Feature Story

Young polly syndrome

Georgie Carey was 21 when she woke to find her phone flooded with messages. She was a candidate for the Town of Mosman Park Council and was about to experience her first taste of political trolling.

Amy Astill was 19 when the strange calls began. Her campaign for the Kalgoorlie-Boulder Council had just launched, and so too had the targeted abuse.

Wyatt Roy was 20 when he stepped into the halls of Federal Parliament. His political opponents had spent the past few months relentlessly focused on his age.

Young politicians across Australia are speaking out about their experiences, detailing the ways in which their age has been used to undermine, intimidate, and terrify them.

Threats against elected representatives are on the rise in Australia, with the Australian Federal Police revealing reports have tripled in the past three years. In 2022, there were 548 investigations conducted into harassment, nuisance, and other threats against members of Parliament and candidates. The vast majority were received during the Federal election, prompting the establishment of a dedicated taskforce for protecting elected representatives.

“I did not sign up for this.”

Deputy mayor Georgie Carey had just started high school when she first became involved with the Town of Mosman Park. She wanted to meet other young people in the local area, so she joined the Youth Advisory Council and started helping to organise and run events. It was here she noticed a lack of representation on the council.

“I just remember thinking how can we be making the best decisions for our community which is incredibly incredibly diverse when we have a council that doesn’t reflect that at all,” she says.

“A third of the people in Mosman Park were under the age of 30 and there was no one close to being that age on council. I just thought that was crazy.”

She decided to run in 2017 and admits she was definitely out of her depth.

“I pretty much had no idea what I was doing and I was kind of making it up as I went along,” she says. “I was Googling ‘how to run a campaign’.”

Carey realised if she wanted to be effective, she needed a unique strategy and social media quickly became her point of difference. She developed a professional looking Facebook page and provided regular updates on her campaign. She made comments about community issues and pushed for more diverse representation on local councils.

One evening, she came across an article from then Minister for Local Government David Templeman criticising local government for being too male, pale, and stale. Agreeing with his sentiment, she shared the article to her page with a message encouraging greater diversity on councils.

The next morning, she saw her page had been trolled.

Her post had been shared to a far-right Facebook group which encouraged its followers to give her a piece of their mind. Her address and phone number had been posted on Reddit and 4chan, inciting threats and degrading comments from people around the world. She no longer felt safe in her home and community.

Six years on, Carey still remembers the experience vividly.

“It was terrifying,” she says.

“It made me question whether or not I wanted to do this.”

“I’m not interested in being abused.”

Georgie Carey, Town of Mosman Park Deputy Mayor

Carey’s local government required candidates to post their personal address on all campaign materials. After the abuse began, she removed her details but says it wasn’t long before someone complained.

“Once that happened, I kind of understood that it was potentially another candidate that had instigated this,” she says.

“I thought if this is what local government is like, I did not sign up for this.”

“People want me to speak less and less.”

Councillor Amy Astill doesn’t know when the next phone call will come.

A long-time Kalgoorlie-Boulder resident, she was elected to the local council in 2021 at just 19 years of age.

Shortly after nominating, she began to receive disturbing calls from members of the community.

“You either get really disgusting phone calls about sexuality and all these things, or you get people calling you a little girl and [telling you] to get back in your box,” she says.

“I’ve had phone calls of people calling up saying ‘oh if only I was 30 years younger, you know, I’d be all over you’.”

“People could say and would say anything about me that they possibly could.”

Amy Astill, City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder councillor

Astill’s pathway to politics started in 2017 when she was a participant of the national Country to Canberra competition. She became involved with the local youth council and later went on to become Youth Mayor, describing the experience as a launchpad for her council aspirations.

“I actually saw that we were helping the community and that definitely would have been a stepping stone for me going on to ordinary Council,” she says.

“I’m a regional young female, and I felt like that kind of block of people were seriously misrepresented and underrepresented in governing bodies and particularly in local councils, so I put up my hand for it and gave it a crack.”

Her optimism was quickly challenged, however, when she became a councillor. Her schedule was not as flexible as some of her colleagues and this presented a challenge when it came to council commitments.  

“I’m a young person paying off a HECS debt and I need to work full time,” she says.

“I have two kittens to look after and a house. I can’t take off time from work otherwise I won’t have a job.”

When she spoke to colleagues about this, she says she was met with a lack of understanding and respect. She describes feeling isolated as senior councillors discouraged her from talking during council meetings and tried to intimidate her in private settings.

“I thought there was going to be a lot more support and mentorship around the table, especially from those people in high positions,” she says.

“Now that I’ve found my voice and am learning more about local council and how it operates people want me to speak less and less.”

“Extremely aggressive and negative”

Former MP Wyatt Roy knows what it’s like to be targeted for your age.

A self-confessed unlikely politician, he became the youngest person to be elected to the Australian Parliament after being preselected at just 19 years old.

He describes hitting the campaign trail as a character-building experience.

“You’re meeting thousands and thousands of people so that’s a very unique opportunity to get to know so many different people from so many different walks of life,” he says.

“Having conviction about what you believe in and trying to convince people about how to make a positive difference is really important.”

Roy says his critics were focused on one thing.

“My political opponents ran an extremely aggressive and negative campaign solely around my age,” he says.

“It was extremely controversial, the idea that a 19-year-old could be running for parliament.”

Wyatt Roy

“Their whole campaign was that a young person shouldn’t be elected to Parliament.”

Roy noticed political parties wanted young people to get involved but took them for granted when it came to representation.

Voters in Roy’s electorate didn’t share this perspective. In 2010, he was elected as the Member for Longman, attracting a 3.8% swing. He served in the Australian Parliament for six years and became the youngest Minister in Commonwealth history at age 25. When he lost his seat in 2016, Roy had spent a fifth of his life as an elected member.

“They were happy to sort of take their votes but not [say] that they should be in Parliament,” he says.

Greater representation, greater acceptance

For Astill, encouraging young people to run presents an ethical dilemma.

“Everyone who’s a young person and puts their hand up for politics probably gets that kind of response as well and faces all of those conversations and hardships,” she says.

“How do you convince another young person to put their hand up if you know that they’re going to go through that as well?”

Carey agrees but hopes young people can see the benefits in greater diversity, She says: “I would love to see more young people and more women and just more people from underrepresented groups running.

“The more representative our councils can be of our communities the better.”

Roy believes young people can positively influence politics if they are willing to put their hand up and have a go.

“The next generation will probably have more acceptance that the people who run for Parliament should be real people. They should have flaws, they should have stupid things that they’ve done in the past because that allows them to have empathy with other people and allows them to be real,” he says.

“The easiest thing in life is to sit on the sidelines and complain. The hardest thing to do is to step into the breach and say ‘this is who I am, this is what I’m about, this is the difference that I want to make’.”