The Young Voters Theory


With the election finally moving into its ultimate week, the weekend papers took the opportunity to polish up some of the likely explanatory narratives for the coming Rudd Ascendency.

One of the foremost is the Young Voters Theory: the theory that the approaching Rudd landslide is driven primarily by under-35s.

George Megalogenis wrote a piece in this weekend’s Australian entitled ‘Rudd’s youth appeal trumps PM’:

KEVIN Rudd maintains a staggering primary-vote lead of 750,000 among voters aged 18-34, and this group alone could deliver power to Labor next Saturday.

Megalogenis has been crunching ABS Census data all year and has identified some terrifying figures for the Coalition:

When the latest Newspoll is translated to reflect the number of 18-34s on the electoral roll, Labor is ahead by about 750,000 primary votes and also leads by around 78,000 primary votes in the 35-49 age bracket, while the Coalition is in front by 60,000 with those aged 50-plus.

Over at the Australian Financial Review , Lyndall Crisp has a two-page spread on the ‘The young and the restless: how will they vote?’ Crisp’s article features an interview with two swinging young voters and the obligatory expert comments from a range of academics, market researchers and pollsters. Many of these were of an embarrassingly generic ‘Gen Y thinks this’ nature. But buried deep into the article there was actually some mention of youth policy.

This is thanks to the University of Sydney’s Ariadne Vromen, who has a distinguished publication record tracking many of the political myths about young voters. Crisp writes:

In the past 11 years, Vromen points out, the Federal Government abolished the Minister for Youth Affairs and the Parliamentary Secretary, and funds for youth advocacy were cancelled.

As Mark Bahnisch and myself have both pointed out in previous articles (and here’s another relevant piece by Mark here), there are a range of other Howard Era policies that have adversely affected young people or indeed manifestly discriminated against them.

Work Choices has consistently been shown to be one of the most important issues in the under 35 demographic. To take just one data point, a March 2007 Newspoll which looked the impact of Work Choices on a spectrum of age-demographics, 44 per cent of 18-34s thought that Work Choices would make them personally worse off, while a 55 per cent majority thought the legislation would be bad for the economy. In their May 2007 paper, ‘Did Work Choices impact on the NSW election results?‘, Ben Spies-Butcher and Shaun Wilson of Macquarie University concluded that it did:

Put plainly, seats with younger voters and more working families the voter blocs most worried about WorkChoices stayed with Labor.

The Young Voters Theory is a particularly seductive explanation for Howard’s downfall because it dovetails so neatly with the (largely spurious) ‘Generation wars‘ theories of Gen Y vs the Baby Boomers and the ‘It’s Time’ narrative about Howard.

The truth is far more complex and compelling. While young voters have swung decisively against Howard, so too have the Baby Boomers and indeed many older voters, as Megalogenis points out and many of the polls confirm. While not as dramatic as amongst young people, these swings are still significant.

For me, one of the most interesting anecdotal moments of the campaign so far was the Four Corners footage of the Prime Minister on the ground campaigning in marginal Lindsay, in Western Sydney. While Jonathon Holmes’s report focussed on his five bell-weather swinging voters, there were some dramatic moments captured where a number of young people heckle the PM. In contrast, a smiling Kevin Rudd is treated like a rock-star by a group of secondary-age female students. The Prime Minister is not thought of with anything like that kind of affection by most young Australians.

Even so, the most important effect of the young voters theory at this election, if a strong narrative to this effect does indeed emerge in the print media and amongst policy makers, is the greater attention that might then be given to the policy issues associated with younger voters. These have been sorely neglected during the Howard years as the Coalition has continued to shower tax benefits and budget-time handouts on older demographics.

Climate change, education, industrial relations, taxation and housing are all areas in which the policy settings during the Howard years have moved significantly against the interests of young people – generally to the benefit of their elders. If the Young Voters Theory produces more attention on the policy issues which affect generational inequality, this will be a welcome thing.

This is an edited version of a post on’s election blog PollieGraph.

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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.