Busting the myth of political apathy

A young Australian protesting refugee conditions in Melbourne (Image: Takver, Flickr)

As of Australia’s last federal election, approximately 350,000 young people were missing from the electoral roll.

The AEC’s current estimate of missing voters is 823,639 people, which means that almost half of that is likely to be comprised of young people. In the US last year, half of eligible voters aged 18-29 took part in the election, a result well under the overall estimated 58% voter turnout. And for the last five years, only around half of young Australians have considered democracy preferable to any other form of government.

Young Australians have, for the last five years, held a relatively low opinion of democracy (Data: The Lowy Institute)

Given these figures and others like it across the globe, it’s no wonder that popular perception paints young people as politically apathetic, particularly in Australia, where disinterest in politics has become almost a national stereotype.

But John Keane, Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and Director of the Sydney Democracy Network, believes young people remain invested in current political issues. “Young people are deeply interested in these questions,” Professor Keane says. “They worry about what happens to the reef, they are concerned with the quality of food, there are feelings about the extinction of species… and in that respect, politics is alive and well among young people.”

So if this is the case, why are young Australians perceived as uncaring? In the lead-up to the UK 2015 election, the creator of a vote-matching website decided that “to a lot of people it’s a lack of information that’s driving this disengagement.” That seems to play into the idea that young people just don’t care, but the truth may be more complicated than that.

For people to opine that youths lack interest in politics requires a specific view of what politics is. In short, they are not fed up with politics in general, so much as they are fed up with the party system. In a narrow definition, ‘politics’ concerns only the struggle for control over parliament and the conflict between the major political parties. This struggle is what Professor Keane calls cartel parties, an oligarchic system where the same few parties maintain power. And that system, according to Professor Keane, is showing “symptoms of decay, of decadence… it’s basically the Coalition and Labor.”

Russell Brand, in a much-watched interview on the BBC, discussed his refusal to vote. This was perhaps emblematic of youth disengagement with the party-political process (Photo: BBC)

The trend is not a recent one, nor is it limited to young voters, despite assumptions to the contrary. In 2014, after repeated changes in leadership, only 43% of Australians thought things were different depending on which party was in government.

This attitude may just be a fact of life. “We see the whole creation of a separate political sphere that supposedly acts in the general interest as not being able to fulfil that,” says Sydney-based psychiatrist and writer Dr Tad Tietze, “so people are always going to feel like their collective aspirations are somehow not really looked after.” In Australia, it seems that young people are taking this view after nearly seven years of Coalition government. The Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, for example, pushes issues like the inability of the young to afford housing and higher rates of youth unemployment.

Nevertheless, the government does little to address these issues and re-engage voters, and Professor Keane suggests this may be deliberate. “I think the Coalition government doesn’t particularly want, to be blunt, young people voting because the probability is very high that [they] will vote against them.”

In fact, the political parties in Australia seem to be focusing their attention towards corporations. Journalist and University of Sydney professor Michael West has written extensively about Australia’s ‘corporatocracy’, pointing to projects like the Adani coalmine, towards which the federal government is paying $1 billion, and LNG projects that pay little tax. Professor Keane references the issue of university funding, which may be cut by $2.8 billion, as an example of governmental priorities.

And if they’re not focusing on corporations, the parties may be occupied with internal issues. “Increasingly, there are various way politicians look at ‘how do I manage my constituency so it doesn’t cause me trouble, and so I can get on with the real game of politics here’,” Dr Tietze says.


Bernie Sanders achieved high popularity with young voters, with one YouGov poll showing millenials were split evenly between the senator and Clinton (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

So if the major parties are driving off young people, are independent parties and fringe candidates the answer? After all, Australia has recently seen the rise of One Nation and the Xenophon Team, and the recent Orange by-election saw the Shooters, Fishers & Farmers party defeat the Nationals by a slim 0.2% majority. Overseas, too, some young voters have been drawn by figures like Bernie Sanders. However, Dr Tietze thinks these non-mainstream figures are not having a lasting appeal. “They’ve excited people, because the parties’ establishments have lost their control over their constituency. Young people are looking for something new and they provide at least for a time some kind of alternative. But I think it’s more limited than people think it is.”

Dr Tietze nevertheless believes that such one-off engagements would be an important measure if politics is to re-engage younger voters. He refers to issues like Brexit and Scottish independence, where the Tories and the SNP respectively have used those issues to draw people in, though only temporarily (the SNP is forecast to lose ten seats in the upcoming election). The Indignados anti-austerity movement of Spain was a similar case, with the Podemos party arising out of the anti-corruption protests. But this may be hard for the government to achieve in the current political climate. “I think it’s likely that if social movements arise, they will have a much more anti-politics character, because it’s the general mood in society,” Dr Tietze says. “I don’t think there’s going to be mass social movements that can sustain themselves, arise and then say ‘let’s just subordinate ourselves to the politicians’.” Instead, Dr Tietze sees a collapse as a possibility in Australia – one of the major parties, and a shifting of political alignment. But even that may be temporary; Dr Tietze says political realignments have been occuring for decades, and will be temporary until any major social movements.


The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 saw the removal of the Mubarak government (Photo: Jonathan Rashad, Flickr)

The particracy – the cartel system – is under tremendous pressure worldwide. The world has seen recent challenges to political establishments, like the Indignados movement, and the Arab Spring. Here in Australia, young people are expressing dissatisfaction with party politics, but remain deeply invested in broader political issues. While events like the Arab Spring may be too drastic to occur here, the political agency of younger people is still being eroded. Professor Keane offers this as a suggestion: “Politicians need to be much more responsive and open-minded… for the future generation. But it’s not a healthy dynamic.”

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