There’s a nar­ra­tive that young peo­ple do not care about pol­i­tics, and do not en­gage in our democ­racy. This ar­gu­ment is used to jus­tify the re­lent­less pur­suit of pol­icy de­ci­sions that will over­whelm­ingly af­fect young peo­ple for the long­est time, with­out in­volv­ing them in the process of mak­ing those de­ci­sions. This ex­clu­siv­ity in turn drives young peo­ple away from pol­i­tics, and so on and so forth. There’s a deep-seated rhetoric in Aus­tralian pol­i­tics that says there is a di­rect cor­re­la­tion be­tween age and ex­pe­ri­ence and ma­tu­rity. This premise is fun­da­men­tally in­cor­rect; no age group has a mo­nop­oly on the full range of ex­pe­ri­ences nec­es­sary to achieve good pol­icy out­comes. The av­er­age age of politi­cians in Can­berra is 51 years old and there are cur­rently only three of us un­der the age of 35 – or just over one per cent. Yet, in Aus­tralia this age bracket makes up more than 45 per cent of our pop­u­la­tion. But if we con­tinue to shut their voices out then we’re risk­ing the very in­tegrity of our democ­racy. This nar­ra­tive, which has dom­i­nated Aus­tralian pol­i­tics for my life­time, is self-per­pet­u­at­ing and must be chal­lenged. In my short time as a se­na­tor I’ve met with and spo­ken to hun­dreds of young peo­ple, as well as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of peak youth or­gan­i­sa­tions and pro­gram co­or­di­na­tors across WA. Young peo­ple are an in­spi­ra­tion. They’re more in­formed, more com­pas­sion­ate and more per­cep­tive than ever be­fore. Never have young peo­ple had such a clear un­der­stand­ing of the chal­lenges we’re fac­ing in our world and whether we like it or not, whether we think they’re ready or not, we can­not deny that they rep­re­sent a con­scious­ness that must be ac­knowl­edged and cel­e­brated. I also have the unique ex­pe­ri­ence in the Aus­tralian Se­nate of be­ing the youngest elected mem­ber, and in a past life I ded­i­cated my time to youth and disability ad­vo­cacy and ac­tivism. In my short time as a se­na­tor I’ve heard time and again that one of the big­gest is­sues fac­ing young peo­ple is hav­ing their voices heard by their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives. In a world that is so dom­i­nated by the 24-hour news cy­cle and so­cial me­dia, how is it that such a huge con­stituency is be­ing ig­nored in our democ­racy? Data would tell us that the low­est en­rol­ment rates in Aus­tralia are among 18- to 25-year-olds, and this statis­tic fu­els the per­cep­tion that young peo­ple, frankly, don’t give a shit. But, when you present young peo­ple with some­thing tan­gi­ble they turn out in huge num­bers to par­tic­i­pate. There is no greater re­cent ex­am­ple in Aus­tralian history than the cam­paign for mar­riage equal­ity, which saw record num­bers of young peo­ple en­rolling to vote for the first time, or up­dat­ing their de­tails on the elec­toral roll to en­sure they could par­tic­i­pate. As a re­sult of the Aus­tralian mar­riage equal­ity cam­paign we now have the high­est num­ber of young peo­ple on the elec­toral roll, ever, and that has noth­ing to do with an elec­tion. Young peo­ple were given an op­por­tu­nity to have a say on an is­sue that was im­por­tant to them, and they took it. What we saw hap­pen dur­ing this hugely suc­cess­ful cam­paign was a two-way street. Young peo­ple led the charge and de­manded to have their say, and be­cause of the role they played, politi­cians were forced to lis­ten. This is not a uniquely Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence either. Across the world young peo­ple are setting the po­lit­i­cal agenda, whether it be #Black­lives­mat­ter, #Metoo, #March­forourlives or, much closer to home, #Jus­tice­fore­li­jah. They are lead­ing so­cial move­ments, as­sert­ing their right to par­tic­i­pate in our democ­racy and ul­ti­mately, de­serve more of an op­por­tu­nity to have a say in our shared fu­ture. This is not go­ing to hap­pen if the po­lit­i­cal dis­course in Aus­tralia con­tin­ues to be in­flu­enced by the dam­ag­ing nar­ra­tive that, by and large, young peo­ple don’t care. We know they do and by ig­nor­ing their voice we’re teach­ing a gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple that pol­i­tics is not worth their time. I am pas­sion­ate about chang­ing this nar­ra­tive and I feel it’s my duty to do so. You may think this is the lofty ide­al­ism, but here are a few sim­ple steps Aus­tralian pol­i­tics could take right now to change it. We must see the re­in­state­ment of a min­is­ter for youth af­fairs, fed­eral fund­ing for the na­tional youth ad­vo­cacy body and fed­eral fund­ing for youth week. Fi­nally, we must en­sure that the is­sues af­fect­ing young peo­ple never again slip from the po­lit­i­cal agenda by join­ing the in­creas­ing num­ber of na­tions around the world in low­er­ing the vot­ing age, op­tion­ally, to 16. The fact is, young peo­ple are the fu­ture. And it’s time for us to not only give them more of a voice – but to lis­ten to what they have to say.

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