The kids are alright, so give them a vote

Many young people have lost faith in the political class, writes Dr Sarah Moulds, and one way to improve their views on democracy is to loosen the reins and give teenagers a say – or even a vote.

Mar 19, 2024, updated Mar 19, 2024
In March 2019, students protested at state parliament as part of a global school strike for climate change action. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

In March 2019, students protested at state parliament as part of a global school strike for climate change action. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

It’s Youth Week in South Australia.

It’s a wonderful celebration of the collective capacity of our young people but also a reminder of our responsibility as adults to ask: What kind of democracy are we leaving these bright young leaders?

What are we doing now to give them the best chance to respond to the dizzying intersection of threats and opportunities coming down the line?

We do not regularly ask what impact our decisions are having on the lives of young people, or prioritise the perspectives of the next generation in law or policymaking. As a result many young people have lost faith in the political class – and the institutions they inhabit – to provide them with meaningful democratic representation, or to address big policy challenges such as climate change.

In fact, Millennials are the ‘most disillusioned generation in living memory’ when it comes to trust in democracy.

Youth satisfaction with democracy is declining, not just in in absolute terms, but also relative to how older generations felt at the same stages in life. Many young people are working harder for less when compared with their parents and grandparents.

This gives rise to an urgent Youth Week challenge – how can we reconnect our young people with our democracy? How can we work together to build the kind of democratic institutions and practices the next generation of South Aussies will need?

We have lots to be proud of when it comes to civics education in South Australia.

The South Australian Parliament is a world leader when it comes to designing and delivering education programs for school children and teachers, and bringing the parliament to regional areas.

Youth Parliaments also take place each year, as do meetings of Youth Advisory Councils designed to provide feedback to government.

These are good things.

They are inspiring young people to learn about democracy, but they remain far too conventional to spark the type of fundamental shift that needs to occur to empower young people to shape and change our democracy to fit their needs.

We need a more ambitious agenda and we can learn a lot about what works from democracies that look like ours – such as England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – where 16-year-olds can vote, youth assemblies are formed through democratic local elections and young people directly shape public policies and propose legislation in parliament.

In these places, there is a broad acceptance among lawmakers, policymakers and political leaders that the voices of young people matter and that serious investment is needed – both inside and outside of formal institutions – to makes sure that young people’s voices are heard.

In Scotland, for example, the parliament no longer waits for young people to write submissions or sign petitions, but rather employs specialist engagement officers to work with disadvantaged communities to identify priority areas for change.

In Wales, 16-year-olds can vote and 11-year-olds can run for election to the Welsh Youth Parliament, which works directly with adult MPs to generate legislative and policy agendas, scrutinise government action and expenditure and conduct inquiries.

There’s also a Future Generations Commissioner with a legislative mandate to require all government decision making, from the building of roads to the funding of health care, to factor in the impact of their work on the kids yet to come.

In Manchester, youth councils are collaborating with regional authorities to distribute micro grants directly to disadvantaged young people who are designing and implementing their own social inclusion strategies.

In each of these examples, the adults involved have learnt to listen rather than lead.

The institutions involved have made space for young people to create their own conditions for change. They have adopted systematic approaches to hearing from the right people at the right time and have invested in collecting rich information that can be shared across agencies and actors.

I know that we have what it takes to create these conditions in South Australia too.

The first step is to activate our curiosity about young people, and to invest in data collection so we actually know what young people think, rather than just assuming they are Netflix addicts who spend their money on smashed avocado.

Young people are political. They want to live in a safe, prosperous, more equal society. They care about structural issues like intergenerational inequality and taxation, foreign policy and energy policy.

The second step is to relinquish control and create space for young people to articulate their own reform agenda.

Young people are keen to be involved in lawmaking and policymaking, but they want allyship, not leadership, from older people in power.

Our job is to vigorously defend the principles and laws that protect the right for everyone to express themselves on public issues – this includes protecting the right to peacefully protest and the right to free speech, as well as supporting creative expression and preserving accessible public spaces.

It also means questioning whether our approaches to youth justice, employment, housing, taxation and environment are exacerbating or alleviating social divides.

Third, we need to understand that young people have capacity to develop solutions to policy challenges, but must be supplied with sufficient resources, and guaranteed the right to have their views given the same legitimacy as older people.

This is essential to moving beyond participation by a privileged few to engage children and young people who have previously been excluded from public decision making or youth leadership programs.

Finally, we need to recognise that unless young people have political agency, their views will not be taken seriously by political parties.

Groups of youth advocates like Make it 16 want us to seriously consider lowering the voting age in Australia.

I think we should listen to these calls.

When young people can vote, their political interests are taken seriously.

There’s a Local Government Participation and Elections review underway, which would be a good place to start trialling lowering the voting age. Franchise would be a wonderful gift to share with young people this Youth Week.

And if we have the courage to loosen the reins, we might just find that the kids are alright.

Further information about this research is available via the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Connected Parliaments: Reimagining Youth Engagement with Parliaments in Australia Practical Toolkit & Call for Action

Dr Sarah Moulds is a Churchill Fellow 2022 and an Associate Professor in Law at the University of South Australia

Topics: Youth Week
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