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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Summer Series: Fabian Society Entry

A funny thing occurs at around this time each year: we enter the silly season. Pollies take their leave, nothing happens and thus, political bloggers have not a lot to say.

This being the case, it's about time to release a few pieces of general policy opinion. This week, the first annual Australian Fabian Society Race Matthews Award was announced. I'm very pleased to say that a friend and neighbour was the deserving winner of the award. The fact that I didn't win (gah) means it's about time to make some sort of use of my own entry, so here it is.

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Recently, I attended a political forum. The room, aside from my own group, was a sea of grey hair. This made the topic of discussion all the more ironic: why are young people no longer interested in politics?

It is easy for both political parties and the wider public to adopt the uncomplicated view that Australia’s youth are disinterested, ignorant, and unwilling to participate. Instead, there is much evidence that young people are passionate, concerned about their world, and enthuisastic about changing it. Less evident, however, is the notion that they see formal politics as the true agent of change.

Why is this? Firstly, we live in an age in which brands and lifestyles are the common currency. Politicians are rarely depicted in television or film as inspirational figures, but as corrupt, lazy and bombastic (the character of `Diamond Joe' Quimby, the local mayor of The Simpsons, springs to mind). Activists are regularly shown as courageous battlers who fight for what they believe in - for example, the film Erin Brockovich. While mainstream political participation falls, young people are joining charities and activist groups in record numbers.

Mainstream political coverage is often gimmicky, negative, and shallow. Though this reflects the behaviour of some politicians, the full palette of political experience, much less the mechanics of policymaking, remain a mystery to most people. In political reality, there are no ideal solutions. If funding is increased in one area, it is necessarily taken from another. If we pay less tax, we receive fewer services. The inability to impress such issues upon the public makes it ever more difficult for governments to sell their policies.

Meanwhile, politically based shows such as the ABC’s Insiders and Channel 9’s Sunday are unapologetically aimed at a middle-aged choir of the converted. I'm not suggesting that the solution is that Neighbours include a subplot about a rank and file pre-selection, but a news programme that simply and attactively depicts recent political developments may have potential to ensure young adults are better informed. It seems odd that similar shows exist, but only for younger viewers, such as the ABC’s Behind the News. As a result, many teenagers derive their only understanding of politics through the attractive but distorted lense of satire.

Let’s return to that forum. Amongst my group were a number of people involved in party politics - myself included. Others could be described as `lapsed’ - former members of parties who had been willing to participate and contribute but soon became disillusioned by a party structure that had not changed for decades. This is a common complaint amongst young people who do join political parties. Many enter with high hopes, but leave feeling that their ability to affect policy is minimal. Such complaints are not limited to younger party members.

Everyone in my group had one in common: political blogging..The advent of blogging, or keeping an internet diary, is emblematic of the dilemma facing modern politics. Australian youth are better acquainted with the notion of direct democracy than any generation before them. At the click of a button, they may vote in an online poll, elect their favourite `Australian Idol' contestant, or start a blog.. Non-government activist organisations such as the ACTU, GetUp! and Project SafeCom have already learned to harness new technologies to channel the enthusiasm of young people. The internet is immediate. The voice of a blogger will, in some cases, resonate around the world, though the same voice may be inaudible in say, a party branch meeting. This demonstrates not a disinterest in politics, but an inability to find relevant methods of participation within the current framework. Unless this is recognised, parties and governments face an ever-increasing crisis of relevance.

Anyone who has visited a well-written blog will find a crucible of intelligent, meaty debate, and a great sense of community between authors and readers. Thus, the notion of incorporating such things as blogs and wikis (collectively composed databases of information) into the usual practice of party political activity seems well overdue. The worst thing about being young is being misunderstood and disregarded. A truly innovative government or party might provide internet forums in which to discuss pending issues, the results of which could be forwarded directly to the relevant Minister or Shadow Minister - who may themselves even be online to `attend' such meetings.

Currently, only a tiny of proportion of Australian politicians have realised the enormous potential of the internet to humanise politics - to give those whom they represent a voice, and to explicate the political process. In some cases, it is political parties themselves who have discouraged greater online participation; an absurd and counterproductive state of affairs. The NSW Government's decision to solicit online public comment on its State Plan represents a step in the right direction; while NSW MLC Penny Sharpe recently became the first politician in Australian history to formally submit public comment on a policy to Parliament in the form of a blog. However, there is still plenty more that can be done.

How can we complain that Australia’s youth are refusing to participate in politics when they are offered a system that almost actively excludes them? Change is difficult, especially as those who wield power usually obtain it under a system that clearly benefits them. Nevertheless, those participating in the current system cannot simply wait until everyone else changes. For the future health of Australian democracy, it is imperative that many outdated systems be rejuvenated, and the tools technology has placed at our disposal are better used. Until the need for a new approach to participation at all levels is accepted and acted upon, we run the serious risk of seeing Australian politics run by a small and unrepresentative political elite, rather than a new, talented and enthusiastic generation.

6 Comments:

At 11:04 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

why no young people?

why waste time talking about someone else's guild activities? young people don't waste time talking about carpentry, either.

ordinary people are utterly incapable of influencing national or state policy because all the levers of power are in the hands of the political party. yes, there's just one. many different factions, true enough- but so what?

very sensibly, young people concentrate on areas of their life where they can influence the result.

a democracy has direct election of officers of state, and rule by the people through citizen initiated referendum. australia is nothing like a democracy, except in the modern "doublethink/newspeak" sense. consequently, only 'groupies' waste time on simulated political activities.

most young people have better sense, or more self respect.

you can get more of this kind of rant at www.tartarus.blog.com

 
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