Australian Electoral Commission

Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 2: Youth, Political Engagement and Voting

Updated: 20 January 2011

3. The Students Speak Out about Political Activism in Group Interviews

Although we did not specifically ask students in the group interviews about various forms of political actions, the topic did come up in the course of group discussions. Here we present a sample of typical comments regarding protest activity by Australian secondary school students.

Some students saw participation in rallies and protests as forms of empowerment – as feeling "powerful", that they could make a difference. They also saw it as a way of learning more about the specific issue. This latter point is consistent with the argument of Eyerman and Jamison (1991) that social movements are a way of disseminating knowledge about social issues. In other words, by participation in political activities related to social movements, the students learn about issues and become better informed citizens.

Exhibit 1: Protest Activity and Empowerment* (From the YES Group Interviews)

Students at Trenton College attended (Iraq) anti-war protests. Here Jenny said: "Heaps of people went to peace rallies and got really involved". At the time these students felt "powerful" by protesting, but in the longer term were disappointed that their efforts "had not changed anything".

Abigail said:  "protests can change things… but you have to vote too".

Dara said: "I liked going to protests about the Iraqi war, I liked listening to the speeches by the politicians - they gave me insight".

* The names of the school and students are pseudonyms.

In Exhibit 1 we have statements which show positive dispositions toward protest activity. In these examples, the students specifically refer to anti-Iraq war protests which fall into the category of "Peace/Anti-War" protests, which received the most support in the survey question (See Figure 5 above).

Some students like Jenny in Exhibit 1, however, also realised that protest activity is not always successful. Abigail not only saw protest activity as empowering, but she also saw it as connected with voting. Dara, on the other hand, recognized that he learned about issues by participating in protests.

A specific indication of student perceptions of the ineffectiveness of political protest activity is given in Exhibit 2.

Exhibit 2: The Ineffectiveness of Protest Activity* (From the YES Group Interviews)

Many students in the group interview at Grania High School had attended anti-war protests. These students were annoyed that their protests had not been more effective in changing government policy. One student in particular was angry that she had been told by an observer of the protest that "you're just kids – you're too young to understand". The lack of actual effectiveness of their protests concerned these students.

At Wickham College students had also protested, although one said he "didn't like protests … it is a waste of time". Others agreed that protesting was "worth doing, although we didn't really get anything done".

* The name of the school is a pseudonym.

The comments by students in the Grania High School and Wickham College groups reflect some of the idealism of youth regarding political involvement, and in protest activity. Their comments also illustrate the disappointment they express at their perceived lack of success. It is useful to note that in one group, their right and ability to be politically involved is asserted.

As we noted in our discussions for Figures 1 to 3, there are many different types of political activity engaged in by students. However in our group interviews, we found that not all schools allowed students to participate in some of them. In Exhibit 3, we present the case of St. Margaret's College which "barred" students from joining an anti Iraq war protest.

Exhibit 3: No Protest Activity at Saint Margaret's College* (From the YES Group Interviews)

Students at Saint Margaret's College were angry because they were barred by the school from attending protests about the [Iraq] war.

A female student commented: "Alison and I wanted to protest but the school said we weren't allowed to. They said it was a bad example. But we and a few other people would have done so."

They had been encouraged to write letters instead. They felt that this was unfair.

* The names of the school and student are pseudonyms.

The example of St. Margaret's is useful and important for our consideration, because the students were encouraged to write letters instead of marching. As we now know from Figure 6, the experience of writing letters as a form of political protest also has a positive relationship with voting. These findings merit attention. It is possible that schools, students, or even parents might have objections to some forms of political action by their children. But as we clearly show, even the simplest action, like signing petitions or writing letters, is positively related to the intention to vote as an adult.

Key Points:

  1. The unsolicited comments in the group interviews do support the general pattern in Figure 5 about participation in a social protest in support of a social movement.
  2. Some students recognise that protest activity can be "empowering", but that it is not always successful.
  3. Some students recognise that political activism is not an alternative to voting.
  4. The unsolicited comments in the group interviews indicate that not all forms of political activity are seen as acceptable by school authorities, but that one form of activity can be substitute for another. In other words, even at Saint Margaret's College students were encouraged to write letters as a form of political action, which itself is a type of behaviour of an "active citizen".