BY KAHLIA KIM-SHEPPARD
With numbers shifting in each opinion poll, every vote cast in the upcoming election is crucial, especially the ones of young people going to the ballot box for the first time. Asked how important the verdict of first-time voters will be in September, cabinet minister and Member for Watson Tony Burke has a simple, powerful answer: “critical”.
According to Mr Burke, the means of communicating with first-time voters has dramatically altered. “If we relied on traditional media then you’ve got a whole lot of first-time voters who would be unaware of what was on offer,” he said.
It’s for this reason that the minister is an active user of Twitter with an impressive 22,000 followers and Facebook with over 1750 ‘likes’. He primarily uses social media as “a way to present both policy and personal,” he said. With the introduction of smartphones, tablets and laptops, the hours Gen-Y spend staring at a screen has increased exponentially. “Everything is much more volatile than it used to be and people really want you to prove that you’re worth voting for,” Mr Burke said.
Although the minister claims that first-time voters are critical to the upcoming federal election, his exclamation of their importance is not necessarily shared by young voters themselves. Eighteen-year-old student Niamh disagreed with the proposition that politicians were actively trying to connect with first-time voters. “I don’t feel like there’s been an active effort to talk to me,” she said. “I don’t really know the politicians. I don’t know who they are. I would love for them to actively come out and talk to me.”
The level of education funding, however, remains as much a political minefield as ever. New South Wales Educational Minister Adrian Piccoli cut $1.7 billion in funding for public and private schools and TAFE in 2012. Mr Burke was vocal in condemning these cuts and became an advocate for students and their families. He called the cuts “a big blow to families” and has since continued to campaign against these cuts.
“When you cut education, it is vandalism against people’s future,” he told Sydney TAFE Media. “Young people are smart – they work out pretty quickly if the nation sees their education as a priority, and if the nation doesn’t see their education as a priority, then why should they?”
Despite the efforts of Mr Burke and the government to alter policies to benefit the younger generation, many of these changes have gone unnoticed. The tax-free threshold was increased from $6,000 to $18,000 so when students worked during their holidays, they would be able to earn an income without being taxed an enormous amount, increases in youth allowances were made, and roll-out of the National Broadband Network is underway.
According to student Niamh, the issue most important to her was the job opportunities potentially available after completing her studies. Another first-time voter, Shylee Dolce, said her priority was Centrelink payments. She said the support was vital to her day-to-day living, but she finds it hard to keep up with the many changes and complicated processes involved.
Neither of these two first-time voters was aware of the changes the Government had made to the tax threshold and increases in the Youth Allowance.
According to Mr Burke, it is the government’s first and foremost responsibility to outline and educate first-time voters on party policies, voting practices and on party members. However Niamh said: “I don’t know how different [the process is] to a state or local election. I don’t even know who my local members of parliament are. We didn’t formally get any instructions on how to vote, and we probably should have but we didn’t.
“I think young people do have a very unique voice and I think we should be heard a lot more, because we are the minority in Australia and we need to be recognised because we are the future generation,” she said. “We will be the people that are putting you in retirement homes in a couple of years, so you need to educate us because we will be ruling you.”
As the campaign continues, politicians of all stripes and their staff continue to work hard.
With the countdown to September 14, Mr Burke said, “The truth is for all of us, at this time, we’re all driven by adrenaline, because this isn’t just a job – it’s a cause, for myself and for the team I work with.”Kahlia Kim-Sheppard interviews Tony Burke in his office.
Commonwealth Government Youth Allowance: http://www.humanservices.gov.au/customer/services/centrelink/youth-allowance
MP Tony Burke on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Tony_Burke and on FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tony-Burke-MP/111837652330983