(YES) - Report 4: 3. Youth and Party Politics

Updated: 21 January 2011

3. Youth and Party Politics

Given that political parties play such a large role in Australian politics, it is surprising that more attention is not given to the manner that young people are expected to learn about them, or to become members. Both major parties have youth programs and membership is available at ages 15 for the ALP and 16 for the Liberal Party. There is little research on the importance of these youth party organizations for recruitment into political parties generally, although overseas evidence suggests that they do perform an entry into political life for a substantial proportion of party members (Hooghe, Stolle, and Stouthuysen 2004). However little information is given on either party website about these youth organisations, or how young people generally are expected to learn about political parties. One of the purposes of this report is to examine the knowledge of Australian adolescents about political parties, their attitudes towards them, and whether these attitudes have a relationship with their intention to vote.

3.1 What Do Youth Know About Political Parties?

One of the questions that we asked our student respondents concerned their knowledge about political parties. The student responses are given in Figure 1.

Do you think that you personally have sufficient knowledge to understand about different political parties when voting in a Federal Election?", by Gender

The data in Figure 1 indicate significant differences between males and females. Overall, 48.8% of the total sample of 4758 who responded to this question said that they did know enough about the political parties to vote in a Federal Election ("Defnitely Yes" plus "Yes"). However, when broken down by sex, 57.3% of the boys and only 42.4% of the girls felt this confident.

At the bottom end of the figure, the pattern is reversed. Slightly more than half, or 51.2%, of the students did not feel that they know enough about political parties to vote. But 42.7% of the boys fell into this category, compared to 57.7% of the girls.

While one can speculate about the specific meaning of this sex difference, it is consistent with patterns we reported in previous reports, namely that boys think that they know more about politics than girls (Saha, Print, and Edwards 2005).

In Exhibit 1, we present several comments by students in our group interviews who commented about their lack of knowledge of the political parties. What the students seem to be saying is that the parties are not really relevant with respect to the issues that concern them. These comments are useful in that they reflect and reinforce the responses in Figure 1.

Exhibit 1. Student Perceptions of their Party Knowledge

At Trenton College, Lauren said "no one goes around talking about being affiliated with a political party; no one goes around saying 'the Liberal Party is my favourite party' or anything".

Also at Trenton Dara said, "I don't know what all the policies are for all the groups".

At Gelbson Grammar School, Webster said "There is only a little bit of politics I am really interested in, and that is the Labor and Liberal parties in the elections. It is interesting to see who wins and why".

However, this was a minority view - most group participants at Gelbson were more interested in issues than either parties or elections.

* The names of the school and students are pseudonyms

3.2 Student Perceptions of Their Party Leanings, by Sex of Student

Research on the political learning and political development of youth has a long history. Over forty-five years of accumulated research has established and that young people already become aware of political parties before secondary school, and by the time they are in secondary school, they acquire a sense of political party differences and begin to develop personal identification and loyalty with a particular party ideology (Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes 1960; Greenstein 1969; Jennings and Niemi 1974).

Because many senior secondary students are already at, or are fast approaching age 18, some will be in a position to vote in the near future. Therefore it is of practical and political relevance to know what party loyalties are developing at that time, as these party loyalties most likely will indicate young people's voting patterns when they first vote.

In our first national YES survey we asked students the question: "We would like to know what you think of the Federal political parties. Do you and your parents feel closer to any one of the parties? (Tick one box for each person.) " The students were given a box to tick for the following response choices: Liberal/National Party, Labor Party (ALP), Democrats, Greens, No Party, Don't Know, and a blank line for Other Party.

Table 2 indicates the student responses, for all students, and separately for males and females.

Party Leanings by Sex of Student

The overall party leanings for all the students were as follows: Labor (17.6%), Liberal/National (15.5%), Greens (8.2%), and Democrats (1.2%). Male students were more likely than female students to favour the Labor, Liberal/National and the Democrat parties, while the female students were more likely to favour the Greens. However the rank order of the party preference remained the same for both sexes.

What is of additional significance is that only 42.5% of all the students named one of the four parties (49.4% for males, 37.4% for females). An additional 14.2% indicated that they did not feel close to any party, which can be interpreted as a conscious rejection of all parties. However a large percentage, 43.3%, did not know what party they felt close to. Surprisingly, more than half of the females (51.1%) and about a third of the males (33.1%) put themselves in this category.

In Exhibit 2 we give some of the comments from our group interviews about the party leanings of some of the students. One point which clearly emerges from the student comments is that for many, there does not seem to be much difference between the parties. On the one hand these statements may reflect the lack of in-depth knowledge about the political parties, or they might indicate that the parties are irrelevant for the issues that the students consider to be important.

Exhibit 2: Perception of No Party Differences

At Watkin College, Paco said "maybe if we had more radical parties - like the conservatives and the communists. At the moment the Greens and the Democrats are considered the same".

Piers suggested that young people were politically aware but that "they don't think there is any difference between the candidates".

Michaela said "I think if the parties made their stances on the more controversial topics more prominent and defined, more young people would be interested in politics and voting."

At Crowfield Agricultural College, Students referred to the "sameness" of politicians.

At Grania High School a student said: "The opposition party doesn't oppose enough" and some considered that the parties were so similar that voting could not really change things.

At St Luke's College three students considered that voting made no difference because the parties simply contradicted each other.

At Cheltenham College three participants considered "the parties are too similar". These students considered that since the major political parties apparently had the same opinions voting could not have much of an effect on issues.

* The names of the school and students are pseudonyms

3.3 Student Perceptions of Own and Parents' Party Leanings

Research has shown that young people tend to adopt similar political orientations as their parents. This is not surprising given that students tend to talk to their parents more about politics, and acquire much of their political knowledge from their parents (Edwards, Saha, and Print 2006). Jennings and Niemi (1974) found in their USA study that the agreement between student and parent party affiliation, as perceived by students, produced a correlation coefficient of .58, and that 59% of the students gave the same party (that is, either Democrat or Republican) as they did for their parents (page 39). [1]

In Figure 3, we compare the distribution of party leanings between the student respondents and their perception of their mothers' and fathers' party leanings. Because these are aggregate figures, this bar chart does not link individuals, but rather indicates the total number of times the response categories were ticked.

What is particularly apparent in the figure is that a number of students were less likely to lean toward both the Liberal/National or the Labor parties than their perception of their parents. On the other hand, they were more likely to lean toward the Greens, or to say they had no party leanings, than their parents.

By far, the largest percentage of the students, almost half, did not know what party they leaned toward, nor did they know what party their parents leaned toward.

On the one hand, the data in Figure 3 indicate considerable political transmission within the family, in that most students who could name a party, named the party of their parents. However, the figure also indicates where the differences between students and their parents do occur, namely with the Greens and in the rejection of any party.

On the other hand, the figure makes clear that there are many students who have not yet decided on a party, and this occurs more often for the girls than the boys.

Figure 3: Political Parties which Respondents Say They and Their Parents "Feel Closer To"

3.4 Party Inheritance and Party Reproduction

The similarity between student party leanings and the perceived party leanings of their parents may indicate two processes: 1) how party leanings get passed from one generation to the next; and 2) the extent to which party sympathy and possibility party membership is reproduced in society. An indication of these two processes are given in Table 1.

Each row in the table reports the perceived parental party leanings for the students who named the party in that row. Thus for the students who said they leaned more to the Liberal/National Party, 78.1% and 74.5% thought their father and mother did also. Furthermore, 67.7% of these students thought both their father and mother leaned to the Liberal/National Party.

Jennings and Niemi (1974) regard the similarities in perceived leanings between students and parents as indicators of the "…transmission of party preferences from one generation to the next…" (p. 40). Furthermore, compared to the figures they obtained in their own study of American youth, the figures for the Liberal/National Party suggest a relatively high level of transmission.

However, from the other figures in Table 1, it is apparent that this intergenerational transmission process does not occur to the same degree for all Australian political parties. For example, the student-father-mother percentage for the Labor Party is somewhat lower, with 63.4% and 67.5% of the Labor-leaning students perceiving their parents to hold the same view.

The biggest difference between student and parents occurs with respect to the minor parties, with few students perceiving their parents to hold the same views as their own. This suggests that the minor parties, namely the Democrats and the Greens, draw their following from a more individual preference rather than through family transmission. Furthermore, the students who lean toward these minor parties rarely perceive their parents to agree with themselves in minor party leaning.

Table 1: Correspondence between Student and Perceived Parent Party Leaning, and Perceived Correspondence between the Parents. (The percentage in each cell indicates the correspondence for that particular party. The number indicates the base for the percentage.)
Student Political Party Leaning Student is Same Party as Father(Percent/Total N) Student is Same Party as Mother(Percent/Total N) Father and Mother are Perceived Same (Percent/ Total N)
Liberal/National Party 78.1% (688) 74.5% (698) 67.7% (685)
Labor Party 63.4% (797) 67.5% (808) 56.2% (787)
Democratic Party 13.3% (60) 16.4% (61) 8.3% (60)
Green Party 23.6% (377) 24.1% (381) 17.4% (374)
No Party 28.2% (635) 29.4% (643) 26.9% (631)
Don't Know 75.9% (1944) 76.0 (1950) 74.7% (1927)

The observations regarding the minor parties also seem to hold regarding those students who indicated that they did not lean toward any party. Given that there was a response option between "No Party" and "Don't Know", it is possible to assume that the students who indicated no party leaning can be interpreted as those who consciously refuse to nominate any party. In other words, that they know enough about parties to be able to reject them.

The high figures for the "Don't Know" students can be interpreted as students who simply do not know enough about the political parties to choose between them.

These patterns have implications for party reproduction because a high correspondence between student and parent party leaning means that a particular party is virtually guaranteed a constant level of support over time. Strong party inheritance also means a high level of party reproduction, thus minimizing the necessity for party recruitment. Thus from the figures in Table 1, it appears that the Liberal/National parties and the Labor Party are well entrenched over time, since there is a high level of party inheritance. On the other hand, it seems that the Australian Democrats and the Green parties, at least at the present time, must recruit harder to maintain their numbers, since the level of inheritance is low.

3.5: Party Leanings and Sufficient Knowledge to Vote

Is being able to name a party related to perceived sufficient knowledge about parties to vote? In order to examine the meaning of specific party identity and the two "no party" response categories, we present the mean response scores on the question about sufficient knowledge about political parties (see Figure 1) for each party identity. The higher the mean score, the more the students who ticked that response category feel that they understand parties well enough to vote.

The mean scores make it clear that students who identified with a party also thought that they understood enough about parties to be able to vote. On the other hand, the students who ticked the categories "No Party" or "Don't Know" also were lowest in their perceived sufficiency of their knowledge about parties to vote.

Because the question about party leaning was not a question about political knowledge (the names of the parties were included in the question), it is clear that the ability to name a party is related to the perception about political knowledge. The correlation coefficient between the two variables is .35 which indicates a significant relationship between the responses to the two items.

A final observation concerns the difference between the political party preferences and the perception of knowledge to vote. The highest mean score is for those who nominated the Australian Democrats. As can be seen in Figure 2, the Democrats were the party which received the lowest percentage of nominations. It is also evident from Table 1 that the Australian Democrats had the lowest level of party inheritance and party reproduction. Thus one explanation for the higher relationship between party choice and perceived knowledge of parties is that the students choosing the Democrats must have known why they were selecting that party. It certainly was not because they perceived their parents to be Democrats. Students nominating the Australian Democrats must have done so because of their knowledge about the party's political philosophy and policies, or because of the reputation of the party in youth political culture.

Figure 4. Political Party Identity and Belief that Knowledge of Political Parties is Sufficient to Vote

Key Points for Section 3

  1. Only about one half of our sampled students felt that they understood the political parties sufficiently to vote ("definitely yes" and "yes"). (Figure 1)
  2. Males felt that they understood the political parties more than females (57.3% compared to 42.4%). (Figure 1)
  3. Only 42.5% of the students named one of the four political parties when asked which party they leaned toward. Another 14.2% said "no party", and 43.3% said they did not know. (Figure 2)
  4. The females (51.1%) were much more likely to say "don't know" than the males (33.1%). (Figure 2)
  5. The proportion of students who named the same major political party as their parents was relatively high, above 75% for the students who named the Liberal/National Party, between 63 and 67.5% for those who named the Labor Party. (Figure 3 and Table 1)
  6. The proportion of those students who named one of the minor political parties were far less likely to perceive their parents to be the same, with between 13.3 and 16.4% for the Democrats, and between 23.6 and 24.1% for the Greens. (Table 1)
  7. Students who had a party identity also were more likely to believe that they had sufficient knowledge about political parties to vote. (Figure 4)


  1. Jennings and Neimi (1974) point out that students tend to overestimate the party agreement between themselves and their parents. Based on their own study in which they also had independent party leanings from the parents, they found that students' perceived agreement produced a correlation coefficient of .58, whereas the actual agreement produced a correlation coefficient of .47 (pages 38–40, footnote 10).