When I was 16 years old, I was quite politically engaged. It was 2007 and I was very much aware of the changing political climate, the buzz around emerging political personalities, the new engagement opportunities that websites like Twitter afforded both politicians and punters, the political themed comedies that saturated both government and commercial television, and of course, the personality based, almost American, style of advertising which plastered everything from mugs to t-shirts to keyrings.
I desperately wanted to vote and remember eagerly watching Antony Green, Kerry O’Brien, and Tony Jones discuss the ins, outs, swings and misses as the results rolled in that evening. I wanted to have my say, let my voice be heard and be a part of the process that held so much promise of change. I think I would have felt like this regardless of who I was intending to vote for- the system was working; our right to freedom of expression was being utilised, and everyone was able to have their voice heard as an active citizen.
Except, I felt, for me. I was only 16. Even if I could tweet my support to the party I had chosen to support, it was only words! Who cares what I had to say?! No one, clearly, because I wasn’t allowed to vote. Who would listen to someone whose only reason to go to the voting centre was to get a democracy sausage (with extra onion and tomato sauce)?
Still, despite my frustration with my parents for not having me two years earlier, I sat and watched and absorbed and counted how many days it would be until I could have my say (the next state election was 1 year and 10 months after my 18th birthday -excruciating!), but never once did I wish that the voting age was lower. Perhaps it was because, in all the instances I listed above- the frantic retweeting, the late nights watching the election coverage, the in-depth reading of the political sections of the paper (not just the parts with puppies, recipes and movie reviews) -through all of it, I was predominantly alone.
Yes, I had some friends who were mildly interested; some who allowed me to waffle on for a little while before their daydreams could no longer drown me out and, of course, there were others who enjoyed the satirical skits I posted on the very earliest incarnations of my social media accounts, but there were only one or two who engaged with the political climate as much as I did. And I wasn’t even that fanatical!
It wasn’t their fault. We all grew up in a privileged area and had little to worry about. Most of the issues in the 2007 Federal election seemed pretty far off to most 16 year olds. I knew people who were planning to “vote whichever way [their] parents did” when they hit 18. And none of my friends knew anything about what went on inside the school gym on Election Day. To be honest, when it came down to the mechanics of it all, especially where the preferences all went, I wasn’t super confident myself. It wasn’t that unusual. So, Political Me thought she was in the minority. And maybe I was!
But when I, as a teacher, look around my classroom now, I think that perhaps my political interest has now become more common place. When I go out to classrooms, students are often engaged, interested and curious, reporting back that they found our sessions helpful and fun, and often mention that they were considered “very political” when they completed our “How Political Am I?” quiz on our Decide page.
It’s really no surprise; our current political climate is dominated by Twitter and Facebook, and as such, young people- including those who are underage- are considerably more politically aware, if only through exposure. We have television programs like Q and A which feature “youth only” audiences, we see the youngest representatives yet being voted in, and we see young people all over the world mobilising to take action about things they care about.
Protests, petitions, people power; walk outs, sit ins, shut downs; young people are looking to be involved in the political arena. Some areas of the UK (namely the Isle of Man, and Scotland during the independence referendum) included 16-17 year olds in their recent elections. And now, in Australia, a bill has been introduced to the Senate which calls for 16 and 17 year olds to be given the opportunity to vote – the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering Voting Age and Increasing Voter Participation) Bill 2018.
I’m still not sure what my views are on this issue- there are pros and cons for either side- and frankly, my opinion isn’t the focus here. But if young Australians are given the vote, we as educators, need to ensure they know what to do with it. Voting is a big deal. It’s important. It matters. That’s why the VEC takes our education programs so seriously.
We not only provide free resources to help teachers teach students about how our electoral system works, but we also go out to schools and run incursions featuring mock elections so students have a chance to practice voting using the preferential system and real voting materials. Voting for the first time can be overwhelming, and as so much of our young peoples’ education comes from global pop culture, it’s important that they understand how the Australian, and specifically the Victorian, system works. They will learn, for instance, that they don’t mark their ballot papers with a tick or cross, and that they need to put more than one number down, to ensure their vote is ‘formal’ (valid).
If we are a citizen of this country (and of age) it is our responsibility to vote. We have knowledge. We have experience. Sometimes, even with all of their passion and excitement, young people can lack the practical knowledge which we can offer them. We need to give them the tools to ensure their voice is heard so they can effect change in the world in the way they want to. Even if this voting age bill fails and doesn’t go any further than the headlines, the passing on of our knowledge is still vital, as in two years the 16 year olds it might have affected will be given the keys to electoral participation.
You can be a part of equipping future voters with the skills to ensure their vote does have an impact on their world- by using the free resources we provide, both on the website and the blog, and by requesting the Passport to Democracy team to come out to your school and run a mock election and discuss democratic rights and responsibilities with your students. It’s our nation, our state and our future – and it’s ultimately our responsibility to ensure that the next generation can similarly participate. Let the VEC help. Contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out our booking form HERE.