There's nothing in this election for young people


Photo: Raphye Alexius

People seem to be surprised that figures from the Australian Electoral Commission show almost one in five young people (18-24 year olds) haven't enrolled to vote – nearly double the number for the rest of the population.

But can anyone really be that shocked? So far Labor is pitching gay marriage and the national broadband network as youth vote winners. The Liberals have offered up Bernadette Black for the seat of Franklin in Tasmania.

Politics is about electing leaders whom we entrust with our basic welfare – food and shelter. At an even more fundamental, Schmittian/Hobbesian level, it's about security.

And neither of our two main party leaders has spelt out why anyone under 30 should trust them to act in their best interest – to acknowledge their present and future – regarding these basic needs.


Let's start with putting food on the table.

Young people are finding it harder and harder to work out what career to study for, and why.

Those who saw Labor's pledge to pump another half a billion dollars into the car industry would have been scratching their heads.

That industry has been kept alive as part of an absurd patriotic fantasy that we must have Holden utes to be a real nation, and a grossly outdated militaristic paranoia that if we can't build cars we can't build war machines when the Pacific apocalypse hits.

It made little sense in the 1960s when the Brits and the French pumped out cars, and it makes no sense now that South Korea and China are on the scene. We will never compete again and every young person realises that.

In a small country that can compete in only a few key areas, the government often has to pick winners. The government's pitch is that it will spend half a billion easing the death of an industry that doesn't work, and rip $2.3 billion out of university funding.

I challenge you to find anyone under 30 who can see the sense in that.

Thousands of journalism and communications students are about to graduate into a non-existent jobs market. The government doesn't support that sector, yet a thriving fourth estate is infinitely more important than a car yard full of Caprices.

Kids who study finance are rolling the dice. Will the year they graduate be one in which there's a hiring push or, as in many years past, there are sweeping redundancies in an industry where regulations seem to change every year?

There is an implicit taxpayer guarantee over our big banks that they will be bailed out when they fail, but they're allowed to keep massive profits when they succeed. This gives incentives to risk taking and arrogance.

Overseas experts think it isn't sustainable – so why should students have any faith?

The mining industry hires and dumps employees at the drop of a hat.

The professional cartels – law and medicine – seem to be the only sanctuaries left, and now they're so overworked that competition for jobs has led to extreme rates of suicide and depression. Almost one in three solicitors and one in five barristers – and 40 per cent of law students suffer medically significant mental distress.

But say you do manage to find a stable, sane job that puts food on the table, the next essential is shelter.

Now, when someone in their 20s, goes to buy their first house, their accountant will tell them to do two things – first, move into the house so they can get a first home buyers grant; second, move out of the house so they can rent it at a loss and claim a tax rebate on the negative gearing while they wait for property prices to go up.

The other option is to buy a house so cheap they can afford to amortise the loan themselves.

In 1000 years' time, historians will look at this period and try to explain it in terms of ritual and custom. But from Gen Y's vantage point it looks like property investors are being favoured over property owners, over families and particularly first home owners looking to get a foothold on the ladder.

Anyone who has bid on a modest apartment in Sydney lately, only to be outfoxed by a granny in a fur coat with a buyer's agent, will know the feeling. Why are we encouraging asset-rich boomers to make lazy investments in properties that price families out of the market?

Are we trying to create a society of renters? And if so, why? When did anyone ever vote for this?

Who is going to have the guts to burst this bubble so that the cost of living becomes reasonable?

Apart from some non-committal suggestions that negative gearing might be tackled in Joe Hockey's tax review, no one has even mentioned it in this election.

But let's ignore these questions. Let's assume that you have found food and shelter in your 20s. What about security?

Well, you don't need to be Hugh White to portend that the long-term security of our region is under threat.

We have been trashing our reputation in the region for some time. The "stop the boats" rhetoric, the treatment of foreign students, the 457 visa debate – we look like a bunch of tinny-smashing yahoos who spend weekends shaving dingoes and carving Southern Cross tattoos into the foreheads of kidnapped Chinese sightseers.

We're behaving like a lazy major regional power, when we're a pimple on the buttock of Asia.

Other nations are figuring out how to brand themselves and make their culture something Asian countries think fondly of – the kind of soft diplomacy that is invaluable in the long term.

The French have penetrated the luxury goods market with brands such as Hermès and Châteaux Lafite, the Brits have succeeded in putting a Manchester United or Chelsea shirt on every second Chinese schoolchild and are also developing a massive business park in London dedicated to Chinese companies.

But what has Australia to offer? Ugg boots?

The approach to regional relations is deeply immature and streaked with racism. Australians in Hong Kong and Singapore expect to be worshipped like pale gods but when highly skilled workers come to Australia, the default position seems to be that they should assimilate quickly, and that until they do it's reasonable to view them as part of a remittance conspiracy.

The consequence – most young people recognise – will be that it takes decades of hard work by Gen Y to reverse the ugly national stereotype.

And last year's Asian century white paper? It seemed to come and go like a pie wrapper on the wind.

Likewise, the only leadership debate before the deadline for voter enrolments felt light, trivial . . . terrifyingly breezy.

No serious answers were given about how federal policy would shape young people's lives. Instead, the political narrative wandered off into the swing-seat wilderness, far away from policy discussions that paint a picture of how young people are going to lead happy, stable, secure, meaningful lives.

While an older generation dithers and bickers over tweaks to franking credits and super benefits and other boomer welfare inputs, the vision, focus, ideas and purpose have evaporated.

If Gen Y decided not to enrol, who can blame them, given that they've already been disenfranchised in many respects.