It's time to include young people in our politics

Disinterested, disengaged, and immature. When discussing teenagers and politics, you can almost guarantee these would be some of the first words to come to mind. 

A bill to consider lowering the voting age to 16 was recently referred to a parliamentary committee on electoral matters for review. As a young person, I have had doubts about such proposals but have come to think of it this way, if immaturity is indeed a valid reason to exclude people from voting, why do we not apply this test to voters over the age of 18 as well?

Earlier this month, I spent my time hurrying around the slightly dinghy but magical halls of Victorian Parliament. I was not there to cover the “always mature” conduct of our senior state politicians ... but instead to report on 120 young people taking part in this year’s YMCA Youth Parliament.

As part of the youth press gallery, I watched on as teams from as far as Wangaratta, Wonthaggi, Mildura, the Ovens and Murray and many teams from the city convened to debate issues important to them. They displayed desire to change society for the better, a great respect for each other and truly informed opinions. It was inspiring.

Each day, I witnessed impassioned, detailed debates on topics ranging from lowering the free breast screening age to 25 and having government buildings provide free sanitary products, to environmental warnings on plastic water bottles and calls for rape trial reform.

While research has shown young people have a lower interest in party politics compared to their parents, this movement is not limited to them, nor a reason to exclude them from voting. It’s more likely part of a trend showing Australians’ level of trust for our political system is declining. The annual Edelman Trust Barometer published in February this year showed Australians’ faith in pollies at an all-time low. A 2016 study conducted by the University of Canberra found while young people are disengaged with mainstream parties, there has also been an overall decrease in the number of Australians expressing alignment. This highlights disengagement with parties as not a character flaw of individuals, but rather a reflection of the waning ability of parties to reflect and manifest public values into current political institutions.

The willingness of young people to be politically active and engaged was showcased during the same-sex marriage postal survey. In just a three-week period, more than 65,000 young people aged between 18-24 enrolled to vote. 

YMCA Youth Parliament showed me young people do care about complex issues, but they can be caught in a bind when it comes to politics. If they shy away they are lazy and disengaged, but when they become active they can be labelled naive dreamers, ignorant of the realities of the political system. If young Australians’ engagement with politics is dismissed in this way, it unsurprising many are disillusioned with opportunities for participation that the traditional parties offering them.

Young people are the ones that will inherit the consequences of decisions being made today. Politics is often criticised for lacking imagination and idealism, but wouldn’t incorporating more young people into civic life help break this mould? 

Lowering the voting age to 16 would signal to young people that political engagement is relevant to them because their voices would be valued, not belittled, in discussions about the future of our society.

Hugh Shanahan is a politics student at the University of Melbourne.