The Club

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Political party rifts and covert manipulation have been, atypically, rather prominent in the news of late. John Brogden’s indiscretions in a room full of journalists gave his Liberal Party opponents the impetus for his removal; he was gone less than 24 hours after the story broke. Mark Latham felt that his travails with opposing Labor factions were worthy of widespread attention (as well as his view on, well, everything) so he published his political diaries.

Curiously, though, nobody has linked ‘youth disengagement with politics’ to the Brogden affair, or Latham’s ravings about how Kim Beazley, the media, the Coalition and the alignment of Pluto and Uranus conspired to keep him from becoming PM.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at <i>The Australian</i>

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at The Australian

This is simple enough to explain: the question of youth disengagement tends to lead to too much examination of ‘youth’ and not enough of ‘politics.’ Since the elites and the media no doubt feel more confident about the subject of politics than what the young want, need and expect, it is natural that they assume that they are missing something when it comes to ‘the kids’.

All you need to know about youth disengagement, however, is right there in the headlines: when politics isn’t about two sides bickering over who should be in charge of the nation, it’s one side bickering internally about who should be in charge of the party. Although it was touched on only briefly at this month’s Evatt Foundation forum on youth and politics, shadow ministerial adviser Monika Wheeler’s citation of ‘cliquey hierarchies’ as playing a role in youth apathy is right on the money.

Party politics is, and perhaps always has been, a club. While this may conjure up images for some of mahogany-hued sitting rooms filled with cigar-smoking geriatrics that all went to the same private schools, this is not the case. The club mentality is classless; it is found wherever inclusion and exclusion abounds. And the parties are rank with it.

The club mentality is what feeds youth disengagement, even cynicism, towards politics. It seems that politicians no longer care about offering the best candidate to the people, but rather whoever their closest ally is. Only Labor factionalism could have brought about a federal leader as wildly uncharismatic as Simon Crean. So too, it was plotting within the NSW Liberal Party, rather than the public will, that ousted Brogden.

There can be little wonder, then, why young people view politics with distaste. When politics ceases to be about who has the best ideas, the soundest ambitions, or even the best political skills, but instead who your mates are, why would anyone want to become involved in it?

Politics needs to be able to show young people that if they have strong moral convictions, tenacity and good ideas for the running of our nation, then they can make a positive difference to the world. Instead, in the space of three weeks, we’ve seen the story of how two leading politicians’ careers were essentially terminated, not because they didn’t have the best ideas, but because of surreptitious ‘bitchy’ manipulation. Young people get enough of that at school.

Asking politicians to drop factionalism and internal rifts, however, is a bit like asking Mark Latham to keep his opinions to himself, so we might have to look to other solutions.

University of Sydney lecturer Ariadne Vromen, when discussing the difference in youth interest and participation between political parties and the Hillsong church, asserted that the key was that Hillsong was ‘fun’ and that political parties weren’t ‘fun’ enough. One wonders what she has in mind. Perhaps ‘Question Time’ could be replaced with a mass pillow fight (‘Would the Leader of the Opposition please pick on someone his own size!’). Or perhaps she’s talking about something far more dangerous: dumbing-down; watering down politics to supposedly make it simpler or tailoring it to meet a perceived short attention span.

Rebecca Huntley, author of the forthcoming The World According to Y, noted that young people talk about consuming politics and reading the newspaper in the same way people talk about ‘taking vitamins’. She’s right too very few people would take an interest in politics if they didn’t feel some obligation to ‘keep up’ with what are generally considered important issues. But the knee-jerk corollary – dumbing down politics to make it more palatable – needs to be avoided.

Pushes to capture the youth vote are invariably predicated on the belief that young people want a synthesis between politics and ‘entertainment’: superficial attempts to alter the image of a party as ‘hip’; something we might call the ‘see we’re not really a bunch of old fuddy-duddies, look here’s Peter Garrett’ line. But politics cannot be made ‘fun’ without losing its soul; at its heart are inherently serious notions of justice, compassion and freedom. Politics should not be trivialised to make it more accessible for young people; the entire point of politics is dealing with things that matter.

More importantly young people can spot the cynicism of political parties trying to appeal to them with token gestures. As a consequence, these gestures can have the opposite effect: offering token gestures instead of genuinely considered policy reinforces the belief in young people that politics does not care for them. These gestures are seen as nothing more than a cynical grab for votes rather than effecting positive changes; the young becoming a resource for political gain, rather than a sector worthy of political concern.

In reality, reaching young people is the same as reaching all people; strong policy and policy communication is the key.

Besides, Midnight Oil haven’t had a hit in 20 years. When you’ve got After the Fall on board, then we’ll talk.

This is the second part of Daniel’s analysis of the Evatt Foundation’s forum on ‘Youth and Politics: Engagement and Participation’. To see Part 1 from last week’s issue, click here.

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