Major parties offer youth nothing

September 3, 2010

The 2010 federal election campaign was notable as being one of the most tedious in the history of modern elections — at least the campaigns the two major parties dished up were.

The field of youth affairs was among the direst, with both the Coalition and ALP using young people as a political football to appeal to older and more conservative sections of the population.

Coalition leader Tony Abbott reconfirmed his status as an out-of-touch, patronising, old white man, encouraging young people to conform to conservative values.

“What I have to offer young people is an opportunity to re-engage with the fundamental views of our society”, he told on July 16. “Young people are dismissive of these values we are founded on, which is wrong.”

Abbott also proposed cutting welfare for all people under 30, allegedly to stop them becoming trapped on welfare and force them to “lift their game”, he said on August 17.

He also proposed that the government should force young unemployed people to move to places where jobs are available, regardless of their personal wishes.

Youth unemployment has historically been significantly higher than the rest of the population. Among people aged 15 to 19 who are looking for work, unemployment is 16.9% — three times the national average — the Sydney Morning Herald said on August 7. Among those 15 to 24 it is 11.5%, double the national average.

Abbott's crude assertion that young people simply need to “lift their game” to get a job denies the reality of society today, and panders to the stereotype that young people are just lazy and irresponsible.

Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard offered even less in the way of ideas, except to promise more of the same cuts to education and welfare, along with the same patronising rhetoric delivered over the past three years.

In October last year, Labor’s Minister for Youth, Kate Ellis, said she was beginning a "national conversation with young Australians". Unfortunately, she forgot to tell anyone young about it. But luckily for Ellis, she had some answers already prepared.

According to the Towards a National Strategy For Young Australians discussion paper, released last year by Ellis, the major issues facing young people that “require transparent national action” are “binge drinking, mental health and violence”.

Binge drinking and youth violence are media-driven issues that frighten and outrage older conservatives and distract from the real problems facing society. They are symptoms of wider social problems, created in large part by government policy that puts profit-making ahead of human wellbeing.

The government's “youth priorities” are in stark contrast to the actual concerns of young people today. Although opinion among youth voters is diverse, there are a number of trends and issues that differentiate them from older generations.

In the lead-up to the election, a poll conducted by Triple J's Hack program surveyed the issues most important to young people. Almost 3500 people voted on a list of categories.

According to the poll, “Climate change and the environment” was the most important issue, followed by “Same-Sex marriage” and the proposed “Internet filter”.

In a blow to media critics and demographers convinced that young people are self-centred and materialistic, “Your cash and Jobs (the economy)” came only fifth.

It is little wonder that a large proportion of young voters displayed apathy toward the major parties. Both intend to continue to delay action on climate change. Both are against same-sex marriage and intend to censor the internet. The only promises made in the campaign were to make life harder for young people.

This can also partially explain the significant rise in votes for the Greens, whose policies line up with the sentiments of a larger proportion of young people.

Yet some are still baffled by the lower interest level of young people in elections. Sally Young, a political science academic from the University of Melbourne, told ABC Online on August 12: "[Young people] are an audience that is hard to engage ... but I think that's a matter of formal politics, not political issues more broadly.

"They are interested in [issues] but they don't, for example, register to vote in the same proportions that older people do."

Young pointed to the use of new technologies, such as social networking sites, to engage with youth voters.

However, academics like Young and the major parties seem to miss the fundamental point — people won’t engage with parties that offer them nothing, no matter how they say it

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