When I was growing up, prime ministers had zero bearing on my life. On the rare occasion that I spotted them on the telly, they were either chugging from a foamy beer or calling our country “the arse end of the world”. I’m sure there was more to them than that but, as a child, I was immune to the nuances of their social and economic policies. They were simply old, uninspiring men who lived a long way away and said boring things that everyone complained about.
When my parents went to vote they left us kids behind, without even a democracy sausage to chew on. We didn’t mind. There were more important things to do, such as making first-class slip-and-slides and throwing water bombs at the neighbours.
When my parents went to vote they left us kids behind, without even a democracy sausage to chew on.
In my (very small and rural) primary, we didn’t have school elections, which meant no opportunities for students to suck up to their peers or shower classmates with jelly beans. None of us got the chance to make grand promises about how we’d improve the school, though I already had some firm opinions on this, including: I will ensure all water fountains gush with cordial – a different flavour from every tap! and No more recorder lessons! and Mean Kids will no longer be allowed to be sports captains!
Back then, it was up to the teachers to choose the school captains. Coincidentally, the chosen ones were always children of stalwart volunteers in the tuckshop and/or vocal members of the school council. I should’ve been suspicious but, to be honest, I had other things on my mind, like perfecting lip-synching dance routines to Whitney Houston songs.
In high school, my disinterest in elections turned to active disdain, for I came to see precisely how the democracy sausage was made – and it was not pretty.
For house captain, senior members of each house would have to stand in front of the remaining members of that house, announce their name and three facts about themselves. There was no pizzazz – less like Chorusline and more like a firing line. We would then turn our backs while, behind us, the younger kids voted for their future leaders. Unsurprisingly, they would always vote for the Year 12s who looked the sportiest and/or most attractive.
Speeches were necessary to attain the role of school captain, which meant that, suddenly, fellow peers were trying to pass themselves off as eloquent and authentically charming. It was clear who had sought their parents’ help, relying on overused zingers such as: “To be or not to be school captain – that is the question”.
We were told that the decision of captain was up to us, the students, but the more sceptical Year 12s chose to test this claim by organising a rigging of the votes. A pact was made; everyone was to vote for the least likely – and least liked – of the candidates. But, when the announcement was made, the winners turned out to be a popular member of the orchestra and a celebrated hockey player. Both were worthy leaders, but the damage was done. It was clear that the principal had swooped in with the overriding vote. Our confidence in democracy was in tatters.
While observing the election of house captains where I work, I’ve noticed many commonalities with my own school experiences. A lot of witty quips that generally miss the mark, and attempts to appear the sportiest or otherwise most attractive. Only COVID has stopped them tossing jelly beans into the crowds.
Today’s students are only marginally more engaged with politics than I was. According to the most recent National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship test, Year 10s are likely to distrust civic institutions and processes. The topics that do interest them are environmental and social issues, which seem more relevant and urgent than whatever happens in the Canberra bubble.
As a federal election looms, I can finally see the importance of students feeling empowered and involved in the decision-making processes at school. As Whitney Houston sang: Teach them well and let them lead the way; show them all the beauty they possess inside. For these are the future leaders we’ll one day be complaining about.