On Saturday 24 November, Victorians will go to the polls to decide who will form our state government. Huge decisions get made in Victoria’s parliament. For example, you might have followed the debates about how to stop family violence, connect young people to job opportunities, improve our public transport system, respond to crime, and ‘make renting fair’.

But what roles do young people play? Are young people marginalised from political life – or are they a mighty political force?

Heaps of young people are keen to make a positive difference in their communities. When the Victorian Government announced that they would develop a new youth policy in 2015, over 2,000 young people volunteered their ideas about issues like education, employment and mental health. Meanwhile, 53.8% of young Victorians do volunteer work, a quarter take part in environmental activities, and 42.6% get involved in student leadership. Some young people sit on youth advisory bodies to help shape the work of state government, local councils, charities and health services. And more than twenty of the bills passed by Victoria's YMCA Youth Parliament have gone on to become law!

Whether they realise it or not, young voters have a lot of power. They are new to elections, so their voting patterns and ‘loyalty’ are harder for political parties to predict. And their priorities are often different to those of older voters.

Young Victorians approaching voting age think the biggest issues affecting Australia are drugs and alcohol, equity and discrimination, and mental health.

Young people’s influence in our political climate

The involvement of young voters was important to the outcome of Australia’s 2017 marriage postal survey. More than two-thirds of the new voters who enrolled were young people aged 18–24, and this age group were more likely than average to support marriage equality. (You can read more about young people’s involvement in the marriage survey here.)

Meanwhile, a study at the University of Western Sydney found that young voters aged 18–25 may have been the most powerful age group in influencing the four Australian elections between 2001 and 2010. A big reason for this was their higher than average support for the Greens, which changed the balance of power in parliament.

When young people turn 18 and become eligible to vote, they have the potential to transform their local electorate – especially if they live in a marginal electorate, where every vote counts. For example, at the last state election in 2014, the Frankston electorate changed from Independent to Labor, and this win was crucial to Labor’s overall election victory. After preferences were distributed, the difference between the winner and the runner-up in Frankston was just 336 votes. Guess how many young people in the Frankston electorate turned 18 in the past year, and will now be eligible to vote for the first time? It’s around 700 – more than double the number of people, who last time, helped to ‘swing’ an election!

So, with all this energy and influence in their hands, young Victorians must be feeling confident, empowered, and raring to get involved in elections, right?

Well… it’s complicated.

Every young person has a right to engage in democratic politics...so why don’t they?

Unfortunately, many young people feel confused or alienated by formal politics. A recent study of 18 and 19 year old Australians found that many did not understand practical things like the different roles of federal, state and local governments, how a government is formed, and even how to fill out a ballot paper. Another survey found that less than half of Australian Year 10 students have the skills and knowledge to be informed citizens in a democracy. Only 8% of teenage Victorians are involved in formal political organisations. And about 15% of young Australians aged 18-24 are not even enrolled to vote.

Many factors have combined to drive young people away from traditional politics. These include:

  • The global spike in youth unemployment
  • Problems with how ‘civics’ education is taught in schools
  • Offensive or uninspiring behaviour by individual politicians
  • Parents giving their children cynical or apathetic messages about politics
  • The failure of the political system to engage and retain women and people from culturally diverse backgrounds on an equitable basis
  • Complex impacts of social media
  •  Low involvement of young people in organisations which traditionally got people involved in the running of their country, such as unions, professional associations, and consumer groups
  • The feeling of some young people that voting is a chore imposed on them by adults, instead of a right and an opportunity.

Check out some thought-provoking views on young people and elections in the UK, US, and New Zealand, and by Victoria’s Centre for Multicultural Youth.

Young people are more influential in politics when they have skills 

So, what can we do to help young people build their skills as citizens and have a real say in the decisions that affect their lives and their world?

  • Strengthen civics education. A recent report by the Electoral Matters Committee (Parliament of Victoria) called for more schools to use the Victorian Electoral Commission’s Passport to Democracy resource, and for schools to host ‘parallel elections’. In a parallel election, students learn about political issues and party platforms, discuss politics with their families, and vote for actual candidates in simulated polling places, at the same time as a real election is happening. Parallel elections have shown strong results in Canada and New Zealand.
  • Bring the Victorian Electoral Commission’s Democracy Ambassadors Program to your community, to give practical guidance to young people about enrolling and voting.
  • Help young people connect with their local member of parliament. YACVic has produced a guide for young people on identifying the issues they care about and lobbying their MP. And did you know some MPs host their own youth advisory groups? The Electoral Matters Committee has urged that MPs get new support to run youth councils and make regular visits to schools.
  • Tap into the power of local government! Local government youth services have a strong focus on giving all young people a say, and connecting young people to decision-makers. Recent examples include:
    • The Youth Election Platform(2018), produced by the City of Whittlesea to sum up the priorities of young people to local candidates in the state election.
    • Youth Politics Camp (2017), organised by Alpine, Benalla, Indigo, Strathbogie, Mansfield, Wangaratta and Wodonga Councils to build young people’s engagement in politics.
    • The Australia Day Study Tour (City of Casey) connects young people with local councillors and members of state and federal parliament and builds their engagement with different levels of government.
  • Contact peak bodies, charities, and advocacy groups. Many peak bodies and not-for-profits work to amplify young people’s voices and build their advocacy skills. Examples include YACVic, the Centre for Multicultural Youth, Koorie Youth Council, Victorian Student Representative Council, CREATE Foundation, the Youth Disability Advocacy Service, and YMCA, which hosts the UNO-Y youth leadership program and Youth Parliament. And there are youth-focused organisations which lobby politicians on specific issues young people are passionate about, such as the Young Workers Centre and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.
  •  Connect young people with electoral job opportunities. At election time, the Victorian Election Commission employs 25,000 people, and they especially welcome applications from young people! Find out what goes on behind the scenes in an election, while also earning money.
  • Bring young people together with younger politicians and hear what it’s like to contest an election and make decisions in parliament. Younger members of Victoria’s parliament include:
    • Steph Ryan, Deputy Leader of the Nationals and Member for Euroa. Shadow Minister for Young Victorians, and for Training, Skills and Apprenticeships.
    • Huong Truong, Greens Member for Western Metropolitan. Portfolios include Youth Affairs, Multiculturalism, and Prevention of Family Violence.
    • Ellen Sandell, Greens Member for Melbourne. Spokesperson for Treasury and Finance, Climate Change, Environment and National Parks.
    • Gabrielle Williams, Labor Member for Dandenong. Parliamentary Secretary for Health, and for Carers and Volunteers.
    • Josh Bull, Labor Member for Sunbury. Committees include Penalty Rates and Fair Pay, and Environment, Natural Resources and Regional Development.

Younger candidates contesting the Victorian election include:

  • Check out the youth wings of the political parties, such as Young Nationals, Young Labor, Young Liberal Movement, and Young Greens.

At YACVic, we’re proud to support young people’s engagement in democratic elections. This is a right of all young people, and important to the future of our community.