SINCE taking on my role as Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) chairperson for 2019, I’ve continuously found myself in the interesting position of having to act as a voice for young people in our community.
This has naturally meant that I get asked a lot of questions, and often questions I don’t have the answers to. But, with the Victorian election in November, the NSW election in March, an Israeli election in April and a Federal election looming for May, the question I seem to get asked more than any other is: “why don’t young people engage with politics?”
The answer is quite simple: we do.
I’ll be the first to admit that statistics do paint a rather bleak picture of youth participation in the Australian political system.
Prior to the 2016 federal election, when it was reported that roughly four per cent of the Australian population weren’t even registered on their electoral rolls, roughly a third of this was expected to come from people in that youth age bracket.
Informal and donkey voting has proved to be far more prevalent within this youth age bracket as well. It also can and has had serious influence on the outcomes of elections in battleground electorates, despite many believing informal and donkey voting to be a principled protest.
Because of these contributions, many have continued to paint young people as slackers, wandering into voting booths on election day as if only having just accidentally discovered the countless systems of political checks and balances available to any citizen of voting age to utilise.
It’s especially disappointing for them that not much of this is true.
For many young people, apathy towards the complexities of our political system is merely a symptom of the fact that issues that concern us aren’t being properly addressed. It’s creating a crisis of confidence in democracy.
As a generation, not only do we face many of the same social and economic issues that our parents and to an extent grandparents lived through, but also many challenges which are unprecedented in nature.
A housing ‘boom’ has left first time home buyers clawing at whatever scraps are left over, outbid by third and fourth-time buyers looking to continue profiteering off arguably the most successful investment opportunity in the country. Many our age are being pushed into a lifetime of renting and home hopping, never to achieve the Australian ideal of owning one’s own home.
The trial of finding gainful and stable employment is a trial that looms over nearly every single university student. A trial even for those with qualifications in industries that the government have held up as the pillars of the so-called innovation revolution – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Despite being the bedrock on which the national curriculum now stands, steadily churning out thousands of capable and enthusiastic graduates each year, the future for many is merely more time at university or employment in work well below their newly acquired qualification.
Climate change, described as our greatest moral challenge, seems to be, in Australia at least, pushed onto the backburner – if it could be said to any burner – of public policy. Effective climate policy has been dumped in the ‘too hard basket’ by a government so resolute in the support of fossil fuel that emissions targets have been all but abandoned at the federal level.
These are only a few key policy areas, and when combining this with the endless cycle of leadership spills and the fact that less than 1.5 per cent of all state and federal parliamentarians are under the age of 35, it’s a wonder that young people haven’t simply given up on politics entirely.
But this is why I have great pride in the Jewish community. It’s why I have great pride seeing the work young Jews are continuing to do in the political advocacy space. At least in the Jewish community, these worrying trends of youth participation aren’t so prevalent.
Organisations like AUJS continue to lead the way. By partnering with the Australasian Zionist Youth Council to host community debates for the electorates with the largest Jewish populations in the country – Wentworth and Macnamara – we are declaring clearly that we won’t abdicate our responsibility to hold politicians to account about issues that will affect us long after they leave Parliament.
Letting young people participate in the electoral advocacy of our community has never before been tried. We plan to meet the challenge.
AUJS will also continue in providing incredible political skill development opportunities for university students. Hosting the National Advocacy Summit in May; the 21st Political Training Seminar in Canberra in August; and releasing brand new political magazines to provide students with the information they need to make informed choices at the federal election.
Many Jewish schools around the country are continuing to make politics and civics important parts of their approach to education. Many are establishing incredible mentorship/internship programs with political leaders, sending groups to young UN workshops and hosting political debates and speaker events of their own.
One only need look to last years Victorian state election to see the hopeful trend of young Jewish political engagement. Of the 55 seats up for election in Metropolitan Melbourne, 23 had Jews under the age of 25 working and volunteering for campaigns, a trend expected to continue into the federal and NSW State election.
Perhaps the question is not why young people don’t engage with politics. A better question is why, when they’re capable of stating clearly and openly what problems our system faces, don’t we give them more opportunities and space to lead? And if we don’t, how long until they simply take them?
JOSEF WILKINSON is chairperson of AUJS.