Putting the politics back into ‘Politics’: James Arvanitakis

This week, the University of Western Sydney’s Whitlam Institute released a report looking at how young people feel about Australian politics, Young People Imagining a New Democracy. Before going any further, I should declare that I was the lead author on the report.

This report attempted to answer two broad questions: What are the shortcomings of our democracy? And, how can we make democratic processes more attractive? The aim was to confront the myth that young people have no interest in politics – a commonly held belief that is simply untrue (if you need convincing, visit the CPD offices to see a room full of young, politically-active people, most of whom are volunteers).

Both national and international research has found clear evidence to support this. Young people are interested in politics, but they are turning their backs on formal political processes (or capital ‘P’ politics). Reasons for disengagement include a feeling that their efforts are not appreciated and a sense that no one is listening, a general distrust of politicians and Politics, and a belief that Politics is disconnected from everyday experiences.

This leads us to ask the question, how can political interest and Political disengagement exist simultaneously? The answer is that we are seeing a change in the methods of political involvement. No longer are young people joining political parties and attending branch meetings; instead they are undertaking politics in everyday (or small ‘p’) politics. Issues such as climate change are interpreted as challenges to be addressed by everyday actions, discussed with friends and family both personally and across e-networks, and to be addressed at national and international forums. These challenges are here and now, for us all to discuss, not ‘over there’, monopolised by Political heavyweights.

These findings give reason for both alarm and hope. Young people are clearly concerned about politics and eager to be involved, but the current Political processes don’t engage young people. In response to this connundrum, the report makes a number of recommendations and proposals, including the need to stop considering young people as ‘citizens-in-waiting’ and make consulting young people part of the policy development process.

The report also recommends a radical revision of civics education. The Howard Government’s civics and citizenship education initiative clearly failed: 92% of Year 6 students and 60% of Year 10 students failed to acquire the minimum proficiency levels.

Rather than portraying politics as something to be ‘done’ later, civics education should encourage students to explore their passions and ‘do’ politics now. This may mean ‘politicising’ the classroom and giving teachers the freedom to express their opinions in the hopes of encouraging open and honest discussions.

Democracy is not a once and for all aspect of society: we must continue to monitor its health or it will wither.