The Malta Independent 24 April 2019, Wednesday

Nobody is prepared to vote, irrelevant of their age – KNZ president

Albert Galea Monday, 25 February 2019, 09:33 Last update: about 3 months ago

In the last weeks, SEAN ELLUL was elected president of the Kunsill Nazzjonali taz-Zghazagh for the next two years. With next May’s elections being the first in which 16- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote, Albert Galea met with Ellul to discuss whether they are prepared to vote, the need for civic education and how KNZ is planning to deal with youth apathy

What is KNZ and who do you represent?

KNZ is the National Youth Council of Malta meaning that, theoretically, we represent everyone between the ages of 13 and 35. This said, the structure of KNZ is such that while we represent all Maltese young people, our members are not individuals but rather they are organisations. Our voting members include over 40 youth organisations such as SDM, Pulse, MZPN, FZL, KSU and KSJC. As KNZ, we then fall under the European Youth Forum – which is the European branch of all youth organisations.

 

What opportunities do you offer young people throughout the year?

Our main purpose is to lobby for policy, the securing of youths’ rights and making sure that young people are represented. We are a very political organisation in the sense that whatever we organise is politically oriented – political not in the sense of political parties, but in the sense of putting forward policies.

One cool opportunity we organise is the National Youth Parliament, where any young person can go to Parliament, speak as a parliamentarian and put forward policy to Parliament. We also run the National Public Speaking Competition organised with other groups where we give a platform which not only trains young people in public speaking but gives them the opportunity to become the public speaking champion and compete internationally. Fairs which we organise such as the International Fair and the National Youth Technology and Innovation Fair are other platforms where we represent and teach young people

Our events focus a lot on empowerment, but since we are a national youth council, they do not come around too often. We are more likely to be working on policy things of that nature; for example, last year we delivered a speech to all countries at the United Nations in Geneva on the Universal Periodic Review. That is truly our remit of work.

 

Photos Alenka Falzon

We have the elections coming in May – in less than 100 days – and this will be the first set of elections where 16-year olds can vote; it has been a while since the Vote16 initiative was announced – do you think that 16-year-olds have been properly prepared to vote?

As KNZ president, I can comfortably state that nobody is really prepared to vote irrelevant of their age, because the reality is that there is nothing in our education apart from Systems of Knowledge (SOK) that explains the importance of our vote, how democracy works, how Parliament works or how the European Parliament works. I feel confident in saying that a 65-year-old person in a kazin is going to give me as lacklustre an answer, or even a weaker one, on how to vote as that of a 13-, 14-, 15- or 16-year-old.

The reality is that nobody is really prepared to vote in these elections, which is probably why we have reached the point where many people vote according to family bias or for whom their parents have always voted. 

The reason I have confidence in 16- and 17-year-olds is because we’ve entered the information age, meaning that a 16-year-old is much more likely to be informed about European affairs and politics in general, than a 70-year-old man in a kazin is. If you are exposed to that amount of information, you are more likely to have a mature vote. That does not mean that all 16- and 17-year olds can vote maturely; but then this applies to all in society. I think it is important to stress that it is a matter of the individual; there are adults who do not know how to vote maturely and who vote the same way irrelevant of the political situation at the time. 

Therefore, what we believe is most important is to focus on civic education; that we create a framework where anyone who is going to vote for the first time is properly educated about what an election is, about how important using that vote is, and ultimately the consequences of using that vote. At the moment, we definitely do not have that information.

 

With regard to civic education, what would your ideal consist of?

Speaking as Sean Ellul rather than as future president, the definition of civic education is very broad but in an ideal world it consists of non-formal education and the importance of a functioning democracy. 

Civic education can be taken in two ways: either in readying a person for entering the workforce or readying them for entering civic society. 

In non-formal education, it is imperative that we give students the hands-on experience they need to enter the workforce. It is one thing learning how to drive a car by reading a book and doing theory, but it is another thing to actually get into the car and driving it. Our education system only focuses on the theory aspect, meaning that young people end up entering the workforce without having a clue on how to drive that car. It is fundamental that we give young people those practical sessions so that when they do drive that car for the first time they do not go straight into a wall, but actually have an idea of how to drive. 

This also applies to civil society; there are many practical things that do not necessarily have anything to do with voting that we are not taught such as applying for a loan, simple things about marriage, sex, taxes, and applying for insurance. We are not taught the fundamentals. Teaching these things will help young people jump that extra step and help them avoid falling into the traps that we tend to fall into as a society.

There are things that we can do in our education system to make it better. Revamping SOK, for instance, is one thing that KNZ is looking into. Having more non-formal activities recognised by the educational system is another; youth organisations do brilliant work to help young people gain practical skills they do not otherwise get in a classroom – so why does the education system actively work against youth organisations? 

I think the educational system needs to do some soul searching and question why it exists and why it functions in a certain way, because there are some key philosophical issues in the system that need to be addressed and it is clear that the system is not reaching its full potential in certain areas.

 

You mentioned youth organisations – both of us come from that background so we are well aware of the benefits gained – do you think that young people in Malta are active when it comes to this field, or is apathy growing?

Apathy is the big issue. As someone who represents all the young people in Malta I think that we are the organisation which is failing the most in this regard. I will be very blunt – I think the majority of young people do not know what KNZ is. Apathy does not come from nowhere. My favourite Latin quote is ex nihilo nihil fit – nothing comes from nothing; if we lack a sense of purpose in the direction we take and the work we do, then apathy has set in. In 2019 people are so over-sensitised, constantly bombarded with information and with the need to dedicate their time and energy to something that in the end is a battle to get someone’s attention, let alone their active commitment. 

I think one of the biggest issues is this level of purpose; if you look at the recent parking issue at university for instance, it is one of the few moments where people you have never heard of are suddenly standing up, arguing, fighting and trying to find a solution. Why? Because it affects them directly.

I am not going to pretend that I can solve the apathy situation in Malta – and I genuinely believe it is also a by-product of the over-sensitised society we are slowly entering. We as KNZ need to try to organise not just events, but movements and campaigns that actually hit home with young people because they can see it and say “this actually matters”. 

One thing we are going to try to focus on for example is Erasmus and exchange opportunities. These experiences have really helped me grow as a person; but then I come to the realisation that nobody really knows how to go on these trips. The reality of the situation is that there are dozens of international opportunities that come out every month for Maltese, and nobody applies for them.

We are going to try to bridge the gap and show that these are opportunities which one can genuinely grow from. Our branding and PR, for instance, are going to be two of the biggest things we will work on to improve, as social media is so important for communication and connection. At the same time, we are going to work with our member organisations to find common synergies so that instead of everyone working in isolation for their goals, we can pool our resources and try to reach bigger goals and more people.

We want to build a platform where every young person in Malta and Gozo can literally go and find all the international opportunities available to them. That is one of the ways we are looking at – to bridge that gap which will hopefully solve the apathetic issue.

 

Would you say though that many Maltese are too comfortable in their own bubble? If so, how would you go about pushing them to break out of that comfort zone?

This comfort zone issue is more of a psychological thing; we are always looking for that comfort zone. That is how the mind works; your primary goal is to ensure your safety, your comfort and your survival – it is imprinted in us to find our comfort zone and safe space.

Unfortunately for us humans, the only way we can grow is if we breach that comfort zone. I cannot go to every single young person in Malta and tell them how to breach their comfort zone – but one of the fundamental points you need to try is to tell those young people what they would gain by breaching that zone and by not limiting themselves to the box they are in. 

As a national youth council we have the duty to try to communicate this in every field. There are certain skills we do not allow ourselves to experiment with – not because we do not want to – but because we are scared. That is very applicable to young people in public speaking for instance; statistically it has been shown that it is the number one fear, meaning that it is not because people do not want to do it, but s because they are afraid of doing it. I had severe public speaking anxiety and had it not been for someone who pushed me out of my comfort zone, I would not be speaking to you today. 

I think we have the obligation to try to show what one might gain from experiencing the world out there. We need to prove that if you remain in your comfort zone, the only person that is going to lose out is yourself. 

 

The new executive has a two-year term in office; what are your main aims going to be?

We want to continue on the work done in the past two years when we essentially rebuilt everything internally. I am lucky that the past executive under Michael Piccinino’s presidency focused on making sure there was no internal conflict, and on consolidating relations with all sides of the spectrum. 

As president, I now have the opportunity to focus on external issues; PR, branding, and social media will be one focus, bringing opportunities – whether national or international – directly to the individual will be another. We want to bridge the gap between member organisations, local entities, national entities and the national youth council so that there are common synergies for us to work towards mutual goals. International cooperation will remain a priority while in terms of youth policy we are building a new policy office which will be more proactive.

Bridging that gap however is, I think, the most important thing. By delivering our opportunities to everyone and by finding a purpose, we can find common synergies to reach our goals together. This is the direction we want to take.

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