My name is Joshua Smith, and I am a year-12 student at Lake Tuggeranong College in Canberra. I took part in the the government’s farcical “consultation” process for the National Body Image Advisory Group, which they pulled us in for on the very same day as they issued the report.
There have been a few stories lately regarding attempts by the government to consult and engage with young people, which reminded me of my own experiences with youth “consultation” this year.
The most recent was the last Tuesday in October, when I along with about 20 other students popped in to Parliament for a workshop and discussion with the Body Image Advisory Group, who you might have seen handing their report to minister Kate Ellis on the six o’clock news that evening. You may have even seen my head whizz by in a panning shot, before the minister quickly left for the chamber, the press group wandered off to find some news and we went to the bus discussing our little taste of our nation’s democratic process, particularly commenting among ourselves on the impressive speed-printing job that must have been done that morning.
You see, despite the fact that our little workshop, complete with notes on butcher’s paper and cosy sub-group discussions, had only concluded around 11am, and the press conference was less than one hour later, the beautiful glossy-page report that we had informed we were making such a valuable contribution to was ready to be handed to the minister at the conference. That is either the most heroic printing and editing process performed in this nation’s history or fairly clear evidence that our primary purpose in being “consulted” was not in fact to add to the report or give the government our perspectives but rather to form a nice crowd backdrop when it was handed to the minister in front of the waiting press pack.
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The most excitement of the day seemed to come from the glimpses of Peter Garrett and Prime Minister Rudd as we ran around Parliament House, a matter of the most immense personal disappointment for me, owing to my failure to come up with, and then use, a witty line to heckle them with as they sped past or keep them in place long enough to ask a question before they sped through. To think I missed an opportunity to contribute to our democratic process as much as an MP in question time.
While slightly less harried and farcical than the reports of another group of students being flown in from around the country to examine a report that they never ended up seeing and chat with a minister (Kate Ellis) who never showed up, only to spend a day running around Parliament House like a bunch of headless chooks, it still seemed like the government weren’t quite as interested as we initially thought they might be in our opinions.
Indeed, overall it was much like my other experience of this sort of engagement earlier this year, the ACT government’s 20th anniversary Youth Parliament. Apart from our little mock question time and the presentation of some petitions that, no doubt, ended up piled on some poor staffer’s desk to be glanced at, we spent some brief time debating a ban on fireworks, providing us with at least one part of the day in which we could express our opinion on a major issue. After lengthy debate, we came down with a reasonably firm majority against a ban, feeling that we had at least expressed our opinion to the territory’s government and that, perhaps, we might have influenced how the different parties in the Assembly would view fireworks bans from then on.
Within six months fireworks were banned in the ACT, and the only opposition to the ban has now come from the Liberals taking notice of groups on mediums such as Facebook, and thereby realising that young people do, in fact, believe that ACT residents should be able to have a bit of fun once a year with fireworks, regardless of the antics of a few vandalising idiots. It is always nice to know that someone will listen eventually, given enough prodding and electoral incentive.
Reading now about a national Youth Parliament in the UK, comprising elected representatives from across the country aged 11-18 and debating in the chamber of the Commons on a broad range of issues including university fees, public transport, jobs and the economy, one begins to wonder whether perhaps Australia could do a little better on youth consultation, and whether the government really thinks that young people are so stupid and disinterested that we will all be appeased by reports, online youth forums and the occasional group being pulled into Parliament for an inconsequential (or, occasionally, non-existent) discussion.
Then again, the same sorts of measures seem to be getting votes in the rest of the country, and we appear to be primarily known for binge drinking and mental instability (with depression and eating disorders being headliners), so why wouldn’t the government think it can get away with this entirely lacklustre failure of a youth policy?
The only way that any action is going to be taken in the end is if we, as young people, use our power as one of the main groups that push Rudd up in the opinion polls, threaten to change our votes and essentially force the government to sit up and take notice. Considering how Rudd examines every policy first and foremost on the number of votes he shall obtain (or lose) from it, the possibility of losing Labor’s most solid constituency would certainly bring about a few changes.