In the budget announced in May 2004, then treasurer Peter Costello urged couples to help remedy the problem of an ageing population by having three children. “One for mum, one for dad, and one for the country” was the catchcry, one that came with the promise of cold, hard cash.
My second daughter was a recipient. We found out she was part of our future the same night Costello changed the income-dependent 2002 tax break to the far more generous cash baby bonus.
As with many families, our bonus was misspent.: shoes I can’t remember; a flat-screen television that made Gerry Harvey’s pockets heavier; perhaps a nice dinner or two.
Costello’s budget promise came with very little strategy other than “have more children”. But on that point it was spectacularly successful. A year later the birthrate showed a small increase, but two years later an extra 12,000 babies were born, and in 2008 a record number of almost 300,000 babies were born — a jump of about 4% on the previous year.
Five years after Costello’s proclamation, in 2009, university studies pegged a 3.2% increase in births over that time — tied directly to the baby bonus. And it prompted all sorts of debates — from child and fertility issues to the role of parenting, declining marriage statistics, poverty and entitlement — before it was axed in 2013.
Now, in 2022, as we charge towards a federal election, those Costello kids are racing towards voting age, and within two years there’ll be 10,000 more. By the end of this decade, there will be 55,000 more 18-year-olds than there are today.
That demographic and voting shake-up comes with another change. Young adults now are light years ahead of their parents in terms of political engagement. Perhaps we have to thank Donald Trump for that. At least in our home, his brand of politics prompted discussions — and fiery teenage arguments — that ran for hours.
Our inability to deal with climate change, the Me Too campaign, and the fabulous work done by Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame and Chanel Contos has also increased engagement levels. So has social media, where cut-through messaging is delivered with mighty clarity — and sometimes little depth — to a massive audience that eschews old-style media.
So how have our political parties responded to this confluence of events, an expected tsunami of young voters, their interests and how they communicate?
They haven’t. And that highlights a significant problem both in how political parties engage with us, and the issues that are demanding attention.
Climate change and mental health top the list of priorities for young people. Study after study after study shows that our inability to even genuinely try to counter climate change is creating a sense of hopelessness in teens and young adults, a point thousands of them tried to illustrate before organising rallies (and then promptly being ordered back to school).
COVID has also propelled mental health up the charts. The need to address it with big bucks and big ideas is important for all of us, but especially this cohort of teens whose lives have been so disrupted.
Going to school face to face, attending university in person, being able to access a psychologist, play sport, go to a concert, access a job and study outside their bedroom should not be automatic barriers for them, irrespective of any pandemic and the challenges it presents.
The impact of this pandemic on the Costello kids and their younger siblings is not the stuff of headlines, like the daily tallies of illness and death. But ask a GP or a psychologist, an educator or a parent of teens, and the sickening reality of these years is starting to show. And it will continue.
It’s conveniently called the COVID tail. But that’s a euphemism for an explosion in anxiety and school refusal, depression and suicide ideation, disengagement and a sense of hopelessness about their future.
They feel it. Sense it. And given the chance at the ballot box, they will express it.
But that’s a side issue to us tackling it.
Costello’s kids, back in 2004, came with a big fat baby bonus. Now they just want to be part of the solution to the problems faced by the world they will soon inherit.