You Crazy Kids


Did you know Australia is formulating a new policy for young people?

Federal Minister for Youth, Kate Ellis — who is 31, so hopefully not too old to remember what being young is like — announced last week the she was beginning a "national conversation with young Australians".

It’s easy to be cynical of such exercises, but if ever there was an area of public policy that deserves more attention and respect, it’s youth policy. According to the Rudd Government’s recently released report, The State of Australia’s Young People, there are nearly 4 million young Australians — defined as those aged between 12 and 24. Throw in a couple of million more Australians aged under 12, and perhaps a fifth of the entire Australian population lacks even an elementary say in our political process: a vote.

This is a fundamental flaw in our democracy, because young people will be hugely affected by the really big issues shaping Australia.

Climate change is of course the biggest of these. As the UK’s Stern Report observed, the destruction of tomorrow’s atmosphere by the polluters of today is one of the greatest market failures in world history. Far from leaving a better planet for our children and grandchildren, Australia’s current leadership generation shows every sign of not caring at all. The Government’s own Treasury data shows that global CO2 concentrations will be unlikely to peak below 450 parts per million; according to Clive Hamilton, 600ppm is a more realistic figure. That could mean a world close to five degrees warmer. In other words, a person born today will inherit a world fundamentally different to that of her parents, grandparents or indeed the entire last 10,000 years of human civilisation.

Climate change is merely the most obvious gathering crisis our leaders will bequeath to young Australians. There’s peak oil and energy security – the challenge of finding a replacement for the fossil fuels that power our entire way of life. There’s food security — the challenge of growing enough food to feed a world that will soon contain nine billion people. And there’s water — will Australia’s cities and farms have enough of it in a hotter, drier future? No one is asking young people how they think we should be addressing these issues that will greatly affect their lives.

What about housing affordability? After a pause during the global financial crisis, Australian house prices have resumed their inexorable climb, making it ever harder for young Australians to rent (let alone buy) a place to live. Housing is one of the most aged-biased parts of the entire economy: because of the massive house price inflation of the past two decades, Australians homes are now largely owned by middle-aged and elderly Australians, while most young people rent. Those rents represent a multi-billion transfer from poorer, younger Australians to richer, older Australians every month. But you won’t hear about a curb to negative gearing tax concessions in any Rudd Government discussion of youth policy.

It goes on. Our population is ageing. Today’s children will inherit a nation top-heavy with retired workers and pensions; ever more of their taxes will be required to support their elders into old age. And then there’s youth unemployment, which remains considerably higher than unemployment for the broader population. Youth unemployment is a perennial problem that is exacerbated by Australia’s flat-lining rates of high school completion.

So, you would expect that a national youth strategy would mention some of these issues. Indeed, you’d think that such a strategy would at least acknowledge the generational unfairness inherent in climate change, wouldn’t you?

Don’t be silly. The five-page crib sheet from Kate Ellis that passes for a "discussion paper" doesn’t mention climate change. In fact, it makes no mention of the environment at all. And it certainly doesn’t mention youth unemployment or housing affordability.

Instead, we have what must surely be one of the most prejudiced policy documents ever to be released by a Canberra department.

According to the document, "the Prime Minister has identified three key reasons for developing a strategy". They are:

1. One in five Australians are under 25, and make a strong contribution to Australia, our economy, our culture, our sport and our nation.

2. This generation is facing new challenges (changing social and family structures, changing skill requirements etc).

3. There are specific areas of concern that require transparent national action (eg binge drinking, mental health and violence).

Ah, there you have it, in dot point number three. The problem is not what we are doing to young people — it’s what young people are doing to themselves! If this discussion paper is any guide, young people are mad, bad and drunk. In short, they are very naughty boys and girls.

The paper’s suggested goals of a national strategy are pure boiler-plate spin. "Empowering young people to build their own lives for the future" and "enabling young Australians to accept full responsibility for their lives, their actions and their behaviours" sound great, until you realise that in most aspects of our society, young people have neither power nor responsibility. Locked out of the housing market, competing against more experienced elders for jobs and about to be burdened with possibly insoluble environmental problems, most young Australians don’t even get to vote. In this country, depending on when your birthday falls, you may not get to vote in a federal election until you are 21.

You have to conclude that the Rudd Government simply doesn’t take youth policy seriously. After all, one of the very first things the Howard Government did on taking office was to defund the national youth lobby group, then known as the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition (AYPAC). AYPAC was unhelpfully honest in its criticisms of the Howard government’s policies, so Howard replaced it with a hand-picked National Youth Roundtable, a largely honorary body that had no genuinely consultative role. As a result, young people’s voices went largely unheard in a government that in any case depended statistically on the votes of older Australians far more than younger ones.

But have matters improved under Kevin Rudd? Some new funding was found for the successor to AYPAC, the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition. But if Kate Ellis and Kevin Rudd were really serious about youth policy, they could meaningfully engage with young people on the issues that actually affect them.

There is no sign of that at the moment. According to Crikey‘s Andrew Crook, Ellis didn’t even turn up to her own launch of The State of Australia’s Young People last week. Participants flown to Canberra for the event spoke of being told the Minister wasn’t "available" and of being shuffled around between double-booked meeting rooms. They didn’t even get to read the national youth strategy discussion paper, which is perhaps just as well, given how laughably patronising it is.

Foundation for Young Australians CEO and Young Australian of the Year nominee Adam Smith told Crook that last Wednesday’s events were "hugely disappointing".

In a display of Ellis’ priorities, she still managed to hold a press conference. "Most young people are well educated, have close relationships with their families and friends and contribute to society through study, work and volunteering," Ellis said. "But the report also shows there are serious risks to their health, safety and wellbeing."

Serious risks? The Rudd Government is not taking young people seriously at all.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.