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Young People and Politics in Australia: an Introduction

Now, more than ever, young people require a political voice. While our next generation may understand the issues that are impacting their communities, their country and their planet, it is important that they know how to effect positive change. This means ensuring that young people have the tools required to articulate their political ideas and the capacity to engage meaningfully in the democratic processes to allow their voices to be heard. Young people’s contribution to politics is not just ideal; it is necessary for both the benefit of their civic agency and the incorporation of a vital political perspective. Understanding the mechanisms of engagement, identifying barriers and exploring evidence-based recommendations is important to improve young people’s involvement in politics and democracy.

This Special Edition in the Journal of Applied Youth Studies speaks to the topic of youth political engagement. It presents selected papers from a workshop titled: ‘The Informed Voter: Improving the Literacy of Young Australians’. This workshop was funded by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and was held in August 2019 at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney. The purpose of this workshop was to assemble researchers and practitioners from a variety of fields, to examine issues relating to the political engagement of young Australians. Presenters included academics from disciplines such as politics, sociology and youth studies as well as educators and electoral commission representatives. The keynote presentation was delivered by Australian psephologist and political commentator Antony Green.

Our own interest in this topic relates to how politics is taught to school-aged students. While undertaking research into the political views of young people, many of our participants were telling us their political knowledge was poor and that they were unsure about their capacity to participate meaningfully at an election (Laughland-Booÿ et al. 2018). They were also saying that they believed more could have been done by schools to bolster their political confidence and strengthen their understanding of democracy.

Teaching young people about politics and government has been a focus of successive Australian national governments since the 1990s. In 2008, the need for Australian school students to be become “active and informed citizens” was reaffirmed at a meeting of the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs. This group adopted the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians which lays out educational aims for Australian students.Footnote 1 Since then, the Australian Curriculum: Civics and Citizenship framework has been developed. This provides Australian educators with tools to teach democracy and civic participation to students between years 3 and 10. While guidelines and resources are provided by the Commonwealth, it is the prerogative of each Australian state or territory to decide how civics and citizenship will be taught to their students. Unfortunately, according to the results of the National Assessment Program–Civics and Citizenship (the test used to measure Australian school students’ understanding of this subject), it appears that current approaches may be failing to equip young people with this knowledge.

This Special Issue contributes to an area of scholarship which has critically engaged with young people’s experiences of civic engagement and active citizenship in schools and communities (Wood and Black 2014), challenged binary approaches to young people’s politics beyond ‘apathetic’ or ‘activist’ youth (Harris et al. 2010), interrogated youth narratives of politics and nationhood (Laughland-Booy et al. 2017), examined youth voting patterns (Laughland-Booÿ et al. 2018) and analysed the various ways young people engage with politics and elections (Pickard and Bessant 2018; Sloam and Henn 2019).

In the first article of this Special Issue, How Are Young Australians Learning About Politics at School? The Student Perspective, Zareh Ghazarian, Jacqueline Laughland-Booÿ, Chiara De Lazzari and Zlatko Skrbiš present interview data illustrating young Australian’s experiences of learning civics and citizenship at schools in the Australian state of Victoria. The researchers spoke to young people who had recently left school, asking them to reflect on their experiences engaging with the subject in their primary and secondary years. From these data, two important issues were highlighted. The first related to the participant’s perceptions of their teacher’s skill, and confidence, in delivering the subject. The accounts of these young people suggested that educators who teach civics and citizenship may require more support and personal development opportunities to help strengthen their capacity to deliver the subject. The second issue raised related to the steps needed to improve the voting confidence of young people. Essentially, these young people wanted more opportunities at school to consolidate their understanding of the Australian political and democratic system. Bridging these gaps of knowledge should be a key objective in the wider pursuit to enhance youth political engagement. As the young people themselves expressed, a lack of understanding of Australia’s political structures and how they may play a meaningful role within those structures greatly diminishes their political confidence. Equipping students with the necessary skills and information to engage is therefore paramount to ensuring young people’s political voices actually reach, and impact, the conversation.

Teachers play a crucial part in helping young people develop the skills they need to be politically engaged and informed. In the second article, Empowering Students as Citizens: Subjectification and Civic Knowledge in Civics and Citizenship Education, Adam Brodie-McKenzie explores the debates, challenges and tensions in designing and delivering effective educational programs in this space. As Brodie-McKenzie notes, the aims and purpose of civics and citizenship education has been contested, and there have been disagreements in its design and delivery. Proponents of the ‘minimal’ approach, for example, have focused on teaching young people about civic knowledge. This contrasts with the views of those who support a ‘maximal’ approach which seeks to mobilise young people to be change-makers in society. The article analyses this tension and presents an empirically grounded contribution to delivering effective civics and citizenship education. A particular focus of the paper is an exploration of how young people should be conceptualised as being citizens today, and not just citizens of tomorrow. Brodie-McKenzie also presents an insightful discussion of how this method leads to effective teaching practice and empowers young people.

In Australia, the age at which people can vote was reduced from 21 to 18 in 1973. In 2018, the Australian Greens sought to further reduce the voting age to 16 by presenting a bill in parliament. The bill did not progress further, but it did re-ignite the debate about the age at which young people should be allowed to vote. In the third article, From Denizen to Citizen: Contesting Representations of Young People and the Voting Age, Judith Bessant casts doubt on representations which frame young people as being cognitively deficient and politically illiterate. She argues that such characterisations have reinforced the belief that young people should be denied a political voice, despite young people continually demonstrating an ability to engage in politics by mobilising on policy issues. The author argues that withholding the ability to vote from young people can be viewed as an issue of justice, particularly if they feel ready to vote. The continued reliance on representations that situate young people as a demographic that ‘naturally’ lacks political ability is suggested to be damaging to both young people themselves and society. Bessant emphasises the worth of facilitating wider youth engagement as one of both moral and democratic importance.

The emergence of online technologies has brought new ways of communicating and participating in political debates. In the fourth article, New Media and Youth Political Engagement, Peter Chen and Milica Stilinovic offer a critical assessment of the impact new media is having on the political engagement of young citizens. As ‘digital natives’, young people are heavy users of new forms of communication and technology which have often been seen to enhance democratic action. The article interrogates the impact of these mediums on the political participation of young Australians. In their analysis, the authors note the existing assumptions regarding social media and young people’s engagement in political debates and examine issues such as climate change. The article explores how the online space may encourage participation but does not necessarily present equal opportunities for political socialisation. Indeed, Chen and Stilinovic demonstrate that the internet may be more closely linked to political disengagement by young people. In doing so, they highlight how opportunities to involve young people across a broader society can enhance their political engagement in the twenty-first century.

The political knowledge of young people is explored by Bruce Tranter, Zlatko Skrbiš and Jonathan Smith through the prism of climate change in the final article, Poles Apart: Political Divisions over Climate Change Among Younger Australians. Following recent global movements which prominently featured young people, it is often assumed that age determines the extent to which Australians accept anthropogenic climate change. The authors demonstrate that younger people do not necessarily know more about the issue than older Australians. By analysing data from a cohort of young Australians, the authors show that, while age is linked to attitudes towards accepting human-induced climate change, other factors also play significant roles. The authors also show how young voters who identify with the centre-right parties in Australian politics (the Liberal and National parties which have a long-lasting coalition arrangement) are also less likely to believe in anthropogenic climate change. As a result, this paper demonstrates how gender and social factors, as well as partisanship, can influence the political perspectives and knowledge of young people.

The articles in this collection construct novel approaches to conceptualising young citizens’ political understanding and involvement. They highlight the ways in which young people’s experience of civic life have been facilitated or indeed impeded by schooling, political and technological factors. Moreover, they identify opportunities to enhance current approaches and strengthen ways to enable young people to participate in democratic processes with greater confidence. This is imperative for increasing youth political engagement in ways that benefit civic identity and contribute positively to the wider socio-political landscape.

Notes

  1. In 2019 the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration was adopted by all Australian Education Ministers. This was built on the Melbourne Declaration in order to meet the needs of young Australians in contemporary society.

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Correspondence to Jacqueline Laughland-Booÿ.

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Laughland-Booÿ, J., Ghazarian, Z. Young People and Politics in Australia: an Introduction. JAYS 3, 189–192 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s43151-020-00025-1

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s43151-020-00025-1