One million votes against politics

Acute disengagement of younger voters from Australia’s political system is coinciding with intense discussion about the irrelevance of politicians. And it’s taking place outside of traditional media.

There may be absolutely no connection between any of these things, but something like 500,000 or so people aged between 18 and 24 did not register to vote at the last federal election. That’s 25 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds.  And a Lowy Institute poll in June found that fewer than half of 18 to 29 year old Australians believe that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.

Then there’s the fact that almost 740,000 Australians voted informal. How many of them were registering a ‘protest’ vote is unknown but it’s likely many of them, especially younger people, were making a statement: we refuse to vote for any of these parties.

Taken together – those who didn’t register to vote and those who deliberately voted informal – perhaps a million Australians did not take part in one of the most significant days of any parliamentary democracy, the election of a government.

Now this might be a stretch in terms of connections, but a couple of weeks ago, the British comedian Russell Brand was guest editor of the English left-wing weekly, The New Statesman. Brand wrote a 5000 word article outlining how corrupt was the ‘old’ politics in Britain, how compromised were politicians and how he would never take part in the charade of voting in any British election. What was needed, he argued, was a revolution.

It is entirely possible that Brand’s essay would have been read by a few thousand diehard New Statesman readers and that would have been it, but the BBC’s Newsnight program decided that Brand’s article was newsworthy. Brand was interviewed on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman, who more often is seen grilling prime ministers and other political luminaries, rather than comedians.

The interview was more or less predictable. Paxman and Brand live in different worlds. Paxman played the serious interviewer; Brand was determined not to engage the way Paxman was insisting he should. That interview went viral on YouTube. It has had nearly 8 million hits.

Given that Brand attracted large audiences in Melbourne and Sydney when he toured Australia last June, thousands of Australians, perhaps tens of thousands, most of them probably under 40, have watched the interview and then, if Facebook and Twitter are any guide, have read Brand’s essay and are engaged in a furious debate on social media about Brand’s call for a revolution.

On The Huffington Post and on other digital news sites, there are angry rebuttals of Brand’s views, especially his call for people not to vote in any elections. These rebuttals are circulating on Facebook and Twitter. There is an intense and mostly intelligent debate going on involving many thousands of people.

This debate is not just about Brand’s essay and not just about the lack of any connection between Paxman and Brand in the interview, but also about the many failings of politicians and the ‘political system’ as well as mainstream journalism. Nothing much – if anything – about any of this has been covered by Australian newspapers or by commercial television and the ABC.

Australia is not Britain and it might be hard to imagine an Australian comedian leading a debate about whether ‘old’ politics is dying and whether the political system has atrophied and has turned malign, but many Australians are engaged in the Brand debate.

It is a mistake to dismiss people like Brand as clowns who lack the weight and gravitas of a Jeremy Paxman. Britain may not be Italy but still, in Italy the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement – which basically had no policies at all – won close to 25 per cent of the vote in the Italian election in February. This despite the fact that Silvio Berlusconi owned and controlled most of the Italian media.

Australia may not be America, but in America Jon Stewart, who hosts The Daily Show, a fake news show on cable television, is among the most trusted political commentators and media critics in the country for people aged under 40. This says something about the degree of disengagement of young people with mainstream media, not to mention mainstream politics. Perhaps the two go together.

So is all this connected? The fact that a quarter of young people don’t even bother registering to vote in Australia and that many who did vote voted informal as an act of protest? The fact that almost half of Australians under 40 have such little faith in democracy and that Brand’s angry but often funny essay about the need for a revolution is being debated so widely on social media?

Perhaps. It is certainly true that US politicians are held in record low esteem. American democracy, if not in crisis, is in gridlock. Politicians in Britain and in much of Europe don’t fare much better, in part because of the scars and wounds left by the GFC and its aftermath.

But only in part. Australia did not go through any great trauma during the GFC and its aftermath and yet politicians in Australia are not exactly loved and respected. It is startling that half of Australians under 40 believe democracy is not necessarily much better than other systems of government.

The fact is that for many young people, the 20th century is ancient history. The great and bloody battles against totalitarianism, fascism and communism are no longer part of a lived experience and so there is no visceral sense of what a lack of faith in democracy can mean.

This is beginning to sound like Jeremy Paxman. That’s bad. It sounds like an ‘old’ media journalist lamenting the digital revolution and the rise of social media at a time when professional journalism is deeply wounded.

And as a result of the rise of social media and the decline of mainstream journalism, people like Russell Brand, a comedian, can write a political essay that will be read by hundreds of thousands of people. And it will be fiercely debated on Facebook and Twitter and on a myriad of blogs and this will take place without the mainstream media covering the Brand phenomenon at all. 

Journalism isn’t what it used to be and neither for that matter is politics. It seems that increasing numbers of people are disillusioned with the political parties and with mainstream politics and that they are able to share their disillusionment with millions of others of like mind.

Where this will lead no-one knows because the digital revolution is still in its infancy. But all revolutions have unforeseen – and sometimes unintended – consequences. The digital revolution will be no exception.