The Kids Table


"Having a youth summit a week before kind of feels a bit like you’re at the kids table, and I think that it’s really important that young people force their way onto the agenda in a way that means that it’s inescapable to listen to their opinions," he said.

Tim Goodwin, 24, a delegate at the weekend’s 2020 Youth Summit makes a good point. There is something inherently patronising about having a special gathering for "yoof" before the grown ups really get down to the business of shaping the future. It’s also patronising that I included Goodwin’s age with his name. After all, when I am quoted, no one ever writes "Jane Caro, 50," do they?

We’re a bit uncomfortable with children and young people in Australia. When they’re little we don’t like them in planes, restaurants or public places, and as they get older we make sure they get continually moved on in shopping malls and call groups of them "gangs". We serial test them at every turn and, no matter how they perform, claim many of them are failing. Mostly, we like to keep them at arms length, even when talking about their future. I once attended a forum on education and wondered to the organiser why no students were present. Because if we invite school kids, the politicians won’t come, she said.

Apart from recommending the voting age be lowered to 16, most of the ideas that came out of the weekend’s gathering of the 15-24s were fairly predictable: paid parental leave for everyone (we were agitating for that one way back when I was young), a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, ideas for keeping young people in rural areas, new funding schemes for the creative arts etc.

I’m not surprised the ideas from the Youth Summit were fairly unexceptional and I worry those that emerge from next weekend’s Grown Ups Summit will be similar. Not just because I am a cynical, old curmudgeon who wasn’t invited, but also because of the very nature of the way human beings deal with the future.

At a recent conference in Adelaide, neurologist Martin Westwell (Director of the Centre for Science Education at Flinders University) made an interesting remark. He said that whenever you ask people what they want for the future, they will always tell you what they need now. That is why if we simply provide what a bunch of experts – in any field – say they need, we will always be chasing our tails. By the time you manage to implement the new ideas, they will already be out of date. The unpredictable world will have moved on and the needs will have changed. The problem with all research is that it can only tell us what happened in the past. It can guide us today, perhaps, but it can’t actually give us any answers about tomorrow.

When it comes to preparing for the future, which by its nature is unknown, it seems to me there is only one way to effectively influence it for the better. And it isn’t about bright ideas; it isn’t even about the future. It’s about how we parent, educate, protect and care for our children right now. If we raise our children well, we won’t have to worry about what will need to be done in the future, because, once they are grown and we are old, we can confidently step aside and leave our children to get on with their present.

Yet in all the bumpf sent out about making submissions to the 2020 Summit, under all 10 topics, and among the roughly five or six guide questions beneath each one (that’s roughly 50 or 60 areas for discussion) the word "children" only appears twice. (Okay, three times if you include the word "childcare".) Maybe that’d be okay if all our kids were doing well, but they are not.

The latest figures on how we are caring for our kids are, in fact, pretty depressing. Recently released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, they show the eighth consecutive increase in every national indicator of child abuse, including a 16 per cent increase in substantiated notifications since 2005-06, and an increase of 43 per cent of the number of kids on care and protection orders since 2002.

So may I make a plea? Instead of getting bogged down in process, or batting statistics about the present back and forth, can all of the 1000 delegates remember that it is how we treat the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society right now that will actually determine our future.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.