Not Cool, John


The last month has seen an upswing in media interest in a section of the community that politicians have largely ignored for the past decade. Prompted by polls and the Prime Minster John Howard’s heroic foray onto YouTube,  the media has suddenly discovered a large group of swinging voters that may well decide the forthcoming Federal election.

Who are these mystery voters? Are they ‘doctor’s wives,’ ‘Howard’s battlers’ or ‘Tasmanian timber workers’? No, they’re Australia’s forgotten constituency: young people.

Thanks to Lukas

There are 2.7 million Australians aged between 15-24 and although many younger voters are not enrolled or too young to vote, the demographic is still a significant electoral voting bloc. Given its size and its obvious strategic value as the future of Australia’s demography, it is surprising that the major Parties have paid so little attention to the policy interests of this section of the community.

At a time when Labor and the Coalition have competed fiercely to shower promises of tax breaks and subsidies on families, seniors and retirees, young voters have been left in the wilderness. If young voters are finally starting to take an interest in the policy issues that affect them, then the news for the Coalition is bad indeed.

In the 2004 election, the Coalition actually won a slim majority in the 18-24 year-old demographic (at least in the primary vote, but not in 2-party preferred terms, as the Greens polled a substantially in this age-group). Newspaper feature writers especially The Australian‘s Caroline Overington rushed to describe a new generation of ‘young fogeys’ or ‘South Park conservatives’ who were gravitating to Howard’s leadership on the economy and national security. (Unfortunately, has taken down Caroline Overington’s piece from February 2006. But you can read some debate about it on Larvatus Prodeo here)

But the real story of Howard’s young fogeys is that they never existed. When Tim Colebatch from The Age and Peter Brent from the blog Mumble trawled back through the poll figures in the youth demographic, they found that young voters consistently sided with Labor and the Greens. Colebatch looked at a large sample size of AC Nielsen data from the 2004 election period and concluded: ‘On a simple arithmetic average, the Newspolls showed the two party vote as 43-57 Coalition-Labor [for 18-34 year olds].’

So it’s not surprising that recent polls tell a consistent tale of young voters leaning strongly towards Kevin Rudd. According to the latest Newspoll figures the quarterly breakdown for age and geography published in July Labor outpolled the Coalition by a stunning 53-30 per cent in the 18-34 years demographic in the three months to July. The Greens picked up another 6 per cent, which shows you just how far the Government is behind.

It didn’t take long before the very same Caroline Overington was publishing a lavish spread in The Weekend Australian all about the Prime Minister’s inability to engage with young voters on FM radio (or was it really just a publicity piece for Kyle Sandilands? I couldn’t quite tell).

As usual with Overington’s reporting on social issues, pop demography and easy slogans trumped substantial policy analysis. The truth of the youth swing against Howard in fact has little to do with FM Radio. A more likely explanation is simply that young voters don’t like his policies.

Even a cursory examination shows why. Howard and his Cabinet’s record on youth policy issues has been consistently poor, particularly in key areas like education, industrial relations, tax and the environment.

One of the first decisions Howard made on gaining office in 1996 was a huge cut to university funding, while increasing HECS charges for tertiary students. In the 11 years since, students have been asked to pay an ever-increasing share of their tertiary education costs. The result has been bigger class sizes, savage cuts to teaching faculties and falling university enrollments.

The Howard Government’s record on vocational training has been equally dismal. Federal funding to TAFE has been cut repeatedly in real terms in the course of the last decade, and again students have been asked to pay more. This has created a large skills shortage in a range of traditional trades as well as key export industries like mining, tourism and hospitality.

The Howard Government’s response was to set up Australian Technical Colleges. They have been a policy disaster. The Technical Colleges were slow getting started and duplicated the services already offered by TAFE. Most have failed to reach their quotas for enrollments. One, in the Pilbara in Western Australia, opened in July with no students at all!

The Coalition’s record on tax for young people may well be one of the sleeper issues of the election. Australia’s tax system is now comprehensively biased against single tax-payers without children, who receive none of the extensive benefits available to couples with children under the Family Tax Benefits scheme.

At the same time as they pay back HECS, while they save for a mortgage, young singles in full-time work now pay much higher marginal tax rates than their friends who have decided to have children. According to Treasury figures, the Net Tax Threshold (in other words, once benefits and other tax breaks are taken into account) for a single person on an average full-time wage is $16,649. For a dual-income family it’s $46,884.

Not only is the disparity manifestly unfair to singles, it also confronts younger Australians with some uncomfortable life choices. With HECS debts to pay back and an ever-larger deposit needed to buy unaffordable housing in Australian cities, many younger Australians are putting off having children longer. For middle-income earners, buying a house or having children is beginning to look like an either/or dilemma. For those on lower incomes, the chance to buy a house has already vanished. In the meantime, rents are spiking.

The Howard Government’s industrial relations policy changes are another area which disproportionately affects young Australians. For the large number who are employed casually in non-unionised workplaces, WorkChoices heralds a significant deterioration of their working conditions for little if any pay gain. Young people, particularly in the hospitality and retail industries,
are at the pointy end of industrial deregulation, and there are plenty of signs that they don’t like it.

Then there’s the environment. In his ground-breaking study of the economic costs of climate change, UK Treasury economist Sir Nicholas Stern points out that global warming has huge implications for inter-generational equality. Put simply, today’s young people (and their children) are going to have to pay dearly for the inaction of their elders on reining in carbon emissions. Climate change and the environment are issues where young people have been consistently more engaged than the denialists in the Howard Cabinet (let alone his backbench). Only in the last year has Howard even remotely started to ‘get it.’

No wonder the Government has moved so decisively this term to restrict the franchise for younger voters. Under changes to Australian Electoral Commission rules ushered in by Senator Eric Abetz last year new voters will have to be enrolled by 8:00 pm on the day the Federal election is called to be eligible to vote. With many younger voters regularly moving between seats and States, the new rules may disenfranchise hundreds of thousands.

Young people are not stupid. They know that they will have to pay for the costs of climate change and their parent’s rising medical costs, while they’re already paying more in education, housing and tax. Young voters have swung against the Howard Government, and they have plenty of good reasons to do so.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.