At 5 pm on a Tuesday night, it’s all quiet in the training rooms at the Vermont Football Club. In 15 minutes, the under 19s will pour in. For now, it’s just their coach Jack Best and a stream of people asking how many footballs he wants, or what they’re going to say to the player who forgot last Saturday’s practice game.
Best is the vice-captain of the club’s senior team, which plays in the first division of the Eastern Football League. This is his debut year coaching. As he waits for his players he lays their new guernseys on a table and – with a bit of prodding – talks politics.
When The Citizen drops by, Best and his players are more preoccupied with another vote. Tonight, the under 19s are electing their own leadership group.
About his team, Best is lyrical: “They’re good kids,” he says. “And the new guernseys look good. Look good, feel good.”
About politics, not so much. “I don’t really know. Whenever there’s an election, we hear all about how great they are, and then what?”
Vermont Football Club sits on Canterbury Rd in Mitcham, between the primary school and the post office, and Mitcham sits within the electorate of Deakin, one of the most watched seats in the nation ahead of this weekend’s poll.
The team piles in, and there’s an excited rush for the guernseys. They’ve been done professionally for free by the father of one of the players, in the Eagle’s proud purple and gold. For those who have graduated from the under 17s this year, it’s the first time they will run out with their names on their backs.
Soon enough, Best corrals them together and tells them it’s time to vote, reminding them how important the commitment of the captain is to the success and reputation of the team.
“It’s not only a really good achievement. You’re representing your mates, you’re representing the club,” he tells them.
“Over the last couple of years, it’s been quite embarrassing, halfway through the season – the captain has actually left the club.”
Best stresses how disappointing the lack of continuity has been. It could be observed that his sentiments mirror the frustrations of many Australian voters at the serial political coups in Canberra over the past decade. It’s all about respect and commitment.
“[The captain] needs to be a real person who wants to commit over the journey, alright?”
The voting is a 5-4-3-2-1 system, a favourite of sporting teams. There are a couple of shouts from a couple of players seeking clarity on the process – “Is 1 the highest, or is 5?”
Overall, the team is glad it votes in its own captains. “You need to get your players’ opinions,” says Damien Furey, or Damo to everyone at the club. “At the end of the day, they’re the ones playing so if they’re not respecting their leader, there’s no point having him.”
Damo is 19, and although he was supposed to vote in the state election last year, he forgot, and was fined.
“I won’t be missing it again,” he laughs. “I don’t love compulsory voting, but everyone’s gotta have a say.”
Despite this, Damo says he doesn’t know who he’ll be voting for..
It’s the first time any of these players has voted in a national election, but if they are feeling particularly excited about the prospect, they are playing it close to their chests. It’s a difficult task to persuade any of them to comment on the issues that might sway their votes.
“I don’t know,” is the response, one after another. They laugh at themselves. Probing indicates it is more a case of apathy than ignorance, although some will try and convince you otherwise.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a young person make a reference to politics, ever,” says club manager, Lee Bidstrup.
Bidstrup has been at the club since 1962, and watched hundreds of young men come through. He doesn’t see more disengagement now than when he was a player himself.
“If you look at the teenagers of my time – our only interest was playing football. We didn’t know anything about politics, or care about it. We’re here to play football.”
Monash University’s Dr Zareh Ghazarian, who researches political engagement in young Australians, has found that many young or first-time voters aren’t confident about who to vote for, or the process of the electoral system.
“There’s a lot of effort to teach young people in school,” he says, “It’s part of the national curriculum from grade 3 to 10. But when young people leave school, there’s a need to remind and refresh the knowledge – they would like a bit of a brush up.”
But Ghazarian cautions against assumptions that this reflects apathy on the part of many young voters.
“It ranges from those who really aren’t very interested at all, all the way through to those are really devoted, close followers of the political debate. It’s not necessarily about their age.”
It’s been widely observed that more Australians between the ages of 18 and 24 have enrolled for this election than ever before, provoking increased focus on the youth vote and how it might play out. But the number of 18 and 19 year old Victorians who are registering to vote is not substantially increasing.
The increase of registered Victorian voters between 2015 and 2019 represents 43.6% of the growth of the estimated population for Victorians in the 20-24 age bracket. However, the growth in the 18-19 age bracket, which includes 16 and 17-year-olds registering to vote in the next years’ elections, represents only 3%.
These numbers indicate that on closer scrutiny, the level of engagement of young people is not universal. That said, Ghazarian does believe that social media is playing a part in encouraging more young Australians to engage in politics.
“It may just be that they haven’t had as much time to enrol,” he says of the 18-19 year olds. “There’s nothing to suggest that it’s any different from older generations. The only difference is that young people now have access to information that older generations just couldn’t get.”
At training in Vermont, the young footballers say they never talk politics with their families.
Kye Barlow, who is out of action with a broken wrist in a sling, watches his team mates run figures of eight, leaping to catch the football Best kicks at them. He says he doesn’t know who his parents vote for, or why. But with his own first visit to the ballot box looming, he thinks he will find out how they vote and follow their lead.
Barlow, who has deferred an offer to study sports science at Deakin to focus on football and his job as a lifesaver, has only recently turned 18. “I know voting affects everyone,” he explains, “I just haven’t gotten around to thinking about it.”
On the issue of the election of the captain for the under 19s, however, he’s passionate.
“I voted for Damo,” he says. “He was my captain in the 17s, the first year I came to the club. He’s good with everyone.”
Damo was a favourite for the captaincy, more certain than the federal member, and when Best announces him as the victor after training, he declares “we’re all really pleased with your choice”.
By all accounts, he’ll do well. “You can just tell, some kids are just natural leaders,” says Best. “They get around the boys and bring everyone up.”
The captain has more responsibilities than tossing the coin at the start of the game. They’re a link between the coaches and the other players, and they keep up the morale of the team.
“It’s a very big honour,” Damo says, beaming. “There’s a lot of really good leaders in that team.”
Like Barlow, he defines a good leader as someone who brings up the team, and can communicate with everyone, not just their inner circle.
“Not just on field, you gotta communicate with them off training. If they’re doing alright off the field, they’ll do alright on the field.”
Also like Barlow, he doesn’t see a lot of good leadership in the political sphere.
“They’re trying to make it too much about themselves, trying to get themselves on the telly,” says Damo.
“I think it’s pretty poor,” says Barlow. “There’s always a different prime minister for every vote. I reckon if there was one prime minister for ages it would be good. Doesn’t seem like there’s one good one.”