In a nation where voting is compulsory, it seems that not all of the entire eligible population has turned out for the event. Miran Hosny investigates why the younger generations are not turning up to rock the vote.
Long queues begin on the narrow pathways and wind around bushes, fences and miniature benches of the school grounds. A forgotten packet of chips rustles across the empty playground as the line slowly shuffles forward.
The people ranged along the cement footpath are awkward in their miniature surroundings, like giants visiting dwarf town. The city, in this case, is a primary school, the people voters.
Throughout every election in schools and halls across the country, Australians over the age of 18 inhabit similar scenes, as they await their opportunity to have a say in the country’s politics. In a nation where voting is compulsory, it seems that the entire eligible population has turned out for the event.
However, it hasn’t.
A significant fraction of that eligible populace is visibly missing in action. To them, Election Day is like any other.
Mandatory it may be, a considerable number of young Australians are not enrolled with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). Whether deliberately or by default, these youths have chosen not to have a say in the governing of their nation.
Phil Diak, national spokesperson for the AEC says, “It is fairly well known that the younger you are the less likely you are to be enrolled. One in two 18-year-olds are not enrolled to vote, and many 17-year-olds are not aware that they too can enrol.”
The figure is a common one throughout the states and territories of Australia, with 50 per cent of youth in NSW also not enrolled.
“Currently half of the 400,000 eligible people who are not enrolled to vote in NSW are 18 to 25-year -olds and the trend is that this figure is increasing with each election,” says Richard Carroll, NSW Electoral Commission spokesperson.
But Shadow Minister for Youth and Sports, Steven Ciobo, believes that it is not lack of interest that fuels this apparent apathy. He says it is merely a matter of bad timing.
“I think that for many young people, enrolling to vote is not typically high on their list of things to do, unless it’s an election year,” he says.
“Enrolment tends to be at the same time as most people are leaving high school, and at that time many of them are making decisions about careers, relationships, what car they want to buy or whether they will move out of home.”
A national study funded by the Australian Research Council revealed similar conclusions.
“Voting is not seen as part of transition to adulthood by students,” the 2009 Youth Electoral Study (YES) stated. “Attending ‘schoolies’, obtaining a drivers license and leaving school are all far more important rites of passage.”
Ciobo makes the point that young citizens have a vested interest in the election process.
“I think young Australians are excited about the opportunity to vote. In a way it is a chance for them to express themselves about the future of the country. For many, it is their first opportunity to do that and they relish it.”
The Shadow Minister’s positivity stems from his opinion that the younger generation has more invested in the future of Australia than older voters.
Student activist David Barrow similarly points to the necessity that young Australians make their views known.
The former President of the National Union of Students is himself a young voter, and his involvement with student politics has lent him a greater insight into the attitudes of his peer group.
“Young people feel invincible; the last thing we’re thinking about is our long term interest. As you get older, you have other things you want to safeguard.”
But understanding their reasons doesn’t make 23-year-old Barrow’s opinion of his non-voting cohort any higher.
“Even people who put a line through the paper have more courage than people who do not bother voting,” he says.
“If you don’t get off your arse and vote, you’ve only got yourself to blame if Tony Abbot gets elected. It is relevant; it’s your life, get into it.”
Australian National University expert Aaron Martin thinks that young people just don’t see voting as very useful to them.
The Political Science and International Relations lecturer explains that while older voters can see the importance of elections, young Australians have less motivation to vote.
“If you think about our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, they could see a clear connection between voting and life, for example in relation to war. [For] young people, there definitely is a link but it is a little more difficult to see,” he explains.
22-year-old Andrew has not registered to vote.
“Unless the Government makes policies that inconvenience us such as the proposed internet filter I’d say most don’t really care who’s in power, or value their vote.”
Luke, 20, also unregistered, was not old enough to vote in the previous Federal election. With plans to travel abroad he doubts that he will be doing so this time round.
“I’d rather not have to worry about going out of my way to vote for someone I don’t relate to.”
Aaron Martin feels that politicians should put more effort into encouraging youth to join the democratic process, and points to Barack Obama’s successful US election campaign.
“Obama did not accept conventional ideas that you can’t mobilise young people, and that’s part of the reason why he won.”
“That’s an important lesson for Australian politicians who think it’s a waste of time to try and mobilise young people, or that they’re just not interested.”
For Martin, the best way to reach a people is to use their specific tools of communication, and that is what the AEC should do, he says.
“Making it easier to register by providing an online system where it could be done automatically could be effective.”
The New South Wales Electoral Commission (NSWEC) plan to do this for their new smart electoral system to be launched at the next State election in March 2011.
“We understand that young people use SMS and email as a matter of course, so we plan to implement such modern communication methods to contact young voters,” says commission spokesperson Richard Carroll.