How young people are changing the way Australians vote and act as citizens

My research interests are closely aligned to the development of civics and citizenship education. Specifically, I am curious about the kinds of educational activities that encourage young people to become active or ‘justice-oriented’ citizens.

Now that our marathon federal election is over I believe it is time for us to look more closely at what is happening in Australia.

How do our young people engage with their rights and duties as a citizen?

Traditionally, Australians as a whole, but especially younger Australians, have been characterized as suffering from a ‘civics deficit’. The assumption is they are either ignorant or apathetic about the way their country is run, or both. I think this assumption is an interesting starting point for wider discussion.

As part of my research, I considered ways that both young and old people express citizenship; that is, how they act as citizens in modern Australian society. I am particularly interested in places like Penrith, Windsor and Randwick. I am fortunate enough to live in Penrith, which is part of the Lindsay electorate. (I confess I was heartily sick of the western suburbs of Sydney being called the ‘key battleground seats’ by the end of the election.)

Young people ‘do’ citizenship differently

From speaking with young people about their interests and concerns, and gaining some understanding about the way they perceive both their local and global communities, it is clear that young people ‘do’ citizenship. However they often do it in ways that older generations might not recognize as citizenship.

I am reminded of the arguments around social media. Young people are seen as not really understanding it, not caring about privacy and likely to be engaging in risky behaviours around it. Similar arguments are used in the debate about active citizenship and young people.

On the contrary however, I believe young people are neither apathetic nor ignorant. Rather, young people are a diverse group, and their interests in politics are slippery and variegated. These interests are far more likely to be expressed in a focus on a particular issue or issues, rather than by belonging to an organization or party.

For example, while it is true that young people are less likely to join political parties, increasing numbers of young people are likely to attend protest events, the Occupy movement is just one example of that. They are also more likely to take an active role, for example by creating material like short films and infographics and posting it to social media. Of course, there has been much criticism of so-called ‘clicktivism’, but I would argue that this is an example of the misunderstanding of active citizenship that dominates much of the discussion.

How older people usually express their citizenship

 The way young people are doing it is clearly different to traditional models of ‘doing citizenship’. While there has always been a place for protest marches and filmmaking, older generations have generally been ‘joiners’. They are more likely to join an organization they feel is reflective of their own identities and seek to enact civics and citizenship through the organizational structures and representative mechanisms. In the past, once they had joined the organization, whether it was a community group, a trade union or a political party, then it was the norm to allow that organization to represent the individual and act in what the organization decided was their best interest.

It was a form of identity politics that allowed for little in the way of expressions of free will and only allowed limited roles for individuals to be empowered. It is still the structure that dominates the political arena in Australia, but for how much longer?

Traditional organisations are declining in popularity

It is well known that many traditional organisations are suffering a decline in membership. Robert Putnam, political scientist and Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard University, identified this as a key feature in his analysis of the decline in social capital in the US. Such a decline is replicated in many organisations in Australia. For example, there is a decline in trade union membership and the membership of political parties. At the same time many other organisations, such as environmental groups and charities have also felt the pinch.

This declining membership has been an ongoing concern for people who work in these organisations. The blame is often attributed to the fact that young people no longer seem to ‘care’ about the things that these organisations represent.

I don’t think that that’s the case. Rather, I think that the decline in membership is a signal that young people are much more likely to be ‘issue-based’ rather than ‘organisationally-centered’. Such a change is evident in the recent federal election, and is perhaps applicable to a broader segment of the population than just ‘young people’.

Are Australians changing their approach to politics generally?

Despite the frenzied nature of the campaign, and especially so in the ‘battleground seats’, both political parties recorded very low primary votes. The Coalition’s primary vote has decline to 42.1% from a high of 53% in 1975, and the ALP’s vote is down to 34.9% from a high of 49.6% in 1972.

This suggests that many people are no longer identifying with the major political parties. It is my argument that they are ‘shopping’ their political engagement, and so are far more likely to be motivated by a particular issue rather than identifying with a political party.

I believe individual political identities are becoming fragmented. People no longer support a political party’s whole platform or complete agenda, but instead will pick and choose the issues that matter the most to them and then cast their votes accordingly.

Issues based activism

here was ample evidence of this in the election campaign. As I stood at a polling station in Penrith, I could see a vast array of volunteers trying to encourage people to vote in a certain way. There were, as you would imagine, the normal representatives of the major political parties, but there were also a lot of single-issue groups. These were not political parties, but individuals trying to convince voters to act in a certain way based on a single issue. The most obvious were the bright green ‘Gonski’ supporters, but there were also Medicare campaigners, Animal Rights and Unions NSW groups (although the Unions NSW is a difficult case, as many unions are aligned with the ALP).

Even the fact that Unions NSW was campaigning separately to the ALP suggests that they are aware of this growth in ‘issue-based’ rather than ‘organisationally-centered’ identities. Conservative groups are also aware of these changes in the body politic. I believe the rebirth of One Nation is a direct result of people’s concerns (rightly or wrongly) about the single issue of Islam in Australia, rather than any broad support for its wider platform.

The rise of GetUp!

Of course, some organisations have already recognized that such changes are happening and are seeking to make use of this new form of engagement. GetUp! Is the most obvious example. It seems to have captured what it means to be an issue-based organisation.

GetUp! has more than a million people on their mailing list, which is a significant figure in a small country like Australia. Interestingly, despite its apparent appeal to a younger demographic, large numbers of GetUp! are from the over 50s demographic, a period of life that is often characterized by increased involvement in social issues. GetUp! has campaigned about a range of issues, including things like the environment, successfully leveraging the support for specific issues (like opposition to the Adani coal mine) to change public opinion and challenge decisions in court. It is feasible that GetUp! has had a direct effect on the outcomes of elections. Obviously Cory Bernardi believes so as he has suggested starting a conservative movement to challenge it.

Where is all of this going?

What does this mean for the future of politics in Australia? That’s a difficult question to answer. The most obvious development, I think, will be the ongoing growth of single-issue groups and third parties that directly campaign about particular matters.

It would be easy to classify this as populist politics, but I think that would be a mistake. Rather, I see it as the voting public recognizing that they are capable of making changes about certain issues through the expression of their collective will, rather than relying on elected representatives to make those decisions.

The other change that I believe we will see is a change in the way organisations like political parties, charities, unions and not-for-profits engage with the public. I think there will be less emphasis placed on an ongoing relationship, and more emphasis upon the idea of one-off events, like protest marches, for example.

It is, of course, early days for this newly empowered citizen body. What the federal election has shown us is that people are capable of mobilizing and acting in what they perceive to be the best interests of their communities, and that some organisations are already finding ways to leverage this activism.

It is the young people of Australia who seem to be leading the way in this new kind of civic engagement. They are exploring new ways to interact with each other and with wider communities, and by doing so, changing the political landscape for all of us.


Heggart-copyKeith Heggart is a Ph D student at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has previously been a teacher and school leader in Australia and the UK. He is also an organiser for the Independent Education Union. Keith works as a casual academic at Western Sydney University and the University of Sydney