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Habitual non-voters are harder to woo than ever

16 July 2009 768 views No Comment

Voting should be a meaningful activity. Like a good crossword or a Meyers-Briggs test, it should challenge people to engage in a quick but stimulating mental process and then give them a result that clearly registers their input.

It doesn’t necessarily matter if their party or candidate doesn’t win. What matters is that their vote is actually counted. And when the figures go up in the tally room on a Saturday night, they can see that of the total number of votes that a local candidate received, theirs was one of them.

But all is not well with universal franchise in this country. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) tells us that 1.2 million people who are eligible to vote are not even registered. They are so alienated from parliamentary politics that not even the threat of a fine can get them to the polling booth. In a double dissolution election, these potential voters represent the number of voters needed to elect about seven senators. Effectively, it comprises the last senate seat in each state and more than the balance of power in the Upper House. In the House of Representatives, it’s a dozen seats! If all the people who are eligible to vote suddenly got onto the electoral roll, it could cause a redrafting of electoral boundaries to accommodate them. It should also prompt a strategic rethink by all political parties.

Many of these unregistered and therefore unrepresented citizens, young and old, will be nomads: people who just don’t stay in one area long enough to think it worthwhile going through the hassle of registering a caravan park address when they know they may well be on the road before the next election. The Electoral Commission has to do something to make it easier for these people to register. Maybe they could be listed as having no fixed address, but a month out from an election they could log onto the AEC website with a username and password and give an address then. Electronic voting is currently being tested with vision-impaired people and with remote Defence Force personnel, but this urgently needs to be fast-tracked to include much wider sections of the nation, including thousands of people who have language problems, health problems or an unwillingness to queue in order to vote.

But by far the biggest reason for a significant number of Australians not voting is the behaviour of individual politicians and the deeply embedded cultures of both the Liberal and Labor parties, to whom they have virtually no appeal.

For a start, both major parties seem unable and unwilling to woo these disaffected people. Why this is so when so much is as stake is hard to fathom. It may well be that the demographics of these unregistered citizens are not seen as ‘suitable’ or ‘palatable’ to Liberal or Labor. It is hard to see Bronwyn Bishop holidaying in the Dee Why caravan park or Labor’s Mark Bishop attending the Perth Family Planning convention. When you see the way in which Young Labor and the Young Liberals conduct themselves on university campuses, they both often seem straight-laced. There’s not a lot of divergence from official party policy, even though the party line was agreed by people who may be 40 years older than these students. It is ludicrous to think that 20-year-olds living in Darlinghurst or Paddington or Fitzroy can possibly share the values of a group of 50- or 60-year-old bankers, lawyers or unionists from Toorak or Clayfield or Melbourne Ports.

This theory is backed up by recent findings from the University of Sydney, which showed that one in five students eligible to vote are not enrolled. Just as importantly, almost half of Australia’s tertiary students say they wouldn’t vote if it wasn’t compulsory. The report was written by Sydney University’s associate professor Murray Print, chief investigator with the Youth Electoral Study (YES), and his findings have major implications for the way our political parties should chase votes and garner support. Of significance is his finding that children who have a meaningful experience of politics in school will be much more likely to vote later in life. Print also found that children educated in a private school or who studied the processes of government at school were more likely to vote.

The AEC makes education courses available to schools and other institutions. You simply call them and a suited public servant will come out and put on a useful PowerPoint show that offends no one and offers all the facts. Herein lies the problem. A significant percentage of the 1.2 million people who aren’t on the electoral roll don’t even know what the electoral roll is. Many others are so alienated from parliamentary processes that they don’t think that politics matters anymore.

Either way, the major parties don’t know how to deal with these groups and, notwithstanding the AEC’s good intentions, neither do they. This leaves the way open for non-mainstream parties to shake things up, especially in the senate. One organisation that might know a thing or two, especially about attracting the young, is the fledgling Australian Sex Party, which has just set up a website aptly named voting.org.au.

They intend to pursue the alienated young, the nomads, the geeks, the overly intelligent and all the other unregistered and reluctant voters with messages that neither of the major parties are able to give.

If mainstream parties are hoping to attract that great army of half a million web-savvy citizens aged 18 to 25 who think voting is a waste of time, forget it. These young Australians have had their worldview changed forever by the internet. They see communications technology as the real power these days, and see little if any point in voting. Try telling the alienated young that voting is important or the way to change things and they will simply ‘lol’: laugh out loud.

The Sydney University study is a warning bell for all mainstream political parties. Generation Y is fed up with disinformation, political obfuscation, and censorship. They want something different, and relevant to their young lives, or they will opt out of the system like no other generation has done before.

Spectator Australia, 17 July 2009