The Young and the Voiceless


The gods of democracy must be most displeased. The candidates for the 2007 Federal election are acting like small children at a birthday party who have eaten far too much sugar. They shout and scream to get attention, ignore questions that will get them into trouble, and attack each other mercilessly

But what really drives the democratic divinities to distraction are the groups politicians disregard: in particular the young and homeless, a group already disenfranchised.

Some might say that this is the nature of politics, and, besides, is it really feasible for everyone, the young and inexperienced especially, to have a voice at election time? ‘It sounds like a simple question,’ Ed Coper, campaigns co-ordinator from GetUp!, says, ‘but a healthy and vibrant democracy should involve everyone in decisions that affect them in an active rather than passive way.’

GetUp! is an independent, online community that tries to bring participation back into democracy. Ed says that, ‘at the ballot box, people should get to pick the person who best represents their views or interests.’ The problem for young people, and especially for those who are struggling, is that not many people seem to be on their side or campaigning with them in mind.

Daniel, 18, is enrolled to vote but ‘couldn’t care less about the election.’ Voting to him is a waste of time because ‘the leaders these days don’t really do anything in our best interests, it’s more about theirs,’ he says. Homeless and unemployed, Daniel has a crooked mohawk haircut that looks like it was clipped by one of his friends, and he wears a worn, black hoody a few sizes too big for him.

Daniel’s speech is strong and confident, and he knows more about how the world works than someone in his situation or of his age is supposed to. ‘I don’t have a voice in mainstream politics,’ he spits out, matter of fact. ‘I feel like there’s a big sign above my head that says Immature Adolescent Who Bums Around For A Living.’

This annoys Daniel because he has clear ideas on what politicians should be doing. ‘I remember seeing an ad on television where it said, œKeep Melbourne great.  Melbourne’s not great,’ he says in the weary tones of an old man. ‘I wish they could live our lives and see what we see. Melbourne’s a shit hole. I’d love for them to fix it up. I’d love for there to be no homeless people, no arguments, fights or crap like that.’

To Hayley, Daniel’s frustration at anything political is not particularly surprising. Hayley works in the Melbourne CBD at Citymission’s Frontyard office, where a number of services are on offer for young homeless and disadvantaged people. She sits in an intake room that is used to assess ‘clients’ and work out what help the service can offer them. It has a large table plonked in the middle, with posters and flyers for other services jostling for space on the walls.

In early August, Hayley, 23, was involved in running an enrolment day for the young people she works with. Fourteen turned up and that was mainly due to complimentary food on offer. ‘The old line about œcome in and enrol to vote  wasn’t that catchy.’ The reason why, Hayley explains, is the lack of services and opportunities available to young people. ‘They aren’t naïve. They know where the funding comes from for these services. It’s a case of you don’t care about us, so why would we care about you,’ she says.

According to Hayley, most of the young people she deals with leave home because of a breakdown in relations between them and their parents. Some do return, but for those who don’t life is neither simple nor easy without the support of family. Most have to deal with Centrelink. While this organisation may be a young, homeless job seeker’s only means of survival, it also forces them into Mutual Obligation, with the threat of losing their welfare benefit for non-compliance.

As the Federal Government knows, this scheme can hardly be called a success. An independent study the Government commissioned in 2003, showed that two out of three people made to participate in Mutual Obligation do not find work.

If a young homeless person does get a job, they still have to pay the same amount of money as adults for rent, bills and food, even though their average wages are usually far less. If you think ‘working families’ have it bad, consider a 15 or 16-year-old working at McDonald’s for less than 10 dollars an hour and trying to make ends meet.

Peter, 20, knows what it’s like to struggle to pay the bills. Earlier this year, he came to Victoria from Tasmania because ‘my prospects are better here.’ He has been using the services at Frontyard to get established in Melbourne and has just landed a bar job and a place to live in St Kilda. When it comes to politics, Peter is quite knowledgeable. He’s never been a big fan of John Howard, but ‘credit where credit is due, he’s a good leader, has a strong Party behind him and is a very cunning politician.’

Kevin Rudd, on the other hand, ‘has everything that Simon Crean, Mark Latham and Kim Beazley lacked, and Howard seems a bit shaken up by it,’ Peter says.

But knowing about politics doesn’t mean he likes what he sees. Peter thinks politicians have their priorities wrong ‘they put more emphasis on tax and mortgages than they do on homeless people.’ He also thinks politicians have a bad habit of ‘treating young people like statistics.’ Peter sums up politicians in election mode pretty well.

Stepping back, for a moment, from the big-spending campaigns, showy launches and high-priced attack ads, the young and homeless are still struggling to survive.

Yes the gods of democracy are most displeased.

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.