The Malta Independent 19 April 2024, Friday
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A lack of young, budding politicians

Mark Said Sunday, 18 February 2024, 07:34 Last update: about 3 months ago

Citizenship education was introduced as a statutory subject in Maltese secondary schools quite some time ago. The Education Act of 1988, which was the prime mover of the national curricula of 1989 and 1990 for Maltese primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools, formalised the teaching and learning of citizenship values and civic competencies, mostly through learning experiences in social studies. In theory, that should have afforded political empowerment to our youth. Yet years later, we are nowhere near any such effective empowerment. The crisis vis-à-vis young citizens and their often tenuous engagement with politics cannot but be highlighted.

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I do not think it is lack of knowledge that stops young people from voting. Rather, it is the absence of any way for the great majority of citizens of any age to be involved in policymaking. Having been taught that democracy is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, young people want to know how they will be able to contribute their ideas and experiences, as well as protect their own interests, in the development of policies and programmes. That question is difficult to answer, as neither of the two main parties has had effective routes for the democratic participation of their rank-and-file supporters in decision-making, save for a few commendable initiatives undertaken by the Labour Movement that were unsuccessfully emulated by the Nationalist Party.

Many young people have grasped the fact that even voting may be a waste of effort. It is not surprising that many young people have felt alienated and see politics as a game being played by MPs, spads, opinion pollsters, and media operators for their own financial benefit and nothing to do with them. The current Maltese political system has to be judged unfit for purpose and needs changing. Teaching how it works will not enthuse young people. But the possibility of changing it could do so.

Aristotle called politics the "leading science", because it is the way societies decide priorities among everything else. To deny young people knowledge of how the system works excludes them from the democratic process, just as not teaching reading would exclude them from the world of books. We have to boost political education. We must give the subject the status it deserves and teachers the training and support to do it well. We have already given 16-year-olds the right to vote and the possibility to become mayors, so now they should have an incentive to learn, but are they learning?

It is good that, now, the university of Malta is offering a full-time Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Politics & Governance degree. Knowledge of constitutional politics is commendable, but there is a simpler and probably more effective induction into civic life. If the best learning is learning by doing, why not add some democracy to schools? Election of fellow pupils, or even staff, to class and school bodies, referendums on changes to school rules, etc. could all impart some practical understanding of what democracy means. Who knows, such initiatives might even trigger wider support for changing the present democratic deficit in national policies.

Young people vote, contact politicians, petition, and protest less than any other age group in Malta. This is bad for them because the policy does not represent their interests as well as it could, and it is bad for democracy because we are missing out on valuable voices in important debates. Young people are particularly sensitive to the social world. Their sense of self-worth is more closely tied to the opinions of others, and they fear social exclusion more than adults do.

Why not, for example, get the Speaker of the House of Representatives to set up a commission on learning for democracy to build cross-party support based on evidence of what works? We seem to be putting more effort into teaching competitive sports than politics, yet political decisions directly affect the future of our upcoming generations. It is time to act. The few new and young faces of politicians who have made it to parliament did not all find their seats directly by the electorate but by a particular representational mechanism devised by an unwarranted piece of legislation.

Young people’s relationship with politics is complex and problematic. They are seen both as the group that disengages politically and as being at the forefront of major political movements. There is no secret or magic formula for engaging young, first-time voters. It is simply a matter of speaking on topics and issues that this demographic cares about. Historically, young people have not felt included in the political realm. The accusations that young people are politically apathetic are being refuted by some opinionists, but many in this generation are turning away from mainstream politics and towards political organising, social movements, rallies, and boycotts.

Seasoned politicians should consider speaking at secondary schools as well, besides colleges and universities. People might find this silly, arguing there is no reason to pay attention to secondary schoolers who are not old enough to vote. But I believe this is exactly where the conversations should take place. The students one meets there are so bright and have clear political ideas. The things that matter to them range from environmental concerns, animal welfare, and justice to equality rights. Young potential voters care about all the same issues that any other voter would care about. The difference is that these are not at the very centre of traditional politicians’ strategies.

Claiming that young people are either politically engaged or disengaged can be simultaneously true. Power is constantly withheld from young people, which limits and binds the type of organising and political involvement they have. Interpreting low voter turnout by young people as evidence of apathy ignores the structural and organisational obstacles to electoral participation many young people face. It also ignores the distrust many young people feel towards traditional institutions of governance. Feeling disconnected from a process that is viewed as ineffective is not apathy. Especially when one considers how young people have been failed by political parties, including those that claim to represent them.

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