Opinion piece: 'Power-shifting the political status quo', by Dr James Arvanitakis

Date: 12/07/2009

Recently I was invited to speak at a community-based meeting about the future of democracy in Australia. After discussing some of the trends that confront our democracy - both positive and negative - I was asked an all too common question: "Why are young people not interested in politics?"

While a simple question, it is one that essentially misses the point. This is because research shows that young people are interested in politics, but are turning their back on formal political processes - or what is described as big 'P' Politics. This is because they either feel that their efforts are not appreciated or such Politics seem so disconnected from everyday realities, involvement seems pointless. Further, there seems to be a general distrust of politicians and Politics, as well as a sense that not only is no one listening, but real policy alternatives are being ignored in favour of the status quo.

Such trends were highlighted in a recently published report comissioned by the Whitlam Institute, based at the University of Western Sydney, looking at democracy and young people. The research showed that young people believed politicians were less interested in outcomes than on being 're-elected'. Importantly, we found that while such trends are accentuated amongst young people, they are evident across the broader population.

Such attitudes towards Australia's democracy can best be described as a 'citizenship deficit': that is, while people are interested, current practices undermine our sense of political engagement and empowerment. This places our sense of citizenship in deficit as we feel no sense of obligation because the system seems to be ignoring us. Consequently, the question that we need to be asking is, 'How is democracy failing?'

So while young people may be politically engaged and active, they are changing the way this occurs. Rather than taking part in Politics by joining political parties and attending branch meetings - a prospect that make even the most seasoned political activist cringe - we see a different politics emerge: a politics of the everyday (or small 'p' politics).

Nowhere is this passion for politics more evident, nor the disconnection between what is seen is an everyday reality ignored by formal Politics, than in the Power Shift conference organised by the Autralian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC). The AYCC is a coalition of 27 youth organisations that have united to take action towards what is seen as the greatest challenge facing our generation: climate change. The Coalition has organised a three-day climate conference that is estimated to attract some 1,500 young climate activists.

This is not a political gathering that fits any standard model: there has been as much effort put into securing politicians to speak on climate issues, as there has been in organising bands to perform at a concert; as many sessions on 'green jobs' as there are on establishing a green future no matter what politicians say or fail to do.

Power Shift is an example of how young people are practicing this 'politics of the everyday'. That is, the politics of my life and the community around me - and in a globalised world - this community goes well beyond a local suburb and crosses borders. In this way, 'climate change'; is not a challenge 'over there' to be addressed only in Canberra or Washington, but occurring here and now. Climate change is seen as part of the everyday and needs to be addressed as such.

In terms of formal Politics, Power Shift may not rate a mention in comparison to a beat-up Mazda. But it echoes the findings of our research: that young people are responding to challenges in a way that must be acknowledged though is rarely recognised as relevant. Practices include everything from organising boycotts, 'buy-cotts', online petitions, as well as direct actions by altering their own behaviours. In so doing, they are turning to 'new global' leaders such as Al Gore and Tim Flannery rather than politicians who are seen to be unwilling or unable to respond. While this type of engagement can be considered positive, it means that we are seeing an entire generation losing faith in our political systems and our leaders - a trend that must be addressed.

While events like Power Shift present us with insights into the passion that young people still have for politics, it also has clear implications for the future of our democracy: there is a need to address the issue of a citizenship deficit or risk increasing levels of disengagement and frustration towards formal Politics. Young people will continue to lose faith in our democracy unless we see political reform.

The response from many will be, 'that if it ain't broke, why fix it?' The truth is, that while our democracy may be able to handle shocks from a financial crisis to long-term environmental disasters such as droughts, slow emerging trends are like a slow, undetected leak. If ignored, the consequences could be deeply damaging to our community.

So what are the solutions to such trends? The first is to take the opinions of this significant section of the population seriously: stop considering young people as 'citizens-in-waiting'. Rather, give them a chance to participate in genuine political decision-making: take their opinions seriously and give due weight to their contribution.

The second is to not treat the process of engaging young people as an 'add on' or consult them separately. Rather, such engagement should be embedded in consultation processes that include young people as part of a broader constituency and meets young people in the spaces they are already engaging in. One way this could happen is to place government reports in the hands of young people, and working through the key findings with them in virtual community meetings. Once this occurs, the space should be opened up where such papers are interrogated and governments are required to respond to the recommendations - not necessarily accept them, but take them seriously.

The third recommendation is a radical revision of civics education. The previous federal government spent $31 millions on a civics and citizenship education program with a clear objective of creating 'active citizenship'. The results from the 2004 national testing of students clearly demonstrates a key policy failure and misdirection of funds on the part of the Howard government. While the content is strong, the reasons for the failure is in both under-resourced teachers and the fact that the content considers politics as something to be engaged in later on in life. Rather, young people should be encouraged to explore their passions and see how they can work through various political processes to make change.

This process means that it may be time to 'politicise' the classroom, giving teachers the freedom to express their opinions. This does not necessarily mean that teacher's will push pre-determined agendas or 'political barrows', but that opinions need to encouraged and expressed openly. Politics is, after all, an important part of life and something we need to understand and engage in. In so doing, we show a belief that young people have the nous to be able to discuss and debate Politics with the ability to make up their own minds. The incredible response to Power Shift shows that this is already happening in class rooms, and to pretend otherwise, undermines these efforts.

Democracy is not a once and for all aspect of any society. Even in a robust community like Australia, slow trends that occur may slip under the radar. No matter where you stand on the issue of climate change, Power Shift highlights the need to alter the system to engage young people and take their efforts seriously. Otherwise our citizenship deficit will not be addressed. We may then find that the very people we expect to solve future problems may either lack the necessary skills, or be unprepared to accept the challenges because they have been ignored for far too long.
Dr James Arvanitakis is a University of Western Sydney academic and the co-author of 'Young People Imagining a New Democracy', a collaborative project between the Whitlam Institute and the UWS Office of University Engagement. He is one of the guest speakers at Power Shift.



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