AS AUSTRALIA’S YOUNGEST SENATOR, THE AUSTRALIAN GREENS’ SPOKESPERSON FOR YOUTH AFFAIRS SAYS IT’S TI ME POLITI CIANS STARTED TAKING THE NEXT GENERATION MORE SERIOUSLY.
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.