ON THE day Kevin Rudd again became leader of the Labor Party, he appealed to young people to get more engaged in politics. “Please come back and listen afresh,” Mr Rudd said to young voters. “With your energy we can start cooking with gas.”
Young people helped Kevin Rudd win office in 2007. In fact, the Australian Election Study informs us that support for Labor in the House of Representatives among young people (aged 18-34) shot up from 34% in 2004 to 45% in 2007.
Clearly there was something about Kevin07 that spoke to young voters. But will he have the same appeal the second time around?
This seems unlikely for two reasons.
First, the circumstances were very different in 2007. Then, Mr Rudd was a fresh new face, a tabula rasa, on which it was easy for the young to project their hopes about the future. This is no longer the case.
Second, Mr Rudd’s appeal in 2007 was based on substantial policy differences with the Coalition (in regards to climate change in particular) that resonated with the young. The differences between the two major parties may be as large today as they were then, but the leadership coup featured almost no policy debate. It was driven by polling and young people are likely to be turned off by that.
It’s fine to ask young people to "Please come back and listen afresh", but there should be some policy substance behind that appeal.
"Young people are becoming more disengaged from conventional politics, but more engaged in non-electoral politics."
It’s also worth thinking about how young people engage with politics today, which is very different from their predecessors.
In particular, young people are becoming more disengaged from conventional politics, but more engaged in non-electoral politics. In this sense, the high levels of enthusiasm among the young in 2007 was an aberration.
This change in styles of participation could have large implications for the contours of political life, as more young people move away from conventional politics.
In short, the political marketplace has become much more crowded, which creates great challenges for political parties and electoral commissions, as well as opportunities for other organisations to mobilize young people.
In my recently published book Young People and Politics: Political Engagement in the Anglo-American Democracies I show to what extent this is true.
In regards to electoral politics, the picture is not a pretty one. The International Social Survey Program (ISSP) found that while 84% of older people said it was important to vote regularly in elections, only 42% of young people agreed.
So, young people do not seem to see voting as a civic duty in the way older generations do. We know that these attitudes have real effects in relation to young people being much less likely to be enrolled to vote and much less likely to vote.
Accompanying this, young people are also less likely to identify with a party. In 2010, 24% of young people did not identify with any party as compared to just 7% of older people who did not identify with that party.
"Young people do not seem to see voting as a civic duty in the way older generations do"
This is a trend that has been increasing over time. So, I think it is clear that electoral politics is becoming less attractive to the young. The internal divisions within the Labor party will only have compounded this problem.
But what about what could be termed non-electoral forms of political participation, like signing a petition and attending a demonstration?
On this front things are more positive. The ISSP revealed that while 47% of young people had signed a petition in the past year, 40% had boycotted a product. These numbers are much lower for older people (35% and 24% respectively).
Young people were also more likely than older people to have attended a demonstration.
So, it seems that the way young people engage in politics is changing and this will obviously have implications for the Electoral Commission, parties and other organizations.
In short, it seems that electoral politics is becoming less attractive to the young and non-electoral politics more attractive.
Kevin Rudd will fly into these headwinds. It’s hard to ask people to be engaged when almost all of the political discussion in the last few months has been about the leadership challenge.
If Mr Rudd can succeed in engaging a disengaged electorate in policy discussion young people may be lured into this, but it won’t be the same as Kevin07.