At a public talk on Generation Y and politics I delivered earlier this year, an audience member asked me whether young Australians were at all enthused about Australia becoming a republic. As much as it pained me to say so, I had to tell her that it just wasn’t on their agenda.
In the research for my book, The World According to Y: inside the new adult generation, I asked young people to nominate the political issues of importance to them. They largely pointed to international issues, in particular climate change, war, terrorism and the immense gap between rich and poor nations. In terms of national issues of relevance, they nominated refugees, the rising cost of housing and education as well as the ageing population. The republic was mentioned by only one of the 50-plus young people I interviewed.
My findings are supported by most national polling, which shows that support for a republic among young Australians struggles to climb above 50 per cent. In 2006, Newspoll found that younger people were lukewarm about a republic, with 45 per cent of the 18 to 34 bracket in favour of a republic.
But as academic and former ARM chair John Warhurst has rightly pointed out, this percentage of young people supportive of a republic isn’t as telling as the percentage of those designated as uncommitted, what Warhurst describes as “the often-forgotten, very important third category of undecided/don't know/don't care”. In the same 2006 poll, 29 per cent of those young Australians surveyed by Newspoll were undecided either way about a republic, 3 per cent more than those who were against the idea.
Some political scientists and media commentators would label this group “apathetic”. Indeed young people are often described as disinterested and ignorant about formal political processes. While the general political knowledge of young people is not what it could or should be, I would dispute the label “apathetic”. Instead of apathy, what I found in my own work could more accurately be described as “disengagement”.
Disengagement from a political system dominated by the two major parties, which doesn’t seem to provide young voters with a real choice.
Disengagement from a political culture dominated by technocrats, apparatchiks and media advisors.
Disengagement from political parties that don’t allow enough internal democracy to satisfy the needs of a generation who expect flexibility and options in all their endeavours, and who are enthusiastic about direct democracy.
So rather than apathy, what I found among young men and women was something more like powerlessness, either to change the political culture or to make progress with national political issues.
Why has there been this turning away, this disengagement among young Australians? I believe the tendency of some people in older generations to blame young people themselves - labelling them as selfish, shallow, in the thrall of consumerism or intrinsically conservative - is both unfair and inaccurate, primarily because it ignores two facts.
First, let’s not kid ourselves, Australians have never placed much trust in politicians.
Second, since the beginning of the millennium, social researchers have remarked on a general trend of disengagement across generations, and social classes. Mackay argues that by the turn of the century, Australians were becoming fatigued by the “heavy agenda” of social, economic and political issues including the republic.
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