Ari's column that never was

This piece was writen about a week ago, with hopes of reaching a wide audience (well, wider than the bunch of loonies who stumble across the blog, anyhow) via the opinion page of one of our nation's newspapers. Alas, after emails to nine - yep, nine - newspapers, and just two responses, both negative, it's time to concede that it's not going to make it to those great heights. Instead, the residents of blogsville can read it for themselves. Now wouldn't this look better in the Herald Sun than Andrew Bolt's ranting?:

Election 2004: First time voters

On Saturday week, 600,000 young people will cast their first ever vote in a federal election. Some will walk into the polling both with great confidence in their step and follow through on a voting intention that they have been waiting years to express. Most, however, will saunter in filled with uncertainty, and cast a ballot with little enthusiasm. It’s not the often tut-tutted youth apathy that is at work, however, but a lacklustre campaign that has failed to capture the imagination of young voters.

Young voters are notoriously difficult to communicate with and shun many of the traditional outlets that parties use to spread their message. It is no surprise that young voters are remarkably cynical about politics and elections and don’t respond to the well-worn path of pork-barrelling and self-interest that is used to appeal to other demographics. This cynicism is no accident. It is the product of the entire politically-aware life of first time voters being in the era of Howard as Prime Minister. First timers have known nothing but the steady hands of John Howard on the wheel. They are therefore strongly affected by Howard’s approach to politics. The deceptions and loose approach to the truth that many commentators attribute to Howard has a greater affect on young voters than on others, because they have experienced no alternative to it. It’s inevitable that inexperienced voters who see the verbal trickery of Howard will generalise that characteristic to all politicians, and adopt a rather Platonic attitude of ‘damn the lot of ‘em’.



Ari Sharp said…
Young voters are not a homogenous group which respond to a completely different set of issues to the electorate at large. In fact, in terms of the issues that young voters are likely to respond to, they are likely to be influenced by other characteristics such as job, class, location and gender ahead of age. Rather than sharing common concerns, however, young voters do have a common approach to assessing candidates presented to them. It flows logically that if younger voters attach little weight to the promises made by the parties then they will instead be reliant on gut-feel, or the general impression that a candidate gives. Less important than the substance of promises made is the priorities of a party and how closely they align with the priorities of a young voter. A young voter concerned about the environment, for example (not as common as public perception would have it), will respond to a candidate who seeks to put the environment on the agenda, regardless of the specifics of the position they take.

The trick for political parties seeking to woo a first-timer voter is to find a way to communicate with them. This is one of the great strengths of Mark Latham. The boisterous, risk-taking, passionate Latham is one that young voters can identify with and get excited about. Latham is perceived as one who speaks his mind. His ability to entwine his own personal experiences with the policies he is advocating mean that his message resonates with disillusioned young voters who have been repelled by the antiseptic Howard. Latham has managed to achieve a rare and desirable feat in Australian politics – he had managed to present himself as an anti-politician. Latham’s approach works in the same way that Pauline Hanson and Natasha Stott Despoja managed (during their peak, at least) to cut through the claim and counter-claim which makes up modern political debate. Young voters are especially responsive to the anti-politician.

As well as Latham, the other political force that has managed to connect with young voters is the Greens. Particularly effective has been Bob Brown, a politician who at first glance is as staid and conservative as most of the other politicians who contribute to political malaise. Brown, however, is admired and respected for his tireless dedication to issues that concern him. Whilst some young voters will respond to the Greens because of their raft of neo-socialist environmental and social justice policies, others respond more instinctively in admiration for their zealous pursuit of principles ahead of pragmatism. As a by-product of their role as a minor party, the Greens need not get caught in the clutter of pie-in-the-sky promises and can instead focus on presenting their vision for the future.

With election campaigns of the past decade being essentially a battle for the hands and minds of baby boomers, it is little wonder than the attitudes of Generations X and Y have been largely ignored. Whilst much of this campaign has been fought on the same turf, there is a gradual movement toward the concerns of young voters. The successful candidate amongst these voters will be the one who can articulate a vision which younger voters can identify with rather than being the candidate who can most excite the hip-pocket nerve. Rather than seeing government in a narrow “what can it do for me?” sense, younger voters want a government that will show leadership and help create a shared future. Can any candidate deliver it?

Ari Sharp is 21 and was a candidate in the 2001 federal election.
Anonymous said…

The article is pro-Latham. Too much so.

I'd never thought of it in terms of a first time voter will have had the Howard years for the majority of thier political conciousness - thanks for that, that in itself is a good concept.

Its wrong, just wrong, Ari, to point at Latham as an example of alternative politics. You point to old Latham, you point to headkicking, idealist Latham. He's anythign but an anti-politician, he's been spun and polished so much recently the fun little headkicker is all gone and he damn near shines.

In fact, nothing attracts my ire more than someone saying they're "not a politicain, just an interested person". I almost broke my television once when I saw David Oldfield interviewed and he laid such a claim. If you're after votes, your a politician. You're playing the game. End of story.

Until I see someone actually point at Howard and say "He's just f*****g evil, end of story" or someone, just someone please, respond to a speech at a public forum with a rallying chorus of "bullsh*t" or "you liar" I think there's an element of truth, an emotion, missing from the process here - blind bloody outrage.

Outrage that everything is sanitised down to tasty, digestible morsels. That anything ugly or even mildly offensive is removed. I mean, Little Johnny gets out there and says he'll protect blah blah acres or hectares or whatever of native forest and people applaud. Where's the person saying; "Well done, you evil little muppet, you just protected a shitload of trees in areas that would never have been logged anyway. What the f*ck are you trying to do here?"? The answer?

They aren't there because no one gives enough of a sh*t. Look up, Northwest Victoria, the seat of Mallee, on election night. Watch a member of the National Party get 60% of the primary vote. I have to pray to god that its true that no one gives enough of a sh*t to pay any attention to politics, because the alternative is that they forgive the lies, the unfulfilled promises, the lip service to the environment and the creation of a society that panders only to its upper echelons. If people are seeing this and still swinging their support in behind it then I'm not sure if I can cope with that reality, so I have to believe that its just that beyond the chattering classes, the bloggers, the students, the public servants and academics, and the enevitable political parties, no one gives a sh*t.

After years of deciet and lies, and economic policies focused on familes, or tackling an aging population, or business, or the most marginal of tax cuts for lower income earners, its easy to see how there's little there for first time voters to be enthused about.

What surprises me is that even with HECS fees ballooning, welfare constricting, and a workplace relations agenda biased towards employers rather than employees, first time voters, often just out of school and either new to the workforce or new to university, or both, aren't as mad as hell and more politically involved. It doesn't surprise me much that the political climate motivates some among the young to "challenge" the system, and tend towards the political fringes with parties that have mastered the art of protest but contribute little to policy development and outcomes.

I'm 25, and I'm with the first time voters, adopting that LACONIC attitude of "Damn the Lot of 'Em". All hail mandatory participation in the representative democracy! Isn't it great to such a massive deomstration of the principle that while you can lead the horse to water, you can't make it drink? You can make people vote, but you can't make 'em care about it. October 9th's going to roll around, the governments not going to change, the senate might, and everyone'll go back to not giving a sh*t.

Anonymous said…
Damn, old Timmy's on fire!

Can't say I followed much of that one, Ari... not for want of trying :)

I think Tim's broadly right about the "old" Latham as such, although I disagree with him in as much as I believe enough people will remember that Latham and recognise that he's playing a certain character for the duration of the campaign.

Beyond that I'd be guessing as much as anyone else. Tim's right about another thing, too... I hope the fact that Howard isn't languishing on 10% is that people haven't given a sh*t. If they have looked at the policies and the record and still vote Howard back, I'm moving to New Zealand!

Pete B

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