The Thing That No-one Wants to Talk About

Politics. It shouldn’t be a scary word. But for many people, it’s something purely too dull, perplexing and out of their control to bother talking about. (Capital gains tax whaaat?) Until quite recently, this included me too. I was well into voting age when the differences between ‘the right’ and ‘the left’ became clear to me, and I only discovered how different political systems around the world function, because I take papers on it at Uni. Politics was simply not something my group of friends at high school ever brought up – that was for super smart kids in the top stream who could actually grasp the complexity of it. My family, on the other hand, viewed politics as choosing a party who was the ‘best of a bad bunch’ –not very conducive to open-minded dialogue.

If you read the news frequently, or socialise with politically conscious people, you’ll have a fair idea of what’s going on. But, if like a lot of young people nowadays you spend more time on snapchat than the guardian online, you’ll be pretty clueless about what the politicians representing us and the rest of the world are up to.

In politics tutorials last semester, I was amazed when other first year students could confidently debate the finer details of the Liberian government’s history, and promptly decided I wouldn’t be asking any questions in a hurry. I’d just look like an out-of-the-loop ditz! However, as time went on, I discovered that with a concentrated effort to read and view more political content, everything started to make a lot of sense. The things Patrick Gower was covering transformed from something bewilderingly intellectual, into a topic I could begin to disagree with my parents about. I began to wonder why it was, that they never taught us about the way our own country is run in high school, along with algebra and a compulsory foreign language. I know which one most people would find more practical in the real world.

According to an ICCES survey of year 9 students across Kiwi schools all over the country, those most informed about civic affairs were of Pakeha and Asian ethnicity. There was a significant knowledge gap between these kids, and Maori and Pasifika children. Pupils who expected to vote in national elections when of age, in general also did far better on the survey, than those who didn’t think they’d vote. Overall, the survey found New Zealand to be underwhelmingly average among other OECD countries in terms of student’s knowledge, understanding, attitudes and perceptions of issues regarding citizens and the state.

Civic education is clearly lacking in our school systems. An article in the New Zealand Herald written last year by Steve Liddle highlights that successful citizenship courses implemented in schools throughout England and the US were carried out by knowledgeable teachers who engaged students in thought-provoking discussing, and interactive teaching methods. This could be something that New Zealand may want to consider incorporating in curriculums, to avoid a future generation who is cynical and disengaged.

School can encourage engagement in politics not only through the curriculum, but with student politics. Children surveyed in the ICCES survey, who were involved in student councils or representative roles were far more likely to vote when they were older, as this early engagement in politics helped them feel like an important citizen, whose views were expressed. Having been form class representative in my last year at high school, I can definitely vouch for this and say it was a very rewarding experience being a part of tangible change. It was only bringing in a few more options of food to the school tuck shop, but hey – it felt good to be listened to.

Studies show that attitudes developed in adolescence will continue throughout a persons’ lifetime. For someone taking, say health science, like some of my friends are, there’s no reason for mention of the politics involved in each field. Many people never get around to reading up on the different policies, and vote for whoever puts on the best show before September 20th. Just the other day, I met up with a friend who was voting Green, because she ‘likes the idea of it, and everyone hates John Key.’ She’s a smart person, but doesn’t follow politics at all. As a result, her beliefs are extremely malleable to what the opinions of those around her are.

While school definitely plays a big part in political literacy, Liddle claims that as well as the education children receive, civic knowledge depends on ‘parents’ social background, education, region and age, and that disengagement often results from ignorance about complexities of policy-making.’ It’s just not fair, that depending on the environment you grew up in, you’ll either be able to ask a UN-conference-worthy question in a lecture, or be like me and barely able to give an opinion without a legitimately founded fear of sounding embarrassingly naive. Parents’ habits are a huge influence on what their children see as the norm. When voting is repeated and seen as the standard thing to do, this creates confidence and familiarity in the process for the next generation.

Altogether, around 1 million eligible New Zealanders didn’t vote in the 2011 General Election, which had a 74.2% turnout. Unsurprisingly 18-24 year olds were the least likely to vote, with 42% of this demographic not making their voice heard. Other people less likely to vote were those with inadequate income, the unemployed, Maori, and recent migrants. In a New Zealand General Social Surveys poll, common reasons given were disengagement, and feeling their vote wouldn’t make a difference. The disadvantaged in society are really the voices we need to be listening to the most, and it’s not ok that we’re missing out on having, any groups’ opinions heard. I have to agree with David Cunliffe when he says, “The more young people that vote, the more emphasis all parties will place on young people’s issues.” This is valid for every sector of society, as if everyone thinks it’s pointless to vote, it will be.

It’s intimidating to jump straight into talking about politics, and I think there needs to be a softer alternative to the harder hitting political coverage on the news. To ease the younger age bracket into this tricky topic, they need more targeted and relevant content available. And no, Kim Dotcom, I don’t mean a political ‘party.’ Soaps and TV shows famously avoid reference to politics, and perhaps including more acknowledgement of its role in society could be one strategy for making it an accepted, instead of taboo conversation topic. Game of Thrones is entirely based around politics, so why can’t The Big Bang Theory, or Shortland St admit its effect on characters’ lives, too?

Things like Politics week and lecturing events with politicians at University are a good start. It makes information easily accessible to students, and normalises politics. The only problem with that – is that it’s further educating the educated, and doesn’t target those who enter the workforce straight after finishing secondary school. Social media makes it easy for youth to avoid any ‘serious’ subjects, so politics has to become appealing, and by default, understandable to youth. Less jargon and more simplification, please. Or we’ll just go back to selfies. 

If politics has a hope of becoming something young people can confidently talk about, a community wide approach is needed. It’s all very well to have nice voting campaigns, saying “My vote is the same as yours, and that’s a powerful thing.” But if our views are based on sensationalist or confusing media coverage, rather than critical thinking and discussion – how hard will the different parties really try to win our votes? When polls are affected by a change in leader, not in policy, will parties seriously compete to make New Zealand the best country possible? If we don’t understand what we’re voting for, there’s really no point enrolling to do so.

The idea of online voting has been tossed around of late – but I wonder if this is addressing the problem of decreasing voter turnout, or giving up on a hopelessly lazy and uninformed population. Covering our ears when we hear that daunting word ‘politics’ won’t make any of the problems around us go away. Government, laws and so on must begin to be discussed from an early age – in schools, families and social groups, so that the subject can shed the misty and often negative connotations surrounding it. Even though politicians are often argumentative and childish, their policies do affect our everyday lives, and we should have at least a solid sense of the general direction each party wants the country to go in before we vote for them. A politically educated citizenry means informed, intelligent votes – which is what every country could do with more of.

Lorde makes a good point, saying that while it may seem like only you and your friends discussing issues in a group, young people are very creative and have the potential to ‘revolutionize what it means to live in New Zealand’. I think she’s right. One example of this in action is ‘Generation Zero’, a youth-run organisation who won a campaign to make a cycle lane in K-Rd, and created a public transport plan that was picked up by the Greens. Politics allows individual action to turn into a collective movement, which is where real transformation can occur.

We can’t make change just by talking with others, or even by volunteering for a good cause once a week. We need to engage in collective action, and most importantly – conversations. Talking about politics as part of our everyday lives is necessary for a truly fair democracy, where everyone knows what’s going on, and feels that their voices are heard. We need acknowledgement of politics in schools, entertainment and our social lives. It infiltrates almost every aspect of our lives, anyway, so why would we continue to let it to be something beyond our understanding? Politics is not ticking two boxes once every three years, and leaving the rest up in the air to disconnected representatives. It’s a conversation between citizens. That’s not too scary, is it?

How to get started – some ideas

  • Follow political parties/leaders who you agree AND disagree with on twitter/facebook
  • Read the paper/watch the news from as many sources as possible to get well-rounded views
  • Ask for and respect others peoples’ opinions – family, friends, or any other social groups you belong to. You’ll probably learn something.

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