Engaging young people in politics


Much has been written of the internal operations of the ALP since John Faulkner, Steve Bracks and Bob Carr handed down their report in 2010. Everybody is an expert and one needn't go far for advice on what must be done to arrest the slide in Party membership. It has been an intense period of introspection that has borne recommendations which, if implemented wholeheartedly, will undoubtedly serve to restore some faith in Labor.  But not all of that which ails us is of our own making. More than ever, our Party is swimming against a tide of generational change which carries with it challenges farther reaching and more complex than those unearthed by the Faulkner-Bracks-Carr review.

Unfortunately, these challenges cannot be resolved by amending Party rules or branch structures.  They will not be assuaged by a more inclusive, transparent pre-selection process or by giving members the right to elect delegates to national conference - although these reforms are crucial.

These challenges are societal, not procedural, and can only be addressed incrementally, through education and a renewed focus on teaching the workings of our political system and the value that still exists in being an active part of it.

The lingering shadow on the x-ray of our Party is this: even if the ALP were the most transparent, democratic and professionally run organisation in operation, there is a growing number of young people who would be no more inclined to join it.  

I am sure it has never been particularly fashionable to join a political party in Australia. It certainly isn't now. I must concede however, that tying oneself to an organisation that, on occasion, has sought to significantly alter the status quo, runs somewhat congruent to the easy-going nature Australians hold dear.  Of course, that other, worthier, characteristic with which we describe ourselves: egalitarian - has perhaps, at times, been strong enough to override our distaste for partisan politics and inspire us to nail our colours to the mast.

What cannot be questioned however, is that, nowadays, people are finding even less reason to join a political party – although not all the blame lies at the feet of the parties themselves.  People are intrinsically less willing to join non-work organisations, whether they are political, community or charity.  There are several contributing factors here.  First, people are time-poor, often with both parents in fulltime work.  Second - and despite these work pressures - life is good.  That is to say, our standard of living is objectively better, which makes us a little more apathetic and unwilling to get off the couch; especially for a cause removed from our own daily lives and the betterment of which will not result in any personal gain.  Which brings me to the third factor (and the factor I would like to explore): selfishness.  Whilst there are exceptions to every rule, the younger generations (and I include my own in this sweeping generalisation) are less inclined to give of their time than older generations are.

Having been born on the seam of generations X and Y I have seen a troubling shift in the way those who participate in community causes are treated by their peers. Perhaps, once upon a time, admiration for these activists was expressed openly.   Certainly, in my teens and early twenties, there was no outward display of admiration or respect from peers for those of us who joined political, community or even charity groups.  Instead, our activism was met with incredulity and we were treated like a curiosity; a source of entertainment rather than inspiration.  But, despite this inability to understand why we bothered, there was a begrudging respect, albeit rarely expressed, for our intent. Buried beneath the apathy there was at least acknowledgement of the value in what we tried to achieve. It was just very uncool to try.

Fast-forward to today and that begrudging acknowledgement of the value in community activism seems to have been extinguished. An alarmingly small number of young people are moved to involve themselves in their communities.  More than ever before this is a generation that asks: "What's in it for me?” And those of us who are active in our communities will tell you the answer is almost always: "nothing".

The implications for the Party are immense. Generational change, by definition, is not something that can be undone overnight, and the longer it continues unchecked, and young people shun our Party, the harder the task of attracting them becomes.  I attended my first branch meeting in country Victoria when I was 16. I was the youngest person at the meeting and almost eighteen years later that would still be the case. And it's not isolated to regional areas.  Much more recently I have sat in metropolitan branch meetings where this was also true.  It would seem that in the eighteen years that has passed since my first branch meeting, the gulf between those we want to join our Party, and those who are already part of it, has only grown wider. The longer this occurs the less appealing it is for young people to join.

There is no quick fix for this problem.  But as I read more and more critiques of the ALP, and lectures from the commentariat on what we must do, the more I am moved to take up a pen in its defence. The Bracks-Carr-Faulkner review highlighted some key reforms needed within the Party and we should implement them.  Indeed, we should do everything in our power to make the ALP as ethical, professional and attractive as we can - undoubtedly this will go some way to restoring faith and attracting new members.  But the underlying problem is not of our making, and will only worsen if we fail to furnish young Australians with a sense of community mindedness; an appreciation not just of one's rights, but of one's responsibilities too.

This challenge falls to our own progressive part of the ALP, for it is only through an education that teaches the value of these things that we can hope to reverse this trend.   Conservatives will accuse us of pushing a left wing agenda, but what we seek to instill in future generations is not political ideology, but a desire to be active in their communities and the insight to appreciate the personal satisfaction that can be gained from doing it.  As long as politics remains an effective way of bringing positive change to our communities, then young people will once again see the value in joining our Party.  

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