April 6th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Stem cell research: the way forward

The facts behind the 'people overboard' affair

Opinion: The banks' power over small business

STRAWS: Selective amnesia / Slow boat to China / Tower of Babel

TRADE: Sugar price collapse threatens future of canegrowers

MEDIA: Debating points

New Zealand faces winter of discontent

Manufacturing: an endangered species (letter)

Afghan specialities (letter)

The great water debate: facts and myths

COMMENT: Healthy disinterest no bad thing

UNITED STATES: Behind Washington's self-serving free trade rhetoric

Switzerland, Taiwan seek UN membership

HISTORY: Demons and Democrats: the story of the Labor Split

Books: JOHN GORTON: He Did It His Way, by Ian Hancock

MEDIA: Stem cells: what debate?

Books promotion page

Healthy disinterest no bad thing

by Michael Scammell

News Weekly, April 6, 2002

A survey showing a distinct lack of interest by young Australians in issues such as politics and citizenship is hardly surprising - and quite possibly, not a bad thing at all.

The survey recently released by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) suggests that Australia's 14-year olds do not consider it important to follow political debates and lacked understanding of democratic institutions and their civil rights.

Usually such a survey would generate comment about disenfranchised youth and how the behaviour of our politicians in recent times - dodgy behaviour, children overboard, Governor General and child abuse - have turned the young off.

If only our political and civic elites could lift their game, Australia's young would again embrace the choices of political and civic activism - or so the logic goes.


But really this is to do the demographic a disservice. Gen X are much more savvy than that. This is the generation which understands exactly how communications, the media, the spin-doctoring and marketing of politics works - they know exactly what goes on under the steaming bonnet of public life.

It is doubtful the behaviour of the Howard Government over children overboard would draw more than a yawn from this demographic in terms of the moral and ethical complexities of the issue. What would excite their attention is how, in communication terms, it looks so bad.

The great mistake a survey such as this one makes is its presumptions about the primacy and importance of conventional politics to the young and modern Australian life generally. As any GenXer will tell you, this is terribly passé.

In reality, the economic rationalist policies of Australian politics, the freeing up of market structures and the advance of communication technologies has meant that real power - what shapes Australia - is driven by economics, business, media and communications.

Conventional Australian politics is just another Nintendo game that Australian youth can play - and, as no doubt the 14-year olds in the ACER survey could tell you, probably a very outmoded game at that.

The significance of politics and civic life implied in the ACER survey is very much a Baby Boomer conceit, driven as much by memories of the halcyon days of 60s and 70s politics, when indeed it was "time for change" and Gough Ruled - OK.

No doubt the Baby Boomer perspective help explains the response to the survey by a spokeswoman for the Australian Electoral Commission, who was quoted in one newspaper as saying that increasing the involvement of young people in the political processes is "a priority".

Nothing showed this generational contrast of perspectives more than the International Women's Day coverage in The Age recently.

While the day generated the usual Baby Boomer copy on feminist issues, a series of vox pops of young women was much more instructive.

Whether it was Christine, 29 ("I didn't really think it was relevant to us"), Sally, 28 ("I simply don't consider the type [male politicians] worthy of time or energy") or Kate, 29 ("We're very comfortable with our own identities"). Conventional politics (albeit on this occasion feminist politics) was the last thing on these young people's minds.

Media hype

It's not that young Australians, by ignoring Australia's political structures are ignoring politics per se - rather they are cutting to the chase of what politics really is about. They know that debates over issues such as refugees or the Governor General are more about image and the media and selling a version of story, rather than about political office or some greater morality.

It is instructive to note too that the ACER survey found television to be the preferred source of information for 80 percent of Australian students.

Rather than an indictment of young people's desire to have their information spoon-fed to them, this accurately reflects their perceptiveness in recognising that politics is increasingly a made-for-television game where image is everything.

As noted by high school principal, Paul Rose, commenting on the survey results in The Age recently:

"At that age they [14 year olds] tended to focus on things related to their lives. Events that don't impact on their lives are of passing interest."

Rather than being ill-informed about politics and civic life, comments such as the above suggest Gen X are perhaps the most Realpolitik people going around today.

  • Michael Scammell is a Melbourne writer - michaelscammell@hotmail.com

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