The conventional wisdom surrounding elections in liberal democracies is that elections are mostly decided by economic issues. Indeed when this is not the case and issues like immigration or foreign policy dominate an election cycle, this is largely reported as news. To be perfectly honest many of these other issues are related to how it will influence the economy. When talking about immigration, for example, unless it is obvious that the person talking is outwardly racist, concerns are based on how public services will cope and any potential job losses; in other words the concerns are couched in economics. However a new study has shown that young people in Australia are less concerned with the economy than their elders.
According to a joint survey by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) and a pressure group called Youth Action found that people aged between 12 and 25 are more concerned with social and environmental issues than economic issues. The top three issues cited as most important by young people were dealing with asylum seekers (21%), marriage equality (19%), and climate change (16%). When explicitly referring to federal issues, the policies deemed “extremely important” were healthcare (52.5%), the environment (51.4%), and social justice (51.0%).
The reason that this is especially interesting is that there has been a surge in voter registration among young people in Australia and this has the potential increase wider public awareness of these issues. For example the Coalition has been obstinately opposed to introducing marriage equality by parliamentary means and Malcolm Turnbull has not said that there will be a referendum on the issue. If more young people vote and marriage equality remains an important issue for these voters, the Coalition will have to address this issue in some way in order to gain support from young people. Admittedly the survey also indicated that most of the young people that took part supported the Greens (38%) or Labor (34%) with only 22% backing the Coalition. However, given the Greens and Labor both support marriage equality, it is distinctly possible that the Coalition will not move on this issue.
There are many possible causes for this difference but it’s hard to pinpoint a specific cause. One is that young people have historically been more idealistic than older generations and therefore issues around how we treat our fellow human beings are seen as more important than the acquisition of material possessions. As with any stereotype this cannot be universalised, however I do not think it is unreasonable to say that more people who are young look at injustice in the world and ask why it exists rather than accepting such injustice as necessary.
Another aspect is that many young people are not financially independent and are less aware of financial issues. This is through no fault of there own it’s just something that comes with age. For example the minutia of government policy on pensions is not an issue that grabs young people however, as this survey shows, things like education are important issues. This is obviously because young people have been exposed to government policy in education and this impacts on their lives either at the present time or did in the recent past.
The other potential cause is the role of the internet. The internet and social media have made people more interconnected than ever before. As a result when progress is made on social issues in other countries but nothing has changed in Australia, it is possible that young people become impatient for this change. For example marriage equality has become legal in many countries around the world in recent years but right-wing politicians in Australia refuse to vote in Parliament or hold a referendum on the issue. Young Austrlians that have more socially liberal attitudes are watching tolerance play out around the world and the lack of progress in their own country could lead some to affix more significance to social issues than bread and butter economics.
To conclude, it shouldn’t be surprising that young people are more concerned with issues that are motivated by more idealistic perspectives. What should be noted is how these prospective voters line up in the upcoming general election. Hopefully young people endorse a party that will take their issues to heart and seek to improve Australia as a result. As in all elections I would encourage all Australians to back the most radically left-wing government possible, but given it is likely to be a Coalition or Labor government it has to be said that any left-of-centre party, no matter how weak sauce, is still better than an ideologically conservative one. Young people may have the balance of power, so choose wisely.