Published on September 3rd, 20130
Why there are no Aussie Pavons: political youth engagement in Australia and Venezuela
Twenty three year old Lisseth Pavon is a symbol of the passion of Venezuela’s youth. Shortly after the death of former president Hugo Chavez in March, along with thousands of other Venezuelans, Pavon lined up for hours in the sweltering heat of Caracas to catch a glimpse of the open casket. According to an interview (English translation here) she gave with a local newspaper, Pavon had left her home days earlier. After more than 20 hours in buses, she finally arrived in the capital, Caracas, where she waited in line for another day with a packet of biscuits, an empanada (a small pastry snack), some water and Bs200 (around US$6.60), she explained. When Pavon reached the casket, with a look of determination, she put one hand on her heart and a fist in the air.
“It came from the soul, I didn’t think about it. I just wanted the comandante to know that he’s alive, here,” she stated, pointing to her heart.
How many 23-year-old Australians would travel from one side of the country to the other to attend the funeral of any recent political figures? I don’t know anyone who would endure days with barely any food or rest just to farewell a prime minister.
“It’s about the power that he gave to us, the youth, all Venezuelans,” Pavon told reporters when asked why she went to the trouble.
Pavon isn’t the only young Venezuelan with a passion for politics. On my way to work, I regularly encounter high-school- and university-aged youth painting political murals. Troupes of young people armed with spray cans have covered the town with stunning works of street art that carry messages like “care for the environment”, “no domestic violence”, “free Palestine”, as well as pro-government slogans, often calling for people to back the new leftist president, Nicolas Maduro. However, pro-government youth aren’t the only ones active on the streets. On my way home from work, I invariably run into students protesting for more funding for the University of the Andes (ULA). Moreover, some students have accused the protesters of simply using the funding issue to promote opposition parties at the expense of class time (which is often disrupted), and have taken to holding counter protests. The tug-of-war between the students (similar protests are taking place in other parts of the country) has sparked a national debate. The end result is a climate where youth view themselves as political actors, and feel entitled to express their opinions in meaningful ways.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In recent years young people have enjoyed numerous victories in claiming control of their lives. One such victory is the Ministry of Youth. Since its creation in 2011, young people have actually run the ministry.
Chavez stated in March, 2011 that the ministry should “come out of the dynamic of the youth”.
“I don’t want to choose a Minster who has the magic wand to run it. No, rather it should be the other way around, that’s the idea,” Venezuelanalysis reported.
Moreover, despite the ongoing university protests, young people have already seen significant gains in education over the last decade, as recognised by UNESCO in 2010. Since Chavez came to power in 1999, access to education has increased dramatically. In 1999, the percentage of high school age children actually enrolled in high school was just 48 per cent; by 2011 the figure was 73 per cent, according to UNESCO. Primary school enrolments likewise increased from 85 per cent to 93 per cent over the same period. These are significant figures for a developing country, yet the government has actually argued that the numbers underestimate Venezuela’s achievements. According to government figures, university funding has increased from “less than $300 million in 1999 to $2.6 billion in 2011”.
Along with primary and secondary education, public university tuition is free, and students are entitled to free meals on campus and free public transport. Some of my housemates that are university students cried when Chavez died earlier this year; a reasonable response given how access to education was dramatically expanded by the former president’s reforms. Without the free tuition, food and transport, many students I know here simply wouldn’t be able to afford university. Moreover, without the dramatic reduction in poverty over the last decade, some students currently enrolled in university may not have made it through school.
Maduro has pledged to continue the same trajectory as his predecessor. Since being elected in April he has toured the country’s “street government” where he speaks with community groups directly, including youth and student organisations. Pavon and all other young Venezuelans have a right to feel empowered.
The same cannot be said for Australia, where all too often young people are simply excluded from mainstream politics. A recent survey from the Australia Institute unsurprisingly found that 47 per cent of 17-25-year-olds “believe no party best represents them”. 30 per cent of participants said they were “not really interested” in the upcoming election, and 15 per cent were outright “disinterested”.
“The confusion and disinterest among our future leaders is baffling, but I think for the most part it’s not their fault. It’s up to the politicians to engage them and win them over with policy,” according to the Institute’s Dr Richard Denniss.
However, there is nothing baffling about it. With two thirds of university students living below the poverty line (according to a recent report from Universities Australia), young people are justified in feeling sidelined by consecutive governments. Moreover, as the chief of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) Cassandra Goldie has stated, surviving off $29 a day on youth allowance is “one of the major reasons”.
“Like the unemployment payment, it hasn’t been increased in over two decades. It is clearly not enough for them,” she stated, according to ABC.
While the study found that half of students rely on financial support from families, most university students are all too aware of the difficulty of not only getting work, but also surviving off it. Figures from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations indicate that the number of people suffering long-term unemployment increased by 27 per cent over the last 12 months. The increase was accompanied by a 41.8 per cent rise in jobseekers claiming youth allowance. This indicates that young Australians struggling to find work are increasingly turning to a system that mechanically shoves them into poverty.
Of course, even if you are lucky enough to have a casual job, there’s a good chance it barely keeps you afloat. In its recently published sample budget planner, McDonald’s ironically illustrated that it is basically impossible for its US workers to survive flipping burgers. The budget shows that even by working 40 hours a week plus holding down a second job (that makes up almost half the sample budget’s income), enjoying below average rent and electricity, a McDonald’s worker in the US will have $27 a day left over for groceries, clothing, along with water and gas bills. Although the budget appears to be designed to show most of their US workforce live under hopeless conditions, any young Australian who has done a stint behind the counter of a major fast food chain (myself included) would probably agree that casual fast food workers here aren’t much better off.
There are no Australian Pavons, and rightly so. As a developing nation, Venezuela continues to struggle with poverty. However, for over a decade the government has pursued policies that prioritise poverty eradication, education and other social issues like healthcare. This has happened largely at the expense of characters like BP, Chevron ExxonMobil and other multinational resource companies. Many of the rights now enjoyed by young Venezuelans are bankrolled by petrodollars, courtesy of the nationalised oil sector. The nationalisation drive of the Chavez years resulted in companies including CoconoPhillips and ExxonMobil filing arbitration claims against the government, and infuriated the US. In other words, the government chose to take from the rich, and give to the poor, to the education sector, and to the future of the country—despite external pressures.
Consecutive Australian governments have done the opposite by maintaining free handouts to big business while allowing welfare and social services to stagnate. For example, the $2.8 billion cuts to universities to fund Gonski wouldn’t be needed if the federal government just cut subsidies and closed tax concessions to mining companies. Although figures from the Productivity Commission indicate miners received $492 million in direct subsidies, the industry enjoys a plethora of generous tax concessions, which when compiled add up to a significantly higher figure—at least $4.5 billion, according to AI’s senior economist, Matt Grudnoff. With that figure, we could not only cover Gonski, but also shower the likes of Gina Rinehart with at least $1.7 billion from taxpayer pockets. Of course, for voters uninterested in donating their hard-earned dollars to billionaires through taxpayer subsidies to mining companies, there are plenty of other places that money could go, like to those of us scraping by on $29 a day. Unfortunately, there is no debate between Labor and Liberal over this morally inverted welfare for the rich, bare-bones for the poor. In fact, with the notable exception of equal marriage, there is little choice offered by these two on any major issues facing Australians.
As global refugee numbers at their highest levels since 1994, the major parties appear to agree that we need to find some way to dump the Refugee Convention; the only issue is how. Kevin Rudd’s solution appears to be to outsource part of our commitments to one of our poorer neighbours. At the time of writing, Tony Abbott’s only real complaints were that the government has wasted time providing refugees with health checks before shipping them out, and that Rudd had granted the O’Neill administration control over how Australian aid is used in Papua New Guinea.
Nonetheless, Rudd’s flagrant disregard for international norms has endeared him to a sizable chunk of the population, even if the plan arguably lacks imagination. Yet at least the public have been permitted to enter the discussion over whether or not refugees count as people; most other serious issues are completely off the table, like the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Multinational corporations and their lobbyists are hard at work on the deal, but you aren’t invited. Drafts leaked from the closed-door discussions indicate the deal currently appears focused on strengthening intellectual copyright and patents, and cracking down on internet freedom. Moreover, the TPP will override national laws on issues like environmental protection and workers’ rights. It’s hard to discuss the deal any further, because drafts have been withheld from the public for years, under the flimsy excuse that terrorists might do … something. This deal will shape how our region develops for the rest of our lifetimes. But, unless you represent a major business interest, you have no right to know what your government is negotiating, let alone participate in the discussion.
Your opinions are viewed as equally irrelevant on issues like the expansion of the ineffective income management scheme, the extension of the thus far fruitless NT intervention, effective action on climate change or privacy rights. Once you get past the spin, there is little to no meaningful divergence between the two major parties on any of these issues.
When I observed Venezuela’s presidential elections in April, I saw two distinct candidates that offered voters genuine alternatives. Now that I’m looking ahead to my own country’s elections, I’m disappointed to see just how limited public debate is. Essentially, for now the election debate appears to be all about who can best abuse refugees, while other issues that will define the future of our nation are simply scrubbed off the agenda (as an aside, check out how a developing country with a humane approach to refugees acts).
The fact that this embarrassing circus has alienated youth is a positive sign. It indicates that young people are not as morally bankrupt as our leaders believe. However, like the youth of Venezuela, young Australians need to organise and engage in politics in order to be heard. Democracy doesn’t just happen in a cardboard voting booth; it happens on the streets, on campus and in the workplace. Change never comes from the top, it only comes when people shake off apathy and make their voices heard. As Lupe Fiasco articulately asseverated, “if you don’t become an actor you’ll never be a factor”.
This article was published in the On Campus section of the Virgin Voters website. For your chance to get something published and contribute to the public conversation, enter our Political Writing Competition.