For the second year in a row, the annual Lowy Institute Poll has found that less than half of 18-29-year old Australians (loosely termed Gen Y, roughly in line with Pew and other definitions) choose the statement 'Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government' when presented with three options about forms of government and asked to say which one comes 'closest to (their) own personal views about democracy'. The three options:

  • Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.
  • In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable.
  • For someone like me, it doesn't matter what kind of government we have.

Sam Roggeveen, I know, is going to write about the wording of the question and its provenance.

In the meantime, the response to our publication of these results for the second year in a row indicates that this finding generates a range of reactionsdismay, mystification, and despondency among them.

I am setting out below the results, both from this year and last year's polls, and from Lowy Institute polling in India in 2012* and Indonesia and Fiji in 2011.**

Researching the issue in preparation for a speech on 'Democracy and Civility' to a CHASS forum last week, I found a good deal of material about civil discourse, political engagement and young people. It prompted me work up a list of hypothetical reasons why young Australians might value democracy less than their elders — if indeed that is what the data means. Here is my list:

  • The tone of modern political discourse has caused younger generations to become disillusioned with government, and by extrapolation, with democracy.
  • Democracy is becoming more of a global norm, so that Australians, especially young Australians, take it for granted.
  • Young Australians are the beneficiaries of decades of prosperity and peace, making them complacent about the value of democracy.
  • Civics education in schools is lacking.
  • Capitalism and consumerism have bred a generation with a different range of priorities and preoccupations.
  • Prosperous non-democracies in our region are exemplars of non-democratic systems at work.

Also set out below from last year's Lowy Institute Poll are Fergus Hanson's finding that 'Australians have stronger views about human rights, particularly those directly affecting themselves'. 91% 'strongly agreed' that the 'right to vote in national elections' was 'important for you here in Australia'. Which leads to the question: do 18-29 year-olds equate democracy with the right to vote, or do they not?

Ideas, anyone?

* Conducted in collaboration with the Australia India Institute.

** The Lowy Institute Indonesia Poll 2012 was partially funded by the Australia-Indonesia Institute and the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation; The Lowy Institute Fiji Poll 2011 was funded by the Myer Foundation Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute and a private donation from Mark Johnson AO.

Photo by Flickr user Leo Reynolds.