John Hewson
Labor needs young voters

Anthony Albanese could end up being a one-term prime minister if he can’t keep the faith with the young people who helped him to last year’s decisive election victory. Recent surveys suggest a cocktail of pandemic-related stresses is forging a generation of financially aware, politically engaged and resilient young people.

Generation Z and Millennials have lost faith in government, judging by the recently released “Bridging the Generational Gap” report from advocacy group Think Forward. Its survey shows 87 per cent of respondents don’t believe the federal government is doing enough to help young people achieve their goals, while 69 per cent believe older generations don’t contribute a fair share within the tax system.

There are many factors at work here. Overall, young people attribute their growing wariness of government leaders to poor performance. An Australian Electoral Commission study in 2004 found a widely held view among first-time voters that politicians were “promise-breakers” who were “not interested in young people” and “behaved badly in parliament”. This has surely not changed since – probably even deepened as the broad electorate’s confidence in the moral integrity of politicians sank recently to its lowest level ever. The issue of integrity was dominant in the 2022 election in light of the appalling standards of the Morrison government. This sentiment is now spreading to include the performance of the Albanese government.

Specific issues are defining. The Australian Election Study by the Australian National University in 2019 found 66 per cent of voters surveyed cast their ballot on key policy issues – the most important was the economy, followed by health and Medicare. But the issues that concerned younger voters were different. Half of the 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed identified an environmental issue as their top consideration in the 2019 election. The greatest economic issue of concern was property prices. These topics were again top of mind in the 2022 election. Job insecurity has also been a focus for many young people, especially those who have worked in the hospitality sector and other casual jobs that bore the brunt of the pandemic-related shutdowns.

Not surprisingly, the cost-of-living crisis has severely affected young people who have come out of the pandemic facing mounting HECS debts and high rates of underemployment, along with increasingly unaffordable housing, both to buy or rent.

While the federal and state governments claim to be aware of these challenges, and even go so far as to say they have been addressing them, young people see their statements mostly as hubris, adding to their scepticism about politicians and government. For example, both major parties have sought credit for housing initiatives such as first-home owners’ grants and deposit assistance schemes. Though well-intentioned, such initiatives don’t really help with affordability, as developers just increase house prices by the same amount, delivering another windfall to those who don’t need it.

Intergenerational inequity is the consequence of failed government policy responses. This is most evident in the tax system, which concentrates concessions and various tax breaks to the benefit of older, wealthier Australians – most conspicuously with concessions in superannuation, capital gains and access to arrangements such as negative gearing that favour wealthy investors, making housing less affordable for our youth. That’s before we get to the stage three tax cuts that will concentrate benefits on higher-income earners, especially those earning more than $180,000 a year, and the absence of wealth or inheritance taxes.

Even though the government has, so far, stuck by its commitment to deliver the stage three tax cuts, it is increasingly difficult to understand how they can stick with this stance while fighting inflation. With a total cost of more than $300 billion, these cuts would represent a very significant injection of cash and therefore probably additional spending into our economy at a time when the Reserve Bank of Australia is still struggling to pull inflation back to its target range of 2-3 per cent.

The government is focusing on the political risks of dropping the stage three tax cuts, with Dutton having already elevated them to the status of a core promise. But this is one that younger voters would be glad to see broken. Labor has a range of options to consider to keep the cuts but amend their structure. Four were presented last month in a report by The Australia Institute, which its chief economist, Greg Jericho, says would be $70 billion to $130 billion cheaper over a decade than the current model.

“There is a middle ground between delivering Stage 3 as legislated under the Coalition and cancelling them altogether,” Jericho said in a TAI release. “Any of the four scenarios would also give the biggest boost to people earning under $120,000 who are most affected by bracket creep.”

It seems likely there will be at least one more increase in interest rates, probably in February. To deliver the stage three tax cuts would risk even more rate increases, which seem to have a disproportionate impact on young people already struggling with high rents and mortgages and which benefit older Australians – especially those who already own their home and will reap increased interest on their savings in retirement.

Moreover, the government must recognise that the people suffering most from higher inflation are not those driving it. A report last week from CommBank iQ showed that 25- to 29-year-olds have curbed their spending, both essential and discretionary, by more than 5 per cent over the year, while over-65s have boosted their overall expenditure by 6 per cent.

Young voters are concerned governments shy away from genuine tax reform, fearing its short-term electoral consequences and recognising the ease with which various vested interests as well as their political opponents can mount effective scare campaigns.

Young people are also angry about inequity that has arisen from longer-term structural issues such as climate, budget repair and low productivity. They know the inadequate policy responses from today’s governments mean the growing task of resolving these problems will be left to their generations.

Although the Albanese government seems to have been more active on the climate challenge than its predecessors – having introduced clear, legislated commitments to net zero emissions by 2050, with other interim targets on emissions and renewables, and the safeguards mechanism to deal with the heavy polluting sectors – considerable doubt remains about the adequacy of their policy responses. And there’s a sense of injustice surrounding the government’s continued reluctance to accept its duty of care in relation to future generations.

The response of the parties to the youth challenge has been mixed, with the Greens being more visibly opportunistic, not only with their environment policies but also, more recently, in attempting to attract the votes of renters. The constraint on the Greens is they lack the power to deliver and must work with, and compromise with, the major parties and independents to sway legislative outcomes.

Labor has tended to attract most of the youth vote, certainly more than the Coalition. However, both have been losing support to the Greens over the past few decades. The Coalition hit a low point of just 23 per cent of the 18- to 34-year-old voter group in the 2019 election, with the Greens reaching their peak of 28 per cent and Labor securing 37 per cent.

The number of 18- to 24-year-old enrolled voters has increased to 1,788,451, or 92 per cent of those eligible – above the national target of 87 per cent and compared with 1.6 million in March 2022. This latest total is equal to about 10 per cent of total voters.

Of course, as significant as these numbers seem, these young voters still have to turn up to be counted. The ANU study pointed out young Australians had been as diligent as older Australians about turning up on election day, though inner-city electorates did see a drop in the youth vote in 2019. There should be some concern that the mounting distrust of Australian politicians and loss of faith in the country’s political processes could become sufficient for young people to stop bothering.

The context for the next election is unfortunately already apparent from the recent behaviour of the opposition and its media mates, and what they are describing as the government’s “worst week in parliament”. They have not let up critiquing Albanese’s absence overseas, ignoring completely any success he has had in a series of high-level meetings. Now they are insisting he should have been in Australia to deal with the cost-of-living crisis and with the consequences of the recent High Court decision that indefinite detention of refugees is illegal, and are digging into his failure to raise in his meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping the recent incident in which Australian Navy divers were injured by a Chinese warship’s use of sonar.

These are attempts to highlight any shortcomings on the government’s part regarding the Coalition’s supposed core strengths – defence and the economy – seizing its perceived advantage in the wake of an “expensive” referendum on the Voice to Parliament. The most recent manifestation of this strategy has been to attempt to force Albanese into a very embarrassing “reset” of his government on the basis of a reshuffle of his ministry.

The opposition strategy remains an attempt to destroy the Albanese government or at the very least to demonstrate incompetence.

This political behaviour and pointscoring will certainly add to the wariness of young voters, probably ensuring their voice is even more impactful at the 2025 election.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2023 as "Youth hostile".

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