While there was plenty of heat in Sunday’s night’s debate between Labor and Coalition leaders, one issue was barely mentioned: climate change. This raises a large red flag for Australia’s young voters.
In an election term marred by extreme bushfires, floods and heat waves, there was a conspicuous lack of climate change questioning during the debate. And when prompted on how young people will fare this election, both leaders quickly pivoted to housing reform and job security for all Australians.
For a generation that will face an extreme increase in environmental disasters in their lifetime, research consistently shows climate change represents one of the top challenges on the minds of young people. Students have recently been taking this message across the country, demanding greater climate action by political leaders ahead of the federal election on May 21.
So which party really has young interests at heart – and which doesn’t? Let’s look at where the major players stand on youth and climate change policy.
How does Labor rate?
According to vote compass data, more Australians have rated climate change as their top concern this election than any other issue. Climate change was also overwhelmingly rated as the top issue in The Conversation’s #SetTheAgenda poll.
But despite the long-term vision of voters, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese was keen to focus squarely on immediate returns in Sunday’s debate, especially on issues related to “right now” – a phrase repeated nine times in his closing remarks.
Albanese took the campaign to classrooms this week, and pivoted to housing reform when directly asked about the future of youth lives in Australia.
Not only was this a missed opportunity to mention the newly announced funding for high-achievers to study teaching, but also to draw attention to the fact Labor also has an engagement plan to reconnect with young people in politics.
Youth voters often feel shut out of policy engagement exercises, finding consultation processes disingenuous and serving the agendas of people in power, rather than through genuine youth representation.
Labor policy looks to overcome some of these challenges by connecting government with youth voices in decision making. While this is still a very top-down approach, it could be a promising step towards meaningful integration of young people in politics.
With these foundations, it’s unfortunate that climate change and youth issues have not been openly championed by Albanese. Young people will have to go searching through buried policy to see whether they’ll be heard after May 21, but not before.
What about the Coalition?
Likewise, the Liberal National Party has been generally shying away from climate change discourse.
We saw this clearly in March, for example, when the federal court found Environment Minister Sussan Ley holds no duty of care towards young people facing the climate crisis. Ley had successfully appealed a previous ruling in a landmark case brought by eight students, setting a disappointing stage for the Coalition’s campaign trail.
The Liberal Party, however, do have policy support for communities and structures that surround young Australians, including funding for schools, parents, and getting young people into jobs, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeatedly highlighted in Sunday’s debate.
But Liberal Party youth policy also comes with a great irony: if elected, they promise large investments in youth mental health, despite climate change (and a lack of action) being a key source of anxiety and worry for young people.
Much research, including my own, has shown climate change presents an extreme burden on the mental health of young people, particularly teenagers. But while anxiety can be a source of disengagement from politics entirely, other young people can use it as motivation to engage with politics in ways they haven’t before.
This will likely be a driving force in School Strike 4 Climate events in the lead up to May 21 (and beyond), including planned action at Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s Kooyong electorate offices.
Overall, the Coalition’s hopes for an employed youth sector are not without merit, but failing to link the need for youth reform with the climate emergency seriously tarnishes any credibility they may have had on youth issues.
The Greens and Independents?
At the last election in 2019, Australian youth were overwhelmingly left-leaning, with the lowest Liberal vote on record for voters under 35. Indeed, 37% of 18-24 year olds were primarily voting for the Greens, and that number is likely to remain high on May 21.
The Greens are the only major player in the upcoming election to specifically mention youth and climate change together in their policies. They acknowledge the long term consequences of current climate action on future Australians, and also align strongly with the demands of the School Strike 4 Climate movement.
Much of the Greens climate policy is mirrored in some way by “teal” Independents. But the crossbench hopefuls are decidedly targeting different demographics in their contested seats: those trending Green are generally younger and on lower incomes than those in seats turning teal.
In key electorates such as Wentworth in New South Wales or Goldstein and Macnamara in Victoria, young people represent 16-18% of registered voters. Climate-aligned platforms may well be the deciding factor in seats moving away from the major parties.
While the near-sighted campaign trail might not care too much about youth voters, the long term consequences of their treatment will come with very real returns as they age.
Late teens and early-20s are critical ages for formulating political personas that only grow stronger into adulthood. Issues that matter to youth such as climate change are not going to diminish in their lifetimes.
Albanese may have won Sunday night’s debate by a hair according to The Conversation’s expert panel, but it was clear that Australia’s young people were not winners in the political shouting match.
The future of youth engagement and climate change may take a positive turn with a Labor government or a powerful crossbench, but the major parties are still too narrowly focused on the short term.