The Abbott Government has created a generation of lefties. That might sound like hyperbole, but I don’t believe it is. It’s easy to group generations, backgrounds, occupations, etc. and try to categorise them as a certain type of political demography. Such labelling has its issues but it is done, and for good reason. Certain ideas, policies and worldviews align more closely to different parts of society. Workers have traditionally voted Labor; business owners Liberal. Both major parties claim to represent the best version of Australia, something that would be good for the entire country. Yet, parties align according to interest groups. This political dichotomy has characterised Australian society since the start of the 20th century, and some experiences shape generational consciousness in one direction more than another.
Which begs the question, where do millennials stand? I would argue: increasingly to the left of centre. Of course I recognise that my claims might be obscured by personal experience. It is also the case that people change their minds: Australians have tended to move to the right as we age. Call it worldly wisdom, the jaded assumption of cynical values, or the accumulation of capital. It happens. So how will Generation Y, or Millennials, vote in the future?
We must consider the historical context. I speak about Generation Y within a five to ten year radius of my own birth (1980-2000). What have we grown up with? Millennials are too young to have considered the real existence of a socialist entity in the world: the USSR. It collapsed in 1989, and we’ve never been fearful of it, and we haven’t been peddled the evils of socialism as a system as popular culture did in the 1980s with Rocky IV, Red Dawn, etc. This is fairly profound because it means we do not have the aversion to ‘communism’ that our parents had, at least not in direct experience. Instead our early childhoods were relatively safe and sheltered. Cold War paradigms are not a Millennial pastime, and although we know or at least acknowledge the stigma around how communism has played out historically, we are not averse to its theoretical flavouring.
The first real political event I remember was September 11, 2001. In itself, it was a fairly horrific attack. But what it culminated in lasted far longer, and its effects have been far more perverse. The War on Terror is still residually occurring today in places like Afghanistan and Yemen. What we witnessed in the news was a shambles: hundreds of thousands of troops being sent overseas to fight Islamic extremism. It was a war on a concept: terror. Which is a very perplexing thing for a child or adolescent to understand. How can you declare war on an idea like terror, and then commit so much terror yourself? The media discourse was one of death (in Iraq approximately 45,000 soldiers, and as many as 100,000 civilian deaths), destruction (Iraq, Afghanistan, Bali, London, Madrid), systematic torture and rendition (Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo), lies (Iraq had no nuclear weapons), and incompetency. What impressed us on the media and what undermined this tragedy was a political caste that was decidedly stupid. Literally stupid. You can find a great list of George W. Bush’s best quotes here. And these were the elected leaders of our countries. So we have a deep mistrust of political spin in general, and a deep mistrust of conservative spin in particular, a scepticism that is only enhanced by the prevailing winds of postmodern scholarship in academia since the 1970s.
Our generation has grown up under conservative governments: John Howard was elected in 1996, and was replaced by Labor in 2007. If we’re considering Democratic Malaise theory, my generation was convinced at a very early age that politicians were pure evil: at least the ones in charge were. We saw racial violence in Cronulla, we saw religionists burning one another’s holy books, and we witnessed the panic of a global warming threat in public debate which was left unaddressed. Now, any generation naturally has its aversions, and to suggest that Millennials saw more political mess-ups than any other generation would be discourteous. But these events had an impact, and for the most part the serious muck-ups occurred during conservative governments. Nobody looks back on Iraq and says: “well that was great; bloody good policy decisions all around”. We’ve also come to appreciate that invading a Ba’athist country to counteract Islamism was the equivalent of burning down an ice-cream parlour because you just really hate the waffle stand. It exacerbated the situation – it turns out those Mujahedeen guys who were fighting the Soviets back in the 1980s weren’t born extremist. They were made so by foreign invasion. So we probably didn’t help out situation by invading them again: Islamic extremism is driven by Western interference. But I digress.
The other major event that shaped our historic consciousness was the Global Financial Crisis of 2007. Every respectable account of the crisis explains it in terms of financial deregulation beginning during the Reagan era. If we have any concept of what caused the crisis, it is that economic deregulation and free market capitalism is a dangerous game: useful in generating growth, but perilous if left to sprawl. In much the same way as the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression shifted economics into the Keynesian sphere of influence, so too will our generation relive that experience. This also had a direct impact on my generation. I left school one year after its fallout, and I remember myself and everyone around me saying: well, there goes my prospects for employment. Although in retrospect this would have been the case anyway, many of my school friends went off to university until the jobs market had improved. It was what was recommended to us by our parents, teachers, and most importantly, ourselves.
For those five to ten years older than me, who were leaving university when the crisis hit, the situation was far worse. What has been made abundantly clear to us is that Australia, in comparison to the rest of the Western world, got by without a scratch. This is attributable to three main things, the ranking of which depends on your political affiliation more than anything else: (a) A surplus in the Australian coffers of about $10 billion left over from the Howard government, (b) a swift and effective aid package rendered to Australian markets and businesses by the Rudd Government, and (c) trade with China. All these factors worked in concert, but my generation will tend to focus on (b) and (c) more than (a) for one particular reason: Australian conservatives disagreed with the aid package, and they disagree with government aid based on ideology. If, in 2007, Liberal supporters were to have praised the measure, and then taken credit for having racked up a small percentage of the funding for it in past surpluses, we might have felt differently. “Save now for a rainy day”, or “in peace prepare for war” sort of logic. Instead they disagreed with the measure itself: a measure which spared us the worst of the crisis. This is why the Liberals haven’t been able to capitalise on this argument recently: because they didn’t capitalise on it when they should have. So our impression is that a neoliberal system of economic deregulation, sponsored by conservative parties, was responsible for a horrific economic catastrophe that was softened by the good sense of a progressive government. It’s a noble story, and since then many countries have embraced neo-Keynesianism in theory, but not in practice. Millennials will be the principle flag-bearers of this theory in future decades, because we have not experienced the benefits of a fully deregulated financial market, only the hazards.
So let’s get to the point. The War on Terror and the Global Financial Crisis have made a long-term impression on millennial’s political and economic outlook, but how has this been consolidated by the Abbott government? Conservative shock-jocks, columnists and ideologues love to point out that our generation is entitled, narcissistic and lazy. This is nothing new. What has changed is that now this rhetoric is being used to justify cuts to education, to unemployment benefits, and to the education and healthcare systems, which has a real impact on young people’s lives. If conservatives hope that labelling us “entitled” or “thugs” will make us sit down and reflect on how we’ve been behaving (so disobediently), they have little concept of reciprocity. Millennials, who have just graduated from university or school and hope to make a contribution to society, now feel victimised at the single most critical moment of our induction into formal politics: being a taxpayer. If we’re told we’re entitled, without having the critical ability to actually consider how this might be the case, then instead of accept a premise (that is erroneous), we will reject it and feel alienated. And it’s not society that we feel alienated from: it’s the neoconservative right. The language used against an entire generation, to systematically label in deficit terms our very beings, portrays the “dole-bludger” in the same light as the university graduate. It treats us as if we are a homogeneous group who gave no consideration to how our kindergarten or school careers were funded. How dare we be raised in such a sheltered way? How dare we think, for just a moment, that education or healthcare is a fundamental right?
The key factor is that, by portraying us negatively, the media and politicians have eroded our reservoir of goodwill for their kind. All such tirades really do is elucidate the fundamental differences in our cultures. Why would any millennial feel solidarity with, for example, Amanda Vanstone by virtue of the fact that she launches regular polemics against Gen Y? Like partisan politics, negatively portraying an entire generation does not have the net effect of unity, but rather division. The real irony of the whole situation is that those who are making these arguments have benefitted from free education and healthcare, courtesy of Keynesian systems. In the same breath as shock-jocks would call us entitled and undeserving of education, they are fundamentally misrepresenting themselves: they have come from an egalitarian Australia which they now seek to deconstruct. The irony is palpable: it is no wonder the image of Joe Hockey protesting university fees in 1987 has taken centre stage. It is hypocrisy incarnate. The entire situation would be laughable if it weren’t for the real impact it will have on generations to come. Our generation now has to sacrifice key benefits for a confected budget crisis.
We can see through the fear-mongering. Despite media characterisations of Gen Y as fickle and fad-taken, we do have a memory longer than your everyday goldfish. The first contradiction is the broken promises. I know, broken promises, big deal. What did we expect? Politics has always been that way. What illuminates these broken promises is threefold. Firstly, the recent budget has been contextualised as “look at the mess the previous government has left us”, as if the Abbott government walked into Parliament upon being elected and saw the balance sheet and thought: “Geez. Wasn’t expecting this. We’ll have to change everything!” These statistics existed long before Abbott geared in for the 2013 election race, and if they didn’t address their policy to the realistic (transparent) situation of budget/fiscal outlooks, then that is entirely their own fault. Secondly, never before has such denial of reality by politicians been so palpable. When a journalist quoted Tony as having promised not to raise taxes last year, and then pointed out three different examples of taxes, Tony’s response was: “We’ll let the Australian people decide if we lied”. Well, leaving it at that you’re not giving us much of an alternative. The sheer brilliance of calling the budget crisis the ‘core promise’, with every other promise being secondary is hilarious. It would be great if the Liberals could have stood up prior to the election with an egg chart and pointer, identifying to the “core promise” of fixing the budget in the middle, and then showing the peripheral promises with respective asterisks. Even better: he could never have made the promises in the first place. They have dug themselves a hole, and it is the duty of the media to fill it in behind them. Lastly, it is hypocritical. So much of Abbott’s posturing in recent years has been defined by framing Labor as liars. If Abbott hoped to galvanise some outrage at that accusation, then he is in no position to plead innocence now. He wants outrage for politicians breaking promises, pure and simple. Millennials are happy to oblige.
It is for these reasons that I believe the derision of millennials as “whingers” by the right (when something as trivial as their education is taken away) is not directed at millennials. It is directed at baby-boomers and Generation X. Student protests are noticeable events. The Daily Telegraph even covered a protest in Sydney a fortnight ago, albeit with the title “The Ferals are Revolting”. The political logic in such attacks is that the older generations need to be given context for these protests. They’re not allowed to stop and think about the message being conveyed by students. They need to understand our generation in dehumanising terms. In fact, rightist ideologies depend on the dehumanisation of others, whether it be the unemployed, students, immigrants, etc. Classic liberalism relies on selfishness, and so negative depictions of human beings works in their favour. It suggests to any audience that they’ve got to rely on themselves, that they’re being conned or threatened by elites, the unemployed, immigrants; and that they need to stop sympathising with parasites or thugs. It is the epitome of nihilism.
David Owen is a secondary school history teacher who has a BA (Hons) in History and a major in Political Science from the University of Melbourne.