What are we doing wrong?

Monika Wheeler

Firstly, I would just like to say that these are my views, and not the views of my employer or party.

Why are political parties and activist organisations failing to communicate with young people, while Pentecostal church groups are recruiting active participants in their thousands?

What lessons can be learnt from these groups, and what policy ramifications will result from the Left's relative failure to recruit and engage with young people?

The broader left movement and young people

As a former representative of university student bodies and young ALP groups, I have come to believe that we in the broader left movement (left of ALP to revolutionary socialist groups) are failing to seriously engage and communicate with young Australians.

Explanations of why this could be are endless. What I am certain of is that it is not because young people don't care. It's because they don't see political organisations as the best way for them to contribute to social change.

The Anti-Iraq war protests proved that there was a broad movement, many of them young who opposed the invasion. Over a February weekend in 2003, in Sydney more than 250 000 people took to the streets rallying for peace and 10 million across the globe.

The problem is that when we find socially compassionate people, we are hopeless at retaining them. Where did all these people go?

"Policy makers must also consider the problem that there are many people who are seeking a sense of belonging."

Hillsong

Laser dance lights more sophisticated than any other in Australia, energetic rhythms, catchy songs and attractive young people up on the stage enticing you to want more. Hillsong's weekly congregations attract more than 18000, with 65 per cent of its followers under the age of 30.

Hillsong's centre is set in Sydney's Hills district and close by is the federal seat of Greenway. Although Greenway was historically Labor Party heartland, a former employee of Hillsong, Louise Markus has been the member since the last federal election.

Hillsong has a specific youth body called 'United'. This group has a grungy-looking propaganda and three rocking albums available for purchase, many of which have had best-selling records in Australia already.

The star founders Brian and Bobbie Housten are referred to on a first name basis in all Hillsong material, 'I love the way young people in our church are released to be young people. They are cheeky and radical but have a glint in their eye', Brian recently said.

But Hillsong is not just about glitz, glamour and fun.

Hillsong has many different community orientated organisations most which target young people. A project called Blacktown Community Partnership Youth Project last week received half a million dollars worth of federal government funding and is not so strangely located in the seat of Greenway!

So why is this relevant? The idea of social justice is one of the core principles of social democratic thought and Christian teachings.

Religious affiliations of nearly all denominations associate themselves as pursuing a role of social justice - often associated with the Left. They are also concerned with ensuring stability of family values - often associated with the right.

Is the Left is too scared to talk about values these days? Have we given this domain to the Right? Could this be contributing to why so many people are flocking to these groups because we are too scared to talk about what our idea of a perfect life or family is?

I don't want to egg on a debate regarding the separation of the church and state, what I have found interesting is that there are many people who are attracted to Hillsong services for additional reasons than just their devotion to spirituality and god.

Some of these reasons could be because they:

  • are fun, enigmatic and energetic;
  • provide a sense of community a sense of belonging;
  • individual is empowered; and
  • feel like they can help others less fortunate through their services.

People are flocking to Hillsong because it is providing something in our society which is needed, and which doesn't exist anywhere else.

Hillsong is a 24/7 one-stop shop for all your neighbourhood needs. If its child care, or music lessons, concerts, counselling or if you want to volunteer, it's all available.

We need broader organising strategies If the Left is serious about engaging with a broader constituency, then we must talk a broader language, not just our own because obviously, few understand it or care.

The Live 8 gigs organised by Bob Geldof recently around world poverty are an interesting starting point. Although heavily criticised, the truth is, people were eager to engage across the world, and they were mostly young.

The initiation of the predominately online lobby group, GetUp! is also an interesting phenomenon.

Blogs (14 million world wide) and other interactive cyber-technology are proving to be effective for people to communicate with each other through an informal and opinion-based communication forums. They are immediate, can be public, are usually free and are not conformed by geographical boundaries.

These broader organising strategies are seldom used as effectively as they could be. They encourage the individuals to participate as equal, and therefore empower each person participating, also creating a greater sense of democratic involvement.

For instance, going to a meeting or conference of most current political party 'youth bodies', where cliquey hierarchies dictate the on goings of proceedings, aggressive behaviour is the norm and leaders rarely do anything to change a obvious absence of policy and ideological debate, often leaves new comers to feel either left out, bored or dissatisfied.

What policy ramifications will result if the broader left does not 'click' with young people soon? Less young people will join Left of Centre political parties or groups that lobby their policies and therefore less young people will contribute to the formation of policy. This is already evident.

And, what affect will it have on the young people who are participating? Although I don't think that all of the new participants are natural supporters of the Right, will their membership imply a natural inclination to favour the conservatives?

Conclusion

I went to Hillsong on the weekend and what overwhelmed me the most was that so many of the participants were so young, many good looking and hip.

The reality is that, in many ways, Hillsong is far more accessible to the mainstream than many political parties, political processes and left-leaning activist groups.

There was never any pressure for me, as an individual, to do anything. When I walked in to their centre, on the left was a room which was called, 'the Welcome Room'. As I walked further, I was welcomed into an auditorium where around 1500 people were wildly singly along with performers. And when you leave you are thanked by several people 50 metres down the road for coming.

One problem that we have is that people who are going to Hillsong services think that they are doing something for society.

I was brought up as a Buddhist and I went to a Catholic high school. I now consider myself an atheist, but see many similarities in my activities in the Labor Party similar with my experience to religious bodies. So much about them is community.

If we want to attract more organisers to our groups then we need to welcome them into our communities. We must start listening and trying to speak other people's dialects, rather than imposing our own on others.

Policy makers must also consider the problem that there are many people who are seeking a sense of belonging. This is better if it comes from local, state and federal government community initiatives, rather than only through theological groups.

We have to communicate that if people want to cure AIDS or give refugees in Australia fair treatment, then the best way to ultimately do this is through representative democracy or by influencing democratically elected representatives and their parties through campaigns and activism.

Society may have moved on, but not all of our social values have with it. People are still concerned that others may not be as fortunate as them, and are prepared to act on this.

Australia has not become a totally individualistic consumer-driven and materialistic society that some may think. Traditional communities have broken down, however, and people are looking for something to cling to and believe in.


Monika Wheeler is Tanya Plibersek's (Shadow Minister for Work and Family, Childcare and Youth and Women) advisor on women's and youth affairs. Monika has a degree in Time-Based Art, was the convenor of the National Young Labor Left in 2003-04 and is a local activist in Sydney. This is the text of her address to the Evatt Sunset Seminar on "Young People & Politics", presented at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts on 6 September 2005.


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