Gen Why? Study calls for fresh approach to tap into active youth citizenship

Date: 05/05/2009

Young people are changing the way they engage with politics and Politics is going to have to change as a consequence.

This is the central finding of 'Young People Imagining a New Democracy', an 18-month project led by the Whitlam Institute within the University of Western Sydney and generously supported by the Foundation for Young Australians. The third and final report of that project is being publicly released today, Tuesday 5 May, 2009.

The discussion paper "Putting the Politics back into politics: Young people and democracy in Australia" articulates a clear message for our political leaders and policy makers from young Australians: stop considering us 'citizens-in-waiting'; give us the chance to participate in genuine political decision-making; and don't just listen to what we have to say, but show us that you've heard it.

Director of the Whitlam Institute, Mr Eric Sidoti, says the paper proposes a fresh approach to engaging young people in the political life of the nation.

"That approach stresses that many young people are politically active and many more are willing to be. The key is to ensure that young people are taken seriously and that political processes and decisions give due weight to their contribution," he says.

Specifically, the report recommends a national research program be funded to further investigate the democratic engagement of young people; monitor their attitudes and behaviour; devise strategies to lift youth participation; and table findings in federal parliament annually.

The research also notes that schools-based civics education programs are failing to equip young people with the tools, knowledge and experience to promote and encourage active citizenship. The missing ingredient is the link between knowledge and the experience of effecting change.

'Young People Imagining a New Democracy' is a collaborative project between the Whitlam Institute and the UWS Office of University Engagement, which has been generously supported by the Foundation for Young Australians.

The project has comprised of 18 months of literature reviews, research, open forums and ten focus groups involving 52 young people from across NSW, including the inner-city and western suburbs of Sydney and regional areas including the Central Coast and Riverina Districts.

The final discussion paper has been written by UWS researcher Dr James Arvanitakis and PhD candidate Siobhan Marren.

Mr Sidoti says the findings have significant implications for the future of democratic participation in Australia.

"Through this project we have been hearing the same messages being reinforced: by the research, and by young people themselves. These young people aren't prepared to simply play along. They are already doing things their own way, choosing the causes they will support, and setting their own expectations of politicians, the established parties and the responsiveness of our political systems more generally," Mr Sidoti says.

"Young Australians feel increasingly alienated and marginalised by traditional types of 'capital P' politics, which they see as lacking relevance in their lives. They prefer instead to put their energies in grassroots community movements and social causes, where they feel they can make a difference and bring about real change."

According to Mr Sidoti: "There are enough clues emerging from the research to suggest that for Political parties it may well be a case of adapt or die."

The report also found that tech-savvy young people want to be 'switched on' to politics through new technology; using it to generate real, two-way dialogue and stimulate debate.

It recommends that governments, political leaders and decision makers consider the significant contribution that young people can make to civic and political life through information and communication technologies (ICT). ICT initiatives need to go beyond 'information only' web pages or 'add-on' Facebook and MySpace sites - rather, it should include mechanisms like digital storytelling, online workshops, petitions and forums.

Mr Sidoti says: "This project reveals a lot of optimism for the future among young Australians. The challenge for political decision-makers is to tap into young people's sense of agency, hope and activism, and find ways to make civic participation relevant, inclusive and challenging - giving them a real platform to contribute to the political process in a meaningful way."

"The guts of the 'Young People Imagining a New Democracy' project is that Australian democracy is evolving. The challenge is whether we allow it to simply mutate or do we embark on a considered debate about democratic reform. If it's the latter than we will have to find ways to keep young people close to the centre of that debate and equip them to engage in it."

To download a copy of the project's final Discussion Paper visit:

A media kit containing additional information on the project can be downloaded from:

Note to media: Director of the Whitlam Institute, Eric Sidoti; Report author, Dr James Arvanitakis; Literature Review author Philippa Collin; and a selection of young Australians involved in the 'Young People Imagining a New Democracy' project are available for interview.



Media Officer

Danielle Roddick
02 9678 7086, 0414 308 701