In his Australia Day address, the Governor General identified a crisis currently threatening democracy in this country. No, it wasn’t truth in Government; the interference of foreign powers in the making of Australian policy didn’t get a look in either. Rather, Australia must find new ways to get young people interested in politics or else.
“If we cannot find ways to spark their interest and involvement, we risk the consequences,” His Excellency Major General Michael Jeffery warned the crowd assembled in Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building. Democracy, and the freedoms that stemmed from it, were increasingly being taken for granted. The Australian “legacy”, as exemplified by the munificent surrounds in which the speech was delivered, was under threat.
“Too few of us really understand how we are governed.” How do we spark “their” interest, the Governor General implored?
Predictably enough, the burden was to fall on the Herculean shoulders of our teachers and volunteers. Through the teaching of “civics and citizenship” the nation would be carried forward by safer hands. Ignorance, his remedy implied, was the root cause: knowledge would precede increased and enhanced engagement by our young people.
I can’t profess to be “the voice” of Young Australia, but I must disagree with this thesis. Young people are all too familiar with how we are governed and this is the source of their discouragement. In a political era in which the “aspirational” voter is king, it pays to be acquisitive, not inquisitive. Unburdened by mortgages and kids, the “youth voice” is met with deafening silence or indignation when it deigns to interject with the question, “How can something morally wrong be economically right?”
The golden straightjacket that restrains either major party from implementing policies that pursue “excessive” socially or environmentally just causes renders the politically inquisitive, politically impotent. There’s no room at the inn for those whose democratic preference lies outside of the choices offered by the mainstream parties. And so young people’s disengagement stems from their alienation.
That we are governed by a party, rather than a federal democratic, political system is painfully clear to many young Australians. Any elected “representative” that chooses to stand for the interests of his or her electorate before that of the party will be subject to swift and brutal “disciplinary” action. Among our parliamentarians there is almost a religious fervour for maintaining the party line, at the expense of real democratic choice.
Another vagary of the Australian electoral system is that an election is decided not on how many votes a party wins, but where they win them. Winning the swinging votes of specific groups within strategic electorates is what causes seats - and Governments - to change hands. Hence, at the last Federal election we saw both major parties appeal to the hip pocket nerves of debt-ridden families in the “mortgage belts” of suburban Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the healthcare-focused battle for the “grey vote.” The votes of young people were of little strategic value to either party, so their policy preferences were ignored.
Australian citizenship, as far as my experience of “civics” instruction goes, implies rights with few responsibilities. One, if not the only responsibility an Australian citizen bears, is to vote at election time. But just what or who are people voting for?
To take a closer look at Australian democracy in action, I joined past Labor leader Mark Latham’s failed campaign to become Prime Minister in 2004 as a “youth media” journalist.
Mark Latham may have been a man of ideas and policy substance, but that fact was seen more as a liability than anything else by those managing his campaign. Labor’s policies were kept almost out of sight by the public relations crew running the show. Because ultimately that is what an Australian election has become: a grand show between competing illusionists. Trite slogans are conjured from policy while the media watches on, entranced, caught in a whirlwind of spin. The end result is not so much the conveyance of information, but infotainment. In such an environment, casting an informed vote is next to impossible.
Young Australians, such as myself, have grown up in a society shaped by aggressive marketing campaigns. We know advertising when we see it and many of us have become increasingly suspicious of the hard sell. As consumers, we’ve learnt that the only way to convey that we’re “not buying” is to turn it off or turn away.
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