Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 3: 3. Discussions about Politics and Voting in Families

Updated: 20 January 2011

3. Discussions about Politics and Voting in Families

Within the context of Australia's very diverse families then, our first question is 'to what degree did participants indicate that politics was a subject of discussion in their families?' Here it is important to pause briefly to consider the issue of what we mean by politics. When we discussed politics with focus group participants we talked with them about the meaning of politics. Initially we discovered that most participants conceptualised politics very narrowly, and in a sense pertaining almost exclusively to parliamentary politics. To this end researchers used prompt phrases such as 'current affairs' and 'things that are happening in your community that affect you' to establish a broad meaning for the word 'political' when using this term in interviews. In this section 'politics' is thus interpreted broadly to include discussions about political personages, events, issues and current affairs as well as elections and voting.

It is important to preface all discussions of focus group data in this report by emphasising that we are using participants' reportings of familial political discussion and learning in this report. That is, our research focuses on how our participants perceived various aspects of discussions and learning about politics, voting and elections within their families. If we had interviewed parents they may have told a different story with different emphases. Similarly an ethnographical approach involving participant observation may have provided us with other viewpoints and interpretations. However our primary concern in YES research was with the views and thoughts of our participants.

3.1 Sources of Information about Voting: Family and Gender

One of the purposes of our study is to find our where Australian youth obtain information about voting. To do this we included a question in our survey which asked: "Where do you get your information about voting in elections?" We listed twelve possible sources, and we asked the respondents to tick the appropriate box with labels of "None", "little", "Some" and "Most". Figure 1 gives the average value on a four point scale for all our respondents for each of the twelve categories that we listed. In the figure, we separate the scores for boys and girls.

As discussed in our first report for this project, (Print Saha and Edwards, 2004), the family is acknowledged as the most important source of information about voting by our student respondents. What is of added interest here in whether young males and females differ in their sources and whether the differences between males and females were statistically significant.

Figure 1: Sources of Information about Voting: Family and Gender

Figure 1 shows that the girls say they receive more information about voting from almost all sources than boys. The two exceptions are the Internet and Magazines. However, only two of the differences between boys and girls are statistically significant, namely Parents and the Internet. Girls claim they obtain more information from their parents about voting than boy, while boys get more information about voting from the Internet than girls. But it is necessary to point out that the amount of information generally from parents and internet is much different: Parents are clearly the most important source of information about voting, while the internet, by comparison, is one of the least important sources. The fact that it is more frequently used by boys does not explain which of the two is the more influential source of information about voting.

3.2 The Effectiveness of Information about Voting

But does the information from these sources lead equally to the intention to vote by these respondents? In order to examine this question, we used the correlation coefficients between the amount of information from each source and student intention to vote when 18 (even if voting were not compulsory). The correlations can vary from zero (no relationship) to one (perfect relationship) for each source. This information can be seen as an indication of how much each of the sources of information contributes to the students' intentions to vote, as seen  in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Correlation between Student Source of Information about Voting and Student Intention to Vote at 18

Newspapers and parents, as shown in Figure 2, provide the two largest coefficients, indicating that the link between information and intention to vote is the greatest between these two variables. This gives further emphasis to our earlier point, that when compared to other possible sources of information, the family is the most important. On the other hand, the relatively small correlation between information from brothers/sisters and church/religious and intention to vote reveals two ineffective sources of influence.

What about the media? Although we will discuss the media in greater depth elsewhere, both Figures 1 and 2 suggest that the media is also an important source of information about voting. However, as Figure 2 shows, newspapers, more than TV or the radio, is more effective since students who get more information about voting from them, are more likely to intend to vote when 18. One explanation for this difference in media sources is that reading, as compared to watching or listening, is a more focused and demanding activity, and therefore students who get their information from newspapers are more likely to value and act upon that information.

3.3 What happens when parents are uninterested in politics?

While the family is clearly the most significant factor influencing our participants, when asked in our focus group interviews, a number of participants indicated that politics was never or infrequently discussed in their families. The perception for these students was that their parents were not interested in political events or issues, or that they do not know much about politics, resulting in infrequent discussion of the topic. In some cases this lack of interest was not attributed to any particular cause. In Exhibit 1 (below) some of these perceptions are discussed.

However, in other cases, participants attributed lack of discussion about politics to specific resource issues such as parents not speaking English well or at all, or to parents not being citizens and therefore being ineligible to vote. In these cases, it is important to consider that parental silences may result in a lack of ability to transfer information about politics to their children. But what of the effect of the lack of parental resources on the generation of young people who participated in YES? Demonstrated in Exhibit 1 is also that some participants consider that the lack of such resources is a detriment. Others more directly attribute their own lack of interest in politics to a family environment in which politics is a neglected subject of discussion.

Here, the lack of provision of resources by parents, (that is discussion about politics) can be seen to have some impact on their children, affecting their knowledge about and interest in politics. Where this lack of resources stems from a parental lack the impact of this can be seen to be generational.

Exhibit 1: Variations in Discussions About Politics in Families (From the YES focus group interviews using pseudonyms for schools)

Participants from many schools, including St Jude's Catholic College, Leighton Catholic College, Greenhill High School and Malory College, indicated that politics was discussed in their families.

At Springfield High School two students said that politics was rarely discussed at home because their parents did not know much about politics. One participant said, "my parents don't really know about politics – no one really gives me a lesson in what's happening." Another said that in her family the issue was language, "because my parents are Chinese speaking and they don't speak English that well, so they don't really care".

Students at Scholl High School agreed that their parents were not that involved in politics and did not talk about it much. They were asked if it was discussed around the dinner table and this idea was greeted with derision.

At St Luke's Catholic College some participants indicated a parental lack of interest in both politics and voting. Most indicated that their parents were not interested in politics and were either ambivalent or negative about voting. One student said, "If my parents were really into it and if they talked about it I'd get more knowledge about it. But because my parents don't really speak about it, I don't care about it much".

At Marino High School Jemima said that politics was not discussed in her family. Travis said his parents were not eligible to vote because they were not yet citizens. He added that they didn't take an interest in politics because they could not vote. He said this was why he had a lesser interest than others in the group.

It was also the case that politics was discussed in many families as seen in Exhibit 1. Where politics is discussed in the family environment, participants report a number of responses. Most students accepted, concurred or supported their parents political positions, a phenomenon well known in the political socialisation literature. However, as shown in Exhibit 2 some are discomfited by discussions with parents. Here the method of delivery seems to be at issue, for example where parental discussion is considered one-sided, fanatical, or in the style of lectures participants do not appreciate it. Others indicate that the provision of useful information, the willingness of parents to listen to viewpoints other than their own, and parental enthusiasm for politics is positively received. Although a minority some indicate that their own active enthusiasm for politics is the result of positive interactions with politically aware parents.

Exhibit 2: Perspectives of Family Discussions about Politics

Raj from The Lakes High School had discussed voting with his father when his father explained what 'donkey voting' was. Jackie, from the same school, mentioned her father's enthusiasm for politics saying that this had influenced her.

Hanie and Ana from Mayfield Secondary College said they "talk to their fathers about political issues".

A student at Port James High School discussed politics with her father, with things that she wanted explaining on, with the television news being the main catalyst.

An interviewee at Pinehill Catholic College described how he discussed politics with his father.

At Anthony's College two students reported talking to their fathers about political issues. Cole described her father as "ranting" about political topics, but Harriet said "I have lots of discussions with my dad; he's pretty open to my opinions".

Edward from Dampier High School described himself as "enthusiastic" about politics. He indicated that his parents "led an activist lifestyle" and that politics was important in his household. He attributed his own enthusiasm to this.

At Marino High School Kelvin said he discussed politics with his mum. He added that his father was not eligible to vote because he was not a citizen.

At Central Districts High School Sean also reported that he particularly discussed politics with his mother.

At St Anthony's College two participants who discussed politics with their fathers have already been noted. At this school two participants had tried to talk to their mothers. Ellie said this was difficult because "I seem to know more about the issues than she does" and Cole said "My mum was asking me the other day about all the parties, what they stand for and which way she should vote".

Also illustrated in the context of Exhibit 2, in terms of immediate family, is some indication of which family members the participants report they discuss politics with. This reveals an interesting gender dimension. Participants who reported that they discussed politics with their families indicated either that discussions took place within a broad family context or with parents only. Sometimes this was further limited to 'my dad' or 'my mum'. Where a particular parent was mentioned it was considerably more common for participants to name fathers as discussants of political topics and issues. This was a noticeable tendency despite the gender of the participant describing the issue. Despite the survey finding discussed above that girls were more likely to name parents as a source of information about politics than boys there was no discernable difference in male and female focus group participants' respective reports that they discussed politics with their parents. At issue was only the gender of the parent they discussed politics with.

Also demonstrated by Exhibit 2 are some minority views where mothers were mentioned. Here it is interesting to note another tendency. Where mothers were mentioned participants often specified either that male family members were unavailable, or lacked the ability to discuss politics for some particular reason, or that discussions with female family members were unsatisfying in terms of knowledge provision and learning potential. Interestingly, when mention was made of who assisted them to enroll, students almost exclusively mentioned their mother as the actionable parent.

Sometimes the participants mentioned other family members as discussants. Exhibit 3 shows the diversity of family members with whom participants discuss politics. The most common family members to be identified are siblings and grandparents, particularly older siblings.

Exhibit 3: Other family members and political discussions

Students from Greenhill High School mentioned older siblings and a participant from Greenfield High School said that they had discussed voting in particular with their grandparents.

As well as discussing politics with his mother, Cole, from Marino High School, also reported he discussed politics with his sister.

At Mayfield Secondary College a participant identified her grandfather as a particular family member with whom she discussed politics.

Similarly participants frequently mentioned brothers as particular family members with whom they discussed politics. For example at Mercy College, whereas many indicated they discussed politics with their parents, one student also mentioned an older brother. A female student from Leighton Catholic College reported that she discussed and indeed argued about politics with her brother. At St Margaret's Catholic College a girl reported that she discussed politics with her brother and that he influenced her opinions.

Sergi, from Our lady of Lourdes Catholic College, had a father and a brother who were lawyers. He discussed political issues with them because he thought that their profession meant they had some particularly interesting things to say.

A gender dimension is also visible here. When particular individuals were named by relationship there was a marked tendency for participants to name 'brothers' and 'grandfathers'. Sisters were rarely mentioned and grandmothers not at all.

Key Points from Section 3:

  1. According to the student respondents, parents seem to be most important source of information about voting.
  2. Females attribute information from parents more than males, and males from the internet more than females.
  3. Information from newspapers and parents are the most likely sources related to the intention to vote by students.
  4. A substantial number of participants reported that politics was not discussed in their families.
  5. There was a tendency for participants to link their own level of interest in politics to levels of discussion at home.
  6. There were instances where lack of parental resources (such as knowledge about politics, English language skills or ability to participate in elections) affected the resources of participants.
  7. Although parents were the main discussants of politics, participants also reported discussing politics with siblings and grandparents.
  8. Participants reported discussing politics with male family members significantly more than with female family members.
  9. Where participants reported discussing politics with female family members there was a tendency to indicate that male family members were unavailable.
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