Is there a generational difference in political engagement in Australia?

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A commentary – Peter Tait

Stoker G, Li J, Halupka M, Evans M. Complacent young citizens or cross-generational solidarity? An analysis of Australian attitudes to democratic politics. Australian Journal of Political Science. 2017;52(2):218-35.


This article seeks to answer the question above. The researchers grouped respondents into four age groups: Builders, Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. Their survey found:

All age groups engaged in both traditional activity (taking an active role in the community; joining a political party; presenting their views to an elected representative; attending a demonstration; standing for office; taking an active part in a lobby or campaign; boycotting products for political or other value-based reasons; and, of course, the ubiquitous signing of a petition) and contemporary (The contemporary forms tend to reflect options for doing politics online. These include using social media, contributing to blogs, getting involved in an e-campaign, joining an online advocacy group and engaging in crowdfunding for a cause).

Particularly notable is that even for the younger generations more traditional forms of engagement outnumber the more contemporary practices. So they conclude … in some ways the generational divide over forms of engagement might not be as stark as some of the debate between the complacency thesis and the new politics thesis suggests.

They then looked at three aspects of attitudes to contemporary politics: what people liked and didn’t like, and what they thought about various reform options. Within each of these, responses clustered into themes.

What people liked – five clusters:

  • Cluster one (Security) adherents celebrate democracy in a holistic sense. They value the stability it provides and the opportunity for free elections. Moreover, they also like the different views and balance of power it delivers.
  • Cluster two (Delivery) could be summarized as democracy should be valued for what it delivers. This group like the stability it provides but above all it is good economic conditions and public services that are prized. The accountability and good local representation that the system delivers are also valued.
  • Cluster three (Participation) endorses democracy because it allows citizens the chance to participate in decisions that affect them and provides the opportunity to defend their interests. Democracy for them is a tool you can actively use to protect yourself.
  • Cluster four (Elections) citizens are the strongest admirers of free and fair elections and more than others see democracy as potentially valuable in stopping big corporations or wealthy people having too much influence. They also value democracy for what it delivers in terms of public services and a good economy and lifestyle.
  • Cluster five (Nothing) is characterised by one response none of the potential listed virtues of democracy are sufficient to get their endorsement.

What people didn’t like – six clusters:

Cluster one (Anti-politicking) focuses its critique on three issues: that contemporary politics is too centred on compromise and not enough on taking decisive action; politicians do not deal with the issues that matter and minorities or independents hold too much power.

Cluster two (Anti-Big Interests) focused on the biases that lead the political system astray … groups its criticisms of contemporary politics around concerns about the domination of big business and to a lesser extent a fear that the media has too much power and that as a result politicians cannot be held to account for their broken promises.

Cluster three (Broken Promises) were put off to a greater degree than others by the lack of a say that the system delivered to them, resulting in a dislike of broken promises from unaccountable politicians and their relatively pointless conflicts.

Cluster four (Personality focus) saw citizens concerned both about the power of the media and the tendency for it to focus too much on personalities and more generally on the lack of real choice on offer.

Cluster five was made-up of citizens (Under-representation) who focused on how some groups were not represented well enough in the political system.

Cluster six (Undefined) was composed of those citizens that found none of the options we offered them in the survey captured their dislikes about democratic politics.

What reforms people liked – six clusters:

Cluster one (Democratic Innovation) looks to provide more control for citizens through greater use of citizens’ juries and online plebiscites and above all by giving citizens a right to recall a failing Member of Parliament.

Cluster two (Party reform) focuses on reforming parties and campaigning by encouraging greater democratisation within them and by putting a cap on political advertising and donations.

Cluster three (Localists), in contrast, favours non-partisan politics with more free votes in Parliament and increased local decision-making and greater opportunity for using your vote to exercise choice over candidates combined with more party democratisation.

Cluster four (Less partisanship) wants to tame party politics by way of a cap on political advertising and donations and more free votes in Parliament, together with greater use of online plebiscites and voting reform options giving greater choice.

Cluster five (Citizen Leads) focuses on the idea of reducing constituency size to bring politics back to the people together with more scope for citizens’ juries and the idea of a citizens’ parliament.

Cluster six (Vote Rule Changes) takes a different reform tack and focuses more than other clusters on changing the voting rules; supporting a lowering of the voting age and a maximum voting age.

The spread of these results is then their Table 1.


Of note for CAPaD, like for participation was low across all groups with a small kick up in the GenYs. Further younger people are much less likely to find something they liked about current politics than older generations.

Over 80% of respondents were in the Anti-big interests (particularly older people) and Anti-politicking groups with a link to Broken Promises.

Coming to reforms (Table2), Less-partisanship (particularly among the older cohorts) and Localists (commitment to an increased role for local decision-making) predominate, Democratic innovation and Party reform garnering some support and Citizens leading and Vote rule changes low but with more support among the younger cohorts. The authors note given the dislikes about the political system expressed, it is possible to see this mix of reforms as a coherent response to widely held concerns.

They conclude: The gravity of evidence in our analysis draws us to the observation that there is cross generational solidarity over attitudes towards democratic politics in relation to both its strengths and weaknesses and how it should be reformed. There are some cohort differences that can be observed but the message to political elites is fairly clear. Whether young, middle-aged or old, Australians would like to see the practice of democratic politics improved. Particularly: some strongly emerging themes from our exploratory study of Australian public opinion [suggest] thinking and reflection from citizens that has both some coherence and insight. A majority of all generations admire democratic politics for the stability and benefits it delivers and the opportunity it affords to hold politicians to account to ensure their performance in meeting citizens’ needs. Equally, the majority of citizens (in all generations) fear that that there is too much power in the hands of big business and the media and that as a result politicians too easily break the promises they have made. The two most supported sets of reform options can be seen as a practical response to these observations. First, the need to give citizens more, and parties less influence, by placing caps on political advertising and donations, providing more free votes in Parliament, the opportunity to go for ‘none of the above’ when voting and the greater use of online plebiscites to give voters a chance to express their views directly. The second set of reform options goes along with much of that agenda but is distinctive in its support for greater local decision-making. What is also noteworthy is that a majority of citizens appear to favour a mix of reforms combining mechanisms to open-up representative politics with an opportunity for more direct intervention by citizens.

This latter opinion should hearten CAPaD supporters.



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