The changing face of young voters

Tyler Walsh was One Nation’s youngest candidate. Photo: Keane Bourke.

In recent years, Brexit, the popularity of President Trump and even the shock re-election of Scott Morrison have all indicated a global political shift to the right. But has anyone told young people yet?

Traditionally, young voters are more left-leaning than any other demographic. That trend, while difficult to study, has been confirmed in 2013 by the Whitlam Institute, whose research found voters aged between 18 and 24 are the “most extreme in supporting the ‘progressive’ parties and rejecting the Coalition.” But in 2019, as politics becomes more polarising, there’s growing uncertainty over just how young people choose to align themselves politically.

At only 20 years old, Tyler Walsh is certainly smashing the stereotype of youth voters being left-leaning. He was the youngest ever candidate to stand for Pauline Hanson’s ultra-conservative One Nation party, and on election night managed to garner almost 5 per cent of votes in his home seat of Moore, which stretches from Kinross to Duncraig, and east to Woodvale and Edgewater.

Walsh spoke to me just after an event where electors were invited to a ‘meet and greet’ over coffee. Not long before I arrived, a group of socialist activists unhappy with some of One Nation’s policies had loudly protested the gathering. Calm, clean shaven and smartly dressed, he stands out from the generally more casual crowd at the coffee shop that sits on the outside of a Joondalup shopping centre.

“When Pauline Hanson and her team got elected at the 2016 Federal election, I decided to listen to what they were saying in Parliament directly and ignore the media bias,” he says.

“I learned they’re a party who are passionate about Australia and just want the best for our country.

“I noticed as well, going through Year 11 and 12, there was a sort of left-leaning bias in the way the curriculum was delivered, and I just wanted to go against that grain and think for myself.”

He says this bias, combined with targeted efforts by the Greens to attract young voters, means young people are effectively being tricked into voting for parties on the left.

“I do see a lot of young people swinging to parties such as the Greens, because the Greens are definitely trying to make young people their target audience,” he says.

“The main focus of their campaign is the whole climate change issue. They’re making that the focal point of their campaign because they know a lot of young voters are going to be attracted to that policy as just go ‘oh, I’m voting Green’

“As well as their climate policies, I think there are a lot of dangerous cultural, Marxist policies that they will try and get across.”

Those climate policies put forward by the Greens are what young people around Australia have been loudly calling for this year, as tens of thousands of students have taken to the streets in a series of climate rallies.

Walsh says despite the passion of many protestors, he sees these marches as examples of the political manipulation of young Australians.

“I did ask some of the school kids ‘what do you know about climate change, or what facts can you provide me?’ A lot of them had nothing, couldn’t provide me with anything,” he says.

“It’s unfortunate because I think our adults are using children as political pawns in this whole climate debate and they really don’t know much about it.

“They’re sort of just being led into this whole climate debate for the benefit of the left side of politics, to push their agenda.”

“I’d be really surprised if that was the case”

For political science researchers, young people are of particular importance. Their behaviours are most malleable at this stage, but once set, create a powerful group of voters who will likely decide the direction of the country for some time.

Philippa Collin is a Research Fellow at Western Sydney University, working with a particular focus on the impact the digital world is having in real life.

Aside from the Whitlam Institute’s research, which draws on opinion poll data, she says it’s an almost impossible task to accurately understand young peoples’ voting behaviours.

“There’s very little research on that and it’s very hard to determine after the fact,” she says.

“Research being done on pre-poll intentions of young voters suggest that young people in particular are more likely to be socially progressive.

“Young men tend to move around the middle and can be more inclined towards conservative politics, but in general I’d say they’re more likely to be socially progressives.”

She says the often-perceived shifts in the voting trends of young Australians, particularly to more conservative viewpoints, is in part a response to the way those views are covered by the media.

“Conservatives and particularly more extreme right-wing politics are very well covered in the media, so then I think that probably fuels the perception that there is a growing number of conservatives in the community, including young people,” she says.

“I think we need to be cautious when we interpret what’s covered in the media versus what the general population of young people may be thinking about what their positions on different political issues might be.”

Despite these hurdles, both Collin and Dr Jill Sheppard, a lecturer at Australian National University agree young people’s political views aren’t following any shift to the right – perceived or otherwise.

Dr Jill Sheppard is a political science researcher at Australian National University. Photo: Australian National University.

“I’d be really surprised if that was the case. What we’re seeing is a kind of shift to the left in terms of public opinion … we’re seeing a shift to those attitudes across the board and they’re mostly being driven by people under 40,” Sheppard says.

Changing connections

Seemingly in response to conservative policies gaining wide-spread traction, the political protest appears to be undergoing a renaissance as well, being reborn through the massive reach of social media. From city-stopping marches to small, directed demonstrations, people power remains a popular tool for campaign organisers to use.

Only a few minutes before I met with Walsh, a group of socialists had briefly protested the event and debated him on the spot, eventually leading to a call to police.

“If they do put the whole video on Facebook, I reckon that will work in my favour, because … I think I turned out to be the better man after debating,” he says.

Later, discussing One Nation’s policies, Walsh says the protest was an example of what One Nation was fighting.

“This socialist demonstration that was here at the coffee shop was a clear example of Western culture being attacked, just attacking free speech, simply because I don’t agree with people wearing the burka,” he says.

Student activist Aislinn Stephenson was part of the group of socialists who confronted Tyler that morning, and says it was about fighting back against “racist ideas”.

“He shouldn’t be able to promote them [racist ideas] without some backlash, because those ideas should not be accepted by wider society, so we can’t just let that go unchallenged,” she says.

Philippa Collin says activities like this are examples of young peoples’ interest in issues over traditional party politics, which is driving both youth to be socially progressive, as well as creating new ways to interact with democracy.

“While we do see a decline across the community in more traditional forms of political participation, like joining a political party, we do see young people engaging online around political issues of concern,” she says.

“They’re more likely to be members of looser membership-based organisations like the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and indeed starting up their own campaigns and forming networks and taking action in their local community.”

She says these new approaches to politics initially created headaches for academics.

“Younger people have started to participate in ways that we necessarily weren’t expecting as researchers, so for a little while we weren’t even measuring it because we just really weren’t sure they even existed,” she says.

“That’s been fascinating to watch.”

Collin also points out this changing relationship with political involvement doesn’t mean young people aren’t interested in running in elections.

“So when we think about those new forms of political participation I think it’s important to resist the temptation to say that young people don’t care about elections or more traditional, institutional forms of politics, because clearly they are seeing their participation in parliament as an important strategy for addressing the lack of representation of youth issues in government.”

Jill Sheppard shares a similar sentiment, pointing to the more than 120 candidates aged under 35 running for the first time in the last election. She says part of the benefit of being young is having the time to dedicate to campaigning, without other distractions.

“In some electorates we’re finding young people do have that time, and not only the time to run, but the incredible motivation,” she says.

“If you’re frustrated with climate change and you’re a student who has some sort of flexibility, I can absolutely see why you’re going to want to run in the seat. It gets people talking about issues.”

So are alliances changing?

For many young Australians, the first time their political views will be challenged is in the classroom, as they begin to develop their own opinions on social issues, rather than following those of their parents.

Political and Legal Educators Association of WA vice-president Cherie Russell has taught politics and law for around 20 years, and says students’ political leanings have remained almost unchanged over that time.

“You tend to get kids who, when you start teaching them about political concepts and democracy and democratic principles, they’re very conservative. From when they’re about 13, 14, possibly 15, they’re usually quite conservative,” she says.

“It’s like their parents are talking, it’s not them talking.

“When they start to learn more about the political process and they get older and they start to separate from their parents’ views, and they’re trying to develop some of their own views, usually, not always but usually, we find that they become less conservative.”

Russell says she agrees with Sheppard and Collin that young people aren’t necessarily leaning more to the right but says the way her students talk about politics has certainly shifted over time.

“I think for a little while it wasn’t cool to talk about conservative politics, but … people are relaxing about it a little bit more and they’re becoming a bit bolder.”

University of WA Liberal Club president Jacob Kerspien agrees but says young conservatives still deal with a strong stigma.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more young people who are willing to say they’re conservative when they’re voting, but not willing to say they’re conservative when they’re just walking the streets, talking to their friends,” he says.

Kerspien says the Coalition’s surprise win at the polls could go a long way to changing that perception until the next election.

“What we may start to see is people realising, actually, maybe there are more young people and more people within the community that do think the way I think, and then be more open and willing to express that,” he says.

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