Young Australians are more connected, educated and informed than previous generations. They are also more likely to have higher debt and less economic independence into their 30s. Many feel excluded from traditional politics and policy making and are turning to local action and global issues to express their political views.
Young people are also swing voters who have had a significant, but unrecognised, effect on the outcomes of elections since the mid 1990s. In NSW, there are 1.34 million voters aged 18-35 – 25% of all electors. This is a record high number following a 2017 surge in national enrolment when 65,000 new young voters registered in the lead up to the same-sex marriage poll. There are now 140,000 more 18–24-year-old voters than 1.5 years ago.
In general, young voters are socially progressive and action-oriented. They are not rusted on to party politics and they want to see leadership on issues. In close elections, like this year’s NSW state poll, winning the youth vote will be key to winning government – especially in marginal seats.
For example, in the 2015 election, Coogee was won by less than 2,500 votes – equivalent to half of the 20-24 year olds in that electorate. So the issues that matter to young people should matter to NSW electoral candidates.
What matters to young people in NSW?
Safety at entertainment events and school strikes on climate change have already tested the Coalition government’s responses to young people and their concerns. Yet, the diverse experiences and needs of young people still aren’t reflected by political parties. Key issues that matter to young people in the NSW election include:
Heath and mental health
In NSW, mental health is the top priority issue for those aged 15-19. The most frightening aspect of mental health for young people is the growing rate of youth suicide, and 45% of all young people who died by suicide in 2016 were from NSW.
Around two thirds of young Australians who need help don’t get it. In consultations with more than 4,000 children and young people, the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People identified access to health and mental health services and support as a major concern – young people want the government to ensure that there is appropriate help, when they need it – including after hours.
They also want governments to address the “causes of the causes” of poor health and mental health – such as poverty, inequality and violence.
Finding work is becoming more difficult for young Australians. With one in three young people unemployed or underemployed, young people are not benefiting from economic or job growth in the state. The youth unemployment rate is more than twice Australia’s overall unemployment rate and in NSW, 84,900 young people are not in paid work. Despite 60% of young Australians achieving post school qualifications, half of Australia’s 25-year-olds are unable to secure full-time employment.
As more young people are pushed into perpetual and unaffordable renting because they cannot afford to buy a home, and with the increasing number of youth homelessness, housing affordability is a clear election priority. The relative cost of purchasing a house in 2016 was four times what it was in 1975, with more than 50% of young people under 24 experiencing housing stress.
For young people in Western Sydney, the situation is especially acute. Rents can be 35 – 60% of average weekly wages for people over the age of 15. Of immediate concern is the massive increase in youth homelessness over the last decade by 92%. There were 9,048 homeless young people in NSW in 2016: more than in any other state.
Climate change remains a key concern for young people: it is one of the top three issues identified by young people for the 2016 election. In 2017, a United Nations Youth Representative Report listed it as the number one concern.
Since then, young people have been calling for politicians to take meaningful action on climate change, spurring a world-wide movement ‘school strike 4 climate’ for which many will demonstrate at an estimated 50 sites around Australia on March 15. Young people have the most at stake when it comes to climate change and they are holding the government to account. Climate change will be a deciding issue until there is clear action made by state and federal governments.
The rising cost of VET, TAFE and university fees, compounded by insecure work and the high cost of living, are making educational access increasingly unequal for young people across NSW.
Young people want education to be free or more affordable, to ensure that everyone has access to a well-funded and relevant education system, according to a survey of 3,400 young people done by Youth Action in 2018.
Young people, especially those from rural and remote areas, those with a disability, and those from low SES backgrounds continue to face disproportionate challenges in our state education system.
Beyond the election
Young people won’t be won over by small, short term measures. Candidates and parties must be genuine, honest, consistent and lead on the key issues that matter to young people. To gain and retain their votes, politicians need to deliver and meaningfully engage with young people in the long term. Much like a Minister for Aging (which NSW has), a Minister for Youth would ensure this consistently across government.
In all their diversity, young people care about issues and they want to be involved. Adding their voices and votes to solving big policy problems in NSW will have a beneficial flow on effect for the rest of society. In extensive consultations by the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People and for Youth Action’s 2019 Election Platform young people have clearly articulated what needs to happen to create a better society for their peers and deliver benefits to the wider community.
Candidates in the upcoming election would be wise to heed and act on the priorities of young people who will be voting in March – and for many decades to come. If you don’t secure their vote, someone else will.
Philippa Collin, Associate Professor, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University