The Evolving Nature of Young Australia’s Political Engagement
Australia has long been associated with a laidback, easy-going lifestyle and a certain nonchalance when it comes to politics. Ask the average Australian who their favourite Prime Minister or local member of Parliament is, and you’ll more than likely get a variation of two replies – “dunno” or “don’t care, mate.” Seemingly rooted in the Australian identity and way of life is this casual disaffection for politics, and youth in particular have long been associated with an ingrained detachment from the political process. But youth activism and engagement with social justice has never been more popular, and youth-oriented social change has been shown to have real and lasting impact around the world (Ho, Clarke & Dougherty 2015). Considering this, are youth really as disengaged with politics as various studies and statistics appear to suggest – or is there another story developing behind what appears to be, with youth becoming more engaged than ever before, in ways previously unavailable to their predecessors?
A recent Australian poll into trust in institutions showed that only around a fifth of respondents had any trust in political parties, and less than a third trusted the state or federal governments (Essential Report 2015). This mistrust can be seen in a wide array of places, from relatively low voter turnout in times of federal election, to the phenomena of “donkey voting” (casting a ballot with no clear indication of a vote), and even in the high level of undecided swing voters who have no political affiliation and ‘decide on the day’. Statistics gathered from the 2013 federal election show less than 80% of Australians of voting age ended up casting a vote, a figure which is somewhat alarming but also not overly surprising considering the generally negative attitudes of Australians towards politicians and politics in general. This figure can largely be explained by the fact that a quarter of all young people failed to enrol to vote – even though voting is compulsory and to not do so may result in a fine – which is a growing trend among our youth (McGrath 2013). A quick look back at the Australian parliament’s recent past may help shed a light on this growing trend, with the emergence of the so-called ‘coup culture’ of federal politics over the last decade, which saw five prime ministerial changes within five years, with three happening despite no elections being held (Harrington 2016). In addition, political squabbling and infighting, and backroom deal making between different parties have soured the public’s already dim perception of our political leaders and contributed to a lack of faith in politicians and the system as a whole.
A thesis proposed in 1978 called ‘convergence theory’ may also help explain the lack of confidence shown towards political leaders. Convergence theory uses the evidence of ideological convergence between major political parties to raise the possibility of...