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Empowering Youth participation in Australian federal politics | They’re not the leaders of tomorrow, they’re leaders of today

Growing up, I always heard that, ‘youth are the leaders of tomorrow.’ 

It was said in good faith, often inspirationally, but the more I think about it the more I’ve been questioning the validity of this statement; and reflecting on how society, particularly our political institutions minimise and exclude youth participation in public decision-making.   

In an interview with Her Canberra, youth advocate and 2021 Youth Influencer of the Year, Yasmine Poole said, “… Often, the youth of Australia are completely disenfranchised. They’re not included in ordinary decision-making.” 

“Instead, decisions about their well-being and future are made in boardrooms by people completely disconnected from their reality …”

And she’s right. 

Youth should be included in the decision-making processes that directly impact them because Australian youth are not the leaders of tomorrow. 

They’re the leaders of today.

Youth today have demonstrated time and time again that not only are they wise, capable, and should be included in these discussions. They’ve demonstrated that they’re our key stakeholders with the most to lose in these conversations. 

We’ve seen the incredible work that’s been done internationally by passionate, young politicians creating change and offering fresh perspectives. Closer to home, across the Tasman, we’ve seen the difference that one young politician can make to a whole country and the world has been watching with avid interest.  

Yasmin Poole. Source: www.yasminpoole.com

It’s arbitrary and prejudicial to deny active and thoughtful participation on the basis of age. 

That being said, how feasible is it for youth to be decision-makers in Australian federal politics? 

It turns out there are a few who have already achieved this.

Meet Australia’s Youngest Members of Parliament 

→ Jordon Steele-John (Senator): Elected in 2017, he became Australia’s youngest parliamentarian at 25.

→ Claire Chandler (Senator): In 2019, she was Australia’s youngest female senator at 29.

→ Phillip Thompson (MP): In 2019, he was Australia’s youngest Member of Parliament (MP) at 31.

Notable mentions also goes to Sarah Hanson-Young (Senator): who was the youngest Australian woman to ever be elected to Australian Parliament at 25 in 2007; and Wyatt Roy (MP): elected at 20 was in Parliament from 2010 – 2016, and is the youngest elected MP in Australia’s political history.

According to Senator Steele-John, “… the reality is that our parliament will only be able to function effectively when it represents the broad diversity of the community that it is elected to make decisions on behalf of. And it currently doesn’t.”

MP Anika Mills, who was the youngest female senator in 2019, is of a similar opinion.  

She told SBS News, “2019 is the first year in which we have more Australians born after 1980 than before, and more millennials in the workforce than baby boomers and Gen Xers combined, but we only form 10 per cent of parliament.”    

“[Young Australians] are actually vastly underrepresented.”    

It’s even more disheartening when you look at the disparity in representation of the different age demographics across federal Parliament: 

→ 7 MPs are aged between ages of 18 – 34 

→ 191 are between ages of 35 – 64 

→ 13 are aged 65 and over.

These statements and statistics highlight the need for greater diversity in our Parliament and note the urgent shortage of youth representation in these spaces, particularly young Women of Colour.

Where are all the young Australian South Asian women in Australian politics?

For any young aspiring Australian South Asian women interested in politics, you may have noticed a distinct lack of politicians who look like us and a complete absence of any representation under the age of 30. 

Currently, there are very few Women of Colour in Australian politics and only one woman of South Asian descent.

With Greens Senator, Dr. Mehreen Faraqui being the only South Asian woman currently, in Australian federal politics. 

Thanks to the Australian South Asian Centre’s (ASAC) recent Australian Stellar South Asian Women 2021 series, we know that Former Senator, Lisa Singh was the first person of Indian descent elected to the Australian Parliament in 2010. And prior to her time in the Senate, Lisa was elected to the Tasmanian Parliament in 2006, when she was 34. But beyond Lisa and Mehreen, we don’t know much more about the participation and achievements of other South Asian women at a national level. 

But it’s not just Australian South Asian women who are underrepresented in Australian politics, there’s a deficit of Women of Colour across cultural and ethnic backgrounds, especially those representing LGBTQIA+, disabled, neurodivergent, and Indigenous peoples. 

Greens Senator, Dr. Mehreen Faruqi Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mehreen-Faruqi-2019.jpg

Despite celebrating 100 years since the first woman was elected to an Australian Parliament, according to Run For It Australia and the Guardian, our federal parliament doesn’t even have us close to achieving gender equity within its membership with only 32.3% of seats being held by women. 

Looking at the makeup of our Parliament, it’s clear that its lack of intersectionality highlights what we already know: it fails to be an accurate representation of Australia and Australians. 

Where does this leave us now?

Although it’s encouraging to see more youth engagement in politics, the young politicians mentioned above are the exception and not the rule; it’s still rare to see politicians under the age of 30 in Australia. The Australian Parliament House’s ’Quick Guide’ published earlier this year showcases historically what youth participation in federal politics has looked like since 1901. Spoiler: it’s a short list. 

Overall, Australian politics has been and is dominated by older, white, male politicians, which has popularised the description of the Australian political landscape as being, “pale, male and stale.” 

Back in 2019, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Technology Sydney,  Andrew Jakubowicz told SBS News, “Parliament is essentially a white club, it is essentially a white boys club … The dynamic of change which is sweeping through the Australian community more widely is very apparent at the state level, but at the federal level it seems to have been squeezed out.” 

For context, this is what our federal Cabinet looks like in 2021. You can judge for yourself if Prof. Jakubowicz’s comments from 2019 still apply:

Source: https://www.pm.gov.au/your-government

“At the Australian South Asian Centre (ASAC), along with wanting to see youth better represented in Australian politics, we’re also keen to see more young Women of Colour, especially those of South Asian heritage enter politics and represent us and our views,” said Sehar Gupta, Co-founder of the Australian South Asian Centre, when asked her thoughts about the lack of diversity in Australian politics.

“We want to see young Australian South Asian women: get seats at the table when it comes time to influencing domestic and international policy; have a say about what’s on the agenda; determining national and state priorities; and play an active role in deciding the direction that our country will be heading in.”

When you think about it, it’s weird that we haven’t seen this representation already in Australian politics considering that the 2016 Census found that approximately 50% of Australians were born overseas or had one parent born overseas and that ‘almost one-quarter of Australians speak languages other than English in their homes.’ 

It’s also clear from the results of the 2020 Census that this number has only grown since then:

Source: https://www.abs.gov.au/media-centre/media-releases/30-australias-population-born-overseas

With these statistics in mind, it’s hard to reconcile that only:

8% of our MPs have non-English speaking backgrounds and 

4.1% of the MPs and senators in federal Parliament are of Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Pacific Islander heritage, but these groups represent 21% of Australia’s population.

The numbers don’t add up, and yet no solutions have been adopted to overcome this systemic underrepresentation.

Unsurprisingly, there’s growing community interest in seeing more young people engaged in Australian political discourse. And in the absence of an internal solution, more and more initiatives and organisations like Raise Our Voice Australia and its ‘Youth Voice in Parliament’ campaign, are being created to specifically address this issue.

A new opportunity to diversify federal politics

With federal elections gearing up for next year, it’s now more important than ever to look closely at who is representing us, whether their interests and values are actually aligned with what we care about, and who deserves our vote. 

More than ever, we should also be on the lookout for new faces and names and see what they bring to the table; and not write them off simply because of their age.

It’s encouraging to see more and more young people recognise that they can make a difference in how our country is run by getting involved in public decision-making and running for public office.

These incremental changes to the Australian Parliament and the increasing inclusion of youth engagement in politics gives me hope that we’re moving in a direction where politics and policies align with the values, attitudes and beliefs of all Australians. 

I am optimistic that in the near future, being ‘young’ will no longer be a barrier to entry, but a strength and that the political landscape will become a more accurate and nuanced reflection of the true diversity of our country. 

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