I’ll be voting for the first time this Saturday.
It’s something I’m looking forward to. I believe we have one of the best political systems in the world.
Many of our politicians spend their lifetimes working for Australia and the public good. They work insane hours, they are always ‘on’, and they regularly have to put their family and personal life second.
Over the last year, UNICEF Australia’s Young Ambassadors – of which I am one - have met with and listened to over 1500 children and young people from across the country and surveyed over 1800 people aged 14 to 19 years.
We have done this in an effort to understand their views and perspectives on the policies and initiatives that affect their lives, as well as on the leaders, including politicians, who are making decisions that impact them.
This project has taken on particular significance this year, given the looming election.
What we heard was concerning.
"The majority of children and young people have lost trust in Australia's political system and our federal politicians"
We commonly heard that, in their view, political cynicism, dishonesty and various incidents featuring questionable practices have overshadowed the admirable side of politics.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed by Australia’s young people. Again and again, young people told us that they feel like politicians are not being honest with them and that they don’t listen to what people actually want.
Their view is generally that our represented leaders are acting in their own self-interest and that they don’t keep their promises.
Of those surveyed, two in three first time voters (66 per cent of 18 to 19-year-olds) say they have a low or very low level of trust in Australia’s federal politicians.
While I genuinely believe people do go into politics because they have a vision for the country that they think will make it better, sometimes it seems that the loyalties of some politicians are first to their own career, then to their party, and then, lastly, to people they represent.
That’s not the order in which those priorities should be. Our system is only representative if your principals don’t change once you have the power to act on them.
Too often, our politicians seem to lack the courage to speak up for us – and the issues the people they represent feel strongly about. The constant leadership changes, spills and backstabbing highlight one of the uglier aspects of our political system.
It gives the impression that politicians are not in government to pass legislation or to improve the country. It very much seems like they are just trying to advance their own careers. In a system based on participation, we can’t afford to alienate people.
Witnessing this happen is not only deeply depressing, but also harmful for our systems and for our country.
John Howard was the last Prime Minister to complete a full term – he left in 2007. Given that was over a decade ago, that means I was seven the last time we had a Prime Minister who completed a full term.
As one 14-year-old boy from Epping Scouts in NSW put it: “It used to take a lot of time to change prime ministers, but now we do that every couple of months.”
"Young people are really disenfranchised within the system. But we still want to be involved. We still want to be able to express our opinions and have them listened to"
Just over half of the new voters we surveyed (18 to 19-year-olds) said there needs to be ‘stability in leadership’. Seventy-one per cent said politicians need to keep their promises.
I’d love to see youth participation in politics.
Though we often see discussion and debate about lowering of the voting age, this participation could be better achieved by having a consultation process with young people about policy areas that affect them – things like education, the foster care system, climate change policy.
This is, of course, more easily said than done. But there is a significant difference between including young people to fill a quota, to tick a box, and giving people genuine influence.
There is a significant difference between including consultations with young people to hit a quota, or to tick off a cohort, and including them as real stakeholders in your policy decisions - to actually give those conversations some weight and allow them legitimate influence, where relevant, in your decision making.
Our A Climate for Change: 2019 Young Ambassador Report puts forward a Platform for action, which includes a recommendation for a regional youth summit, with young people participating from Australia and our Pacific nations neighbours, about taking real, meaningful action on climate change.
Other recommendations address violence against children and young people, improving student-teacher relationships and student engagement at school, development of a national youth wellbeing strategy and addressing child poverty in Australia. Each of these recommendations incorporates the opportunity for children and young people to participate in the development of solutions.
We need young people to understand and engage with our political system, so that they are able to make an informed decision when they reach voting age and head to the polling booths to make their decisions about who should lead them and our country.
It is my firm view, and that of my fellow Young Ambassadors, that making a concerted effort to engage with young people will go a long way to regaining the trust that politicians of all political persuasions are so swiftly losing.
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