Government and governance | Australia

16 December 2021

Restoring trust between young people and Australia’s political class will require concerted effort across Australian society, Intifar Chowdhury writes.

‘You can never trust politicians,’ scoffed my twenty-something year old friend, as she spread avocado on her toast. At just that moment, the prime minister, self-styled ‘ScoMo’, slammed calls for a stronger federal anti-corruption watchdog on national television.

The younger generation’s collective distrust of politicians is a worry, but behaviours like this by Australia’s political elites, and the government’s reluctance to improve the integrity and accountability of federal politicians, shows that distrust has a basis.

Whether even Australia’s head of government can be trusted to tackle wrongdoing is an open question, and understandably so.

Importantly, distrust shouldn’t be confused with apathy. While young Australians do not trust the government, they do deeply care about politics, and are far from dismissing the role of government or formal processes of democracy.

Still, trust in politicians and political institutions is vital to the effective functioning of democracy. It legitimises government actions and enables citizen compliance with laws and regulations. Distrust among young citizens – who are among the most invested in the immediate and long-term future – is bad news.

The writing is on the wall for the political class if they do not build trust. Young people today are more concerned than any other generation about the lack of representation of their opinions and interests within politics. They are disillusioned by politicians who seem to be unresponsive on the top issues facing young Australians.

In Australia, declining political trust has been attributed to short-term factors like poor government performance and growing political detachment, rather than long-term societal changes or generational replacement. This means that growing distrust is not a function of a change in attitude between generations.

More on this: Truth, trust, and COVID-19 recovery

Of course, this can still be reversed – when governments meet citizens’ expectations and political parties find new ways to connect with their supporters, trust builds, and everyone benefits.

Trust is the most essential ingredient of effective communication, so for there to be such distrust among young people shows there is something deeply wrong with the way the political system is interacting with young citizens.

As a result, there is further decoupling of what policymakers do and what young Australians are concerned about.

Consultation with young people works, and there is an urgent need for policymakers to work in partnership with young people to better understand them, their needs, and their preferences.

While it may be unfair to say governments are not working to recognise the importance of young voices, it is fair to say that they are not doing so effectively enough.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, Australian policymakers and young people have contrasting views about what youth issues are and how they participate.

This results in a weak link between issue-based, localised and everyday political experiences of young people and the institutionalised policy-making processes – especially at the federal level.

Another point of disconnect is a restrictive understanding of how politics happens for young people.

For one, the digital context in which young people today are learning about and forming political views is a larger determinant of electoral participation for the young than for the general population.

More on this: Democracy Sausage: Lying with a smile

Compared to other Australians, political participation for the young tends to include taking everyday steps to address the issues that are relevant to their lives.

They use creative ways – such as online blogging and videos, street art, fashion events, flash mobs, and music and art – to express their views and shape society.

A poor understanding of these new, amorphous, and fluid forms of participation, sometimes not recognised as political participation at all, may be hindering existing government and political structures from being more accessible to young people.

Finally, despite multi-level efforts in state and federal levels to promote youth civic engagement, youth development and leadership programs always seem to end up attracting already high achieving young people from English-speaking backgrounds, also disadvantaging minority groups like Indigenous youth, young people with disabilities, and those of low socio-economic status.

Further, state and federal governments have had varying levels of commitment to young people’s participation that reinforce, rather than abolish, barriers which limit the potential to harness youth diversity and strengthen democracy.

So, what can be done?

Politicians need to listen closely and humbly to young people to better understand reasons for distrust, and to their ideas about what needs to be done to restore their trust. To this end, there is an urgent need to expand beyond the stereotypical understanding of who young people are, what issues concern them, and how they prefer to engage with politics.

Youth-focused COVID-19 conferences in New Zealand and Norway where heads of state directly addressed their questions helped allay anxiety and build trust. Steps like these signal to young people that their opinions matter and that they are valued members of society.

Policymakers, for their part, should draw on research to inform strategies to facilitate everyday forms of participation within current institutions, such as schools and different levels of government.

To do this, they must talk directly with young people, rather than at them, in order to include diverse young Australian voices in a policy-making process that will affect their lives for years to come.

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