Australia’s youngest senator says our democracy is in desperate need of an overhaul—which includes lowering the voting age to ensure youth voices are heard in parliament.
WA Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John’s call follows results from the latest round of the National Assessment Program for Civics and Citizenship, which showed that a record-low 38 per cent of year 10 students have a “proficient” level of understanding of our political system.
He says no single change will be enough to keep young people involved.
“There is a need for Australian democracy to reform itself to allow greater access for young people to the democratic process,” he said.
“That involves lowering the voting age, that involves increasing the educational emphasis on democratic literacy, and it also involves opening up new pathways so that young people can make sure that their issues are placed on the political agenda.”
Senator Steele-John said changing the curriculum would be the best place to start:
“The way that we prioritise democratic literacy within Australian education is a joke.
“If we approached mathematics in the same way,” he said, “and then at 18 say ‘well, right, hare you go, do this complicated kind of mathematical equation for me’, we would be mad if we wondered why we didn’t pass it.
“Educating every generation of Australians in the maintenance and participation within our democracy is as critical as anything else the education system could hope to imbue in its participants.”
The senator said lowering the voting age would have an impact far beyond the ballot box.
“[Lowering the voting age] means that you bring democracy into the classroom in a tangible way, and if you combine that with an increased emphasis on democratic literacy, that means that before people leave school, they are having a real-world interaction with our democratic system in an informed way,” he said.
Stopping short of calling for a lower voting age, WA’s Electoral Commissioner, David Kerslake, said civics deserved a greater place in the Australian curriculum.
“I think it’s pleasing that it’s there, but it’s not yet at the level that it really needs to be to ready people when they move onto voting age,” he said.
Mr Kerslake said it’s crucial students are introduced to democratic principles well before they hit voting age.
“You’d be surprised at how many hardened cynics you have, 16 or 17-year-old cynics that are out there,” he said.
“When you’re 14 or 15, when you’re more impressionable, that’s when we need to be setting the strong foundations.”
Despite these calls, WA’s Education Minister, Sue Ellery, said the current curriculum was doing its job.
“By the end of Year 10, all WA students have received a comprehensive education in civics and citizenship which allows them to actively engage and participate in politics,” she said.
Mr Kerslake said the issue extended beyond the classroom and laid at least partial blame on politicians.
“Politicians have got to be starting to engage with young people in young peoples’ spaces,” Mr Kerslake said.
“Young people are still interested in social and political issues, but they’re less and less interested in political parties and conventional politics.”
Senator Steele-John echoed the Electoral Commissioner’s sentiment, saying Australian politics is actively ignoring youth voices:
“The way we do politics in Australia is so often to exclude, and in fact to demonise and scapegoat young people.
“I think there is an attitude that the dividend you reap is the disengagement of the demographic from the [political process], and therefore you can worry about the issues that your big donors bring to you, which might well clash with safeguarding the future of our generation.”
He said that for many, this meant finding new ways of affecting social change:
“I think our generation is one of the most engaged, most interconnected, most altruistic generations which has ever existed.
“Our democratic disconnect is that we do not see democratic participation as being an effective way to realise the change we want to see.”
The Greens Senator said politicians have the power, and the responsibility, to bridge the divide with young people.
“I think it is incumbent upon [politicians] to be emphasising to young people that they have a voice and a role which is valued within the political system,” he said.
“Australia’s political players [need] to not treat us as though we are useful political scapegoats in certain situations and make an active effort to address our issues.”
He said this responsibility extends far beyond young voters.
“I spend a lot of my time talking to year sixes and sevens, as well as kids about to graduate, obviously knowing that sixes and sevens can’t vote anytime soon,” he said.
“I see it as my obligation to help them understand their power in our democratic process.”
So, while we wait for a change in the political landscape, Senator Steele-John said passionate young Australians still have other opportunities to inspire change.
“Never be afraid to come together and make your voice heard and to be in the way and annoying and agitate.”