Young voters have issued a warning: Ignore us at your peril

There’s a truism in politics that if you ignore a section of voters, they’ll let you know it at the ballot box.

For years politicians from both major parties, but the Coalition in particular, have treated young people as an afterthought in policy debate. And boy, did young people hit back at the last federal election.

Analysis from the Australian National University’s Australian Election Study (AES) released this week should make Coalition strategists quake in their boots.

“What’s distinctive about the 2022 [federal election]? Well, it was a shocker for the Coalition, that’s not a newsflash,” political scientist at the University of Sydney and report co-author, Simon Jackman, said.

“What is newsworthy is how far the vote for the Coalition in the under 40 segment of the population fell.” 

Only one in four young people under the age of 40 voted for the Coalition in 2022, the lowest percentage since the AES began recording this data in 1987.

“We’ve never seen such low levels of support for one of the major parties as we’re seeing in levels of support for the Coalition in the under 40 cohort,” Professor Jackman said.

By contrast, 38 per cent of under-40s voted for Labor in 2022, according to the AES.

When asked what the cause of the Coalition’s “existential crisis” was, AES co-author Ian McAllister was blunt: “It’s young people defecting.”

AES co-author Dr Sarah Cameron from Griffith University said the high proportion of young people who voted Green in the last election highlighted an interesting shift in demographics.

“This particular generation of young people has moved so much further to the left than previous generations when they were young. That is where the existential threat comes for the Coalition,” she said.

Coalition ‘on the wrong side of history’

The biggest question someone could take away from this comprehensive data is – why? Why have young people abandoned the Coalition in such huge numbers?

The simple answer is that the issues they care about have been neglected for a long, long time.

Take climate change, for example. We know from our own surveys of the triple j audience that climate change is the number one issue young people care about. Yet it barely got a look in at the last federal election.

The Coalition’s steadfast refusal to set a 2030 climate emissions target, and divisions between the National Party and moderate Liberals, was a turn off for conservative-leaning young people who also care about the future of the planet.

Many young people are also angry by the imbalance in the housing market which has seen the proportion of young people owning their own decline over the last few decades.

“For a lot of younger people, the Coalition seems to be on the wrong side of history on a lot of the issues that they’re concerned about. Climate change, same sex marriage… trust, integrity in politics and so on,” Professor McAllister said.

“When we drill down into the figures, we find relatively low levels of trust among people aged in their 30s, for example, and a lot of that has to do with younger people not getting into the housing market,” he said.

Young people are an afterthought

I’ve worked in the Press Gallery of federal parliament for more than a decade, and the last six years have been dedicated to solely covering youth affairs through a political lens for triple j.

I’ve seen successive governments ignore, downplay or outright disregard young people through their policies.

Some of it is overt, such as Tony Abbott scraping the youth portfolio from his ministry when he became prime minister — it’s clear young people weren’t a priority in his government.

In fact, policy directed at young people over the last few years has often been punitive, like the failed ideas to drug-test welfare recipients and to make under-35s wait six months before accessing income support, the reintroduction of work for the dole (which has since been scrapped) and the decision to freeze funding of university places.

But the overlooking of young people’s needs is often much more subtle. Housing is a prime example.

Housing policy over the last few years has simply tinkered at the edges and made housing available quicker for people who were already heading down that path. The simple truth is to make housing more affordable for young people, you have to make houses cost less, and no government of either ideological persuasion wants to be responsible for lowering the value of our biggest asset.

Youth Allowance is another example. Despite the cost of rent, food and energy skyrocketing, the rate of Youth Allowance remains low, at around $13,300 a year. Unlike other payments, which are indexed twice a year, Youth Allowance is only indexed every New Year.

Those payments are different again from the aged pension, which is linked to wages and can increase accordingly.

The cost of living itself is an interesting area of discussion. While it affects everybody, young people are often hardest hit, as they are the most likely to rent, can legally earn below minimum wage, and are more likely to be in casual work. Which means they have fewer liquid and solid assets. So, where’s the targeted assistance for young people to help with the cost of living? You guessed it – it doesn’t exist.

The first thing political parties could do to win back young voters is tailor policies that will appeal to their needs and interests.

End the myth that young people don’t care about politics

Young people care deeply about political issues. We’ve seen that through our own surveys. And research has found, time and again, that young people are deeply involved in community programs and charities.

The idea that they don’t care about politics has come about for one reason: they care about issues, but don’t see politicians – or even political parties — as the solution to those problems.

Part of the reason young people don’t feel engaged with the major parties is that they don’t see themselves reflected in them.

In the last parliament, there were just 25 MPs and Senators out of a total of 227 who were aged under 40. Just one of them was in their 20s.

There are a few young ones in this parliament too, like Fatima Payman, who’s 27, and David Pocock, who’s 34.

If political parties want to win back young voters, they need to look within their ranks and pre-select young people in winnable seats.

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