In Kevin Rudd's victory speech last night, he went out of his way to address young Australians:

Mr Rudd said many young people had not liked or respected much of what they had seen. "As I rock around the place talking to kids, they see it as huge national turn-off," he said. "I understand why you switched off. It's hardly a surprise. But I want to ask you to come back and listen afresh. It's really important that we get you engaged in anyway we can."

Let's quickly pass over the cringe-inducing attempt to connect with the kids ('As I rock around the place') and focus on substance. We can't be sure if Kevin Rudd saw the Lowy Institute's poll results or the media coverage, but as Alex Oliver noted yesterday, the 'democracy question' was again heavily reported this year, and as Rudd suggested, what we're hearing is that Gen Y seems worryingly unattached to the concept of democracy.

I think Alex's list of reasons for the possible disaffection among young Australians is a good one. But I'm not ready to embrace the pessimistic view shared by Rudd and various commentators just yet.

Consider the context in which the question is presented, and the question itself. The respondents are asked twenty-odd questions before they get to the democracy one, about a mix of issues relating to other countries, Australia's foreign policy, asylum seekers, emissions trading and Australia's economic performance. In other words, some questions are about the world, and others are about Australia.

Then comes the democracy question. Note that it does not specifically refer to the respondents' own country until option 3 ('it doesn't matter what kind of government we have'). Respondents are asked to choose one of the three options rather than express a level of agreement with each:

I am going to read you three statements about democracy. Please say which one of the three statements comes closest to your own personal views about democracy:

  • 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.

My point is that respondents may have a number of things on their minds by the time they reach this question, and when they answer, they could be thinking of other countries rather than their own. 

I should note that the wording of this question is not ours. The Lowy Institute uses the same phrasing as the Pew Research Center, because we wanted to be able to compare our results, including those we've gathered in Fiji, Indonesia and India over the last two years, against those Pew collects in other countries. But I don't know about the context in which Pew asks the question when it is polling in, say, Lebanon or Pakistan.

If it is the case that respondents were thinking of other countries rather than their own when they addressed this question, then we might interpret the results somewhat differently. It would still suggest an ambivalence about democracy, but perhaps not so much ours. For instance, it could be an indicator that Australians have seen the failure of attempts to impose democracy on countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and have concluded that there is value in having strong centralised leadership in weak states.

It could also suggest that authoritarianism, at least in foreign countries, is somewhat in vogue. I doubt Australia's youth want a Chinese-style system for themselves, but perhaps they see it working for China.

Photo by Flickr user noideas.