in a rural area and had the same interests but couldn’t find organisations where I could act on them.”

Another politically active young person is 16-year-old Wiradjuri woman Dhani Gilbert. Gilbert was awarded the 2018 Young Canberra Citizen of the Year Award for her community work and advocacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. She told Crikey that activism and advocacy played a major part of her experience growing up.

“My family are all pretty community-orientated, and [they] modelled that everyone can make a valuable contribution in addressing inequality or injustice in our society.”

As to whether her peer group shares her passion, Gilbert said “many of my friends discuss and have varying involvement in politics and/or activism, it’s certainly not something that young people I know are shying away from.”

This agitation is familiar to many young people — recent data from triple j’s What’s Up In Your World survey revealed just 7% of young people are confident politicians work in their best interests. But kids in the capital just may feel like they have a greater capacity to change that.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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