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Rite of political election: Why young Catholics need to engage more in Australian politics

Catholic Youth Calling

Political call: “I’d encourage all young Catholics to be involved in politics for the right reasons – to create an Australia which supports the family and supports life to its fullest.”

IF you ever wondered what happened to those provocative billboards promising men a better sex life, just ask Melbourne seminarian Matthew Restall.

In 2008 the then-university student stumbled upon an image that would spur him into a national political campaign against sexualised advertising and a short career in politics.

“I got involved through trying to change the sexualised culture in our community; that’s how I got involved in politics,” Mr Restall said.

He was driving his car over the West Gate Bridge when he noticed an ad for a carwarsh competition containing “explicit images” of women.

After a frustrating and failed attempt to take the matter to the politicians – even to then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard – Mr Restall started a petition to ban sexualised advertisements in Australia.

It was a hit.

The campaign was reported to have brought about the demise of a highly suggestive billboard advertisement promoting a male erectile dysfunction product.

Mr Restall was 18 when he started the campaign, and it kicked off several years’ work in politics, including a role as national youth officer for the Thomas More Centre in Melbourne and a job as advisor to Senator John Madigan.

Now the 27-year-old is in his second year of studies in the seminary, limiting his political involvement to just dropping his votes into the ballot box.

He is counting on other young Catholics to step up and take the lead and advocate for justice and truth in Australia, while figuring out ways to include political inspiration in his future homilies.

“Young Catholics should consider getting involved out of love for neighbour, to create a society in which it is easier for people to come to know of God’s love for them and in turn to love and serve Him,” Mr Restall said.

“I’d encourage all young Catholics to be involved in politics for the right reasons – to create an Australia which supports the family and supports life to its fullest.”

But rounding up young Catholics to take up the challenge has not been easy in Australia, where political engagement of the younger generations seems to be in decline.

Statistics from last year’s federal election showed that out of the 816,000 eligible Australian who did not register to vote, more than 30 per cent were aged between 18 and 24.

But these statistics don’t necessarily reflect the lived reality of young people, as research fellow for the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis Dr Max Halupka would argue.

Last year Dr Halupka received a doctorate in philosophy for his work correlating the relationship between technology and politics.

He found young people were engaged in political activism but not like their parents; instead they make headways on social media, online forums, and by accessing diverse news sources.

“We’ve moved a long way from the idea of politically switched-on young people taking part in protests or perhaps volunteering for a political party,” Dr Halupka told the IGPA.

“Nowadays, they will be networking via social media, creating online petitions or sharing thought-provoking content to spread a message of their own.”

But aside from adding volume on social networks, young politicians are few and far between inside parliaments throughout Australia.

This concern was at the heart of Pope Francis’ message to youth at last year’s World Youth Day.

In his address to young pilgrims in Krakow, the Holy Father said the world did not need “young couch potatoes”.

Rather, God encouraged all his faithful “to be politicians, thinkers and social activists” and “leave a mark”.

“God expects something from you. Have you understood this?” the Pope said.

“It is very sad to pass through life without leaving a mark.”

The Holy Father continued to say God did not envisage a life of comfort for his flock.

“Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade-in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths,” he said.

Queensland nurse Nicole Osmak is one young Catholic whose political actions have required a lot of guts.

When Queensland politicians were debating about legalising abortion in the state, Ms Osmak was on the side of no change and made it clear to her union, which actually supported the proposed bills.

“I have spoken out to my nursing union and have had an article on women’s health and effects of abortion published in their newsletter,” she said.

“This was not easy to do but was not negotiable with my strong stance on pro-life issues.”

Open conversations and debates are simply part of Ms Osmak’s work as a medical professional.

“We need more of these open conversations and increase the badly unbalanced number of Christians and conservatives on TV debate shows and news programs so people can properly judge for themselves what is fair and just,” she said.

Ms Osmak said her involvement in politics started at her Catholic parish, but grew when she was in Germany for the 2005 World Youth Day.

“When travelling to WYD Germany I learnt a lot about these problems on a world scale and how politics played a major part in revealing the injustice, and also the action that needed to be done,” she said.

These actions included handing out vote cards at polling booths, telephoning parliamentary candidates, writing letters to politicians on moral issues, most of which were pro-life concerns.

“This issue has always held a strong place in my heart and has driven me to speak out about it in my workplace and with friends, families and strangers,” Ms Osmak said.

Several years ago she enrolled in a week-long conference that made her realise the Church was “at battle but that we are in great company, with God as our head”.

The Young Political Activist Training, which finished another annual conference two weeks ago, encourages Catholic young adults to find out how they can get involved in politics in their own lives.

Both Ms Osmak and Mr Restall are YPAT alumni, and would recommend all young Catholics to attend, both to follow what Pope Francis is asking of them and to fulfil their duties as Christians.

“When the leader of our Church is making such statements (as asking young Catholics to be politicians and social activists), we need to take it seriously,” Mr Restall said.

“When I talk to young people and we’re having a conversation about their disregard for politics, I would encourage them to read Lumen Gentium, which asks us to be instruments of the Church’s mission.

“It’s very important that young people spread the Gospel.”

And the more that young people take part in political changes – even becoming politicians – the more the Church can change lives.

“When young Catholics get together, fighting for a common cause, there is power in numbers,” Ms Osmak said.

“Saints of the past came across a lot of resistance in the political sphere.

“Politics is from where laws and policies are formed and therefore affects society.

“So many terrible and unjust laws have passed because of, too often, a lack of action and voices.”

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