Youth need alternative to Rudd’s bandwagon

Equal love rally, Perth, May 2013. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Reading the polls makes it clear that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is a hit. Overnight, Rudd's return has turned the tables for Labor. From staring down electoral annihilation, Labor is now on par with Liberal leader Tony Abbott. The election is a contest once again.

“Kevin07” was a popular campaign that gained mainstream traction among Australia’s youth in the 2007 federal elections. Even though “Kevin13” lacks the same ring, his return has marked clear moves by Rudd to regain his attraction to young voters.

Rudd actively pitches to a young audience. In his first speech as PM, he made an open appeal to young people. He said he understood politics had become "a huge national turn off".

"I want to ask you to please come back and listen afresh. It's really important that we get you engaged, in any way we can.”

He actively engages with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media much more effectively than other politicians. Compared with some in parliament, he seems willing to make a joke at his own expense, or fly in the face of convention, such as when he told the Canberra media to “chill out”.

But is an appeal to youth as simple as a few buzz words, a Twitter account and an admission that the big parties are boring? A look at the politics behind Rudd’s branding shows it is much more complex than that.

When Rudd was first elected in 2007, he was endorsed by many young people on the basis of being different. Most young people’s entire political lives had played out under the spectre of John Howard.

Young people turned on Howard not just for something new, but because their life experience had been at the sharp end of his government’s agenda. Education had been attacked (introduction of voluntary student unionism), rights at work were undermined (Work Choices) and an increasingly stifling cultural agenda was imposed upon society (the history wars).

When Rudd was elected, in some ways, things looked different. And not just because there was an absence of thunderous eyebrows doing morning walks on the evening news. Action on climate change had entered mainstream public discourse, and the less palatable aspects of Work Choices had been scrapped (although Fair Work Australia became a Work Choices “lite”).
And then he was gone, stabbed in the back by the party hacks. The Julia Gillard government then spent its time attacking single mothers and refusing to legalise marriage equality. For many young people it all seemed pretty bleak.

Until Rudd returned.

It is the same party, but a new government. The hope of change is back in office. Maybe he understands all the bullshit, and if you just trust him, maybe it will change?

Understanding how politicians appeal to young people can help to understand the spin, but it doesn't explain why they would do so. Young people aren't cashed up and making donations to campaigns like business groups. They aren't organised like a union. They are even less likely to vote than other age brackets, so banking on the kids isn't really the sure way to electoral success.

However, when young people don't feel that they can rely on politicians to make change for them, they might just get it in their heads that they have to do it themselves.

The equal marriage campaign is a good example. The halls of power stubbornly refused to oppose discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, and the only people vocal on the issue seemed to be going in the other direction. Thousands of people, many of them young, turned to the streets to make their voices heard.

Politicians from the mainstream capitalist parties don't want youth votes just to do well in elections, they need young people as a whole to believe in their system.

Today, young people are pointing out the flaws in the status quo, crying foul over the obvious discrimination that LGBTI people face in this homophobic society. In the past, young people have been at the forefront of struggles against the war in Vietnam, and against racist governments discriminating against Aboriginal people. These struggles point out the systemic injustices in the world today. The fight against them points to a radical alternative, not just for young people, but for all of society.

For the present capitalist system to work, it's important that people are not in the streets, holding politicians accountable for policies that maintain the wealth of the capitalists while discriminating against the majority.

By setting up Twitter accounts, YouTube channels or Facebook pages, political leaders like Rudd are trying to create a diversion for the discontent that always exists. Young people are still excluded from any real decision-making power, unless they happen to be the heirs to a business empire.

If young people are suckered into the spin, they lose their voice. Their voice and power is in playing a role of being leaders outside the present power structure, not within it. When dreaming something different, and fighting for it, young people can change the world.

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