Coalition governments have long lacked a soft spot for peak bodies prone to criticise them, or at least peak bodies which represent certain ends of town.
In 1998, the Howard government defunded the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition (AYAC), a national peak body for youth affairs that had been established for more than 20 years.
Without funding AYPAC folded.
In announcing that cut, then Minister for Youth, David Kemp announced the establishment of a new National Youth Roundtable.
Groups of 50 young people would be recruited from around the country and meet twice a year in Canberra. They would receive support through regular teleconferences as they worked on locally identified projects.
The first Roundtable was held in 1999.
In 2002 AYAC, was established. It ran without government support until the election of the Rudd government in 2008. Now the cycle continues with the Coalition cutting AYACs funding at the end of June.
In media reporting of the latest cut, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, Scott Ryan dismissed outright the need for single peak body representing youth.
“[The government] does not believe that a single peak body is necessary for it to hear the views of Australian youth, nor that a single peak body is capable of representing the diverse interests, experiences and background of young Australians,” Senator Ryan said.
“The government is currently developing plans to consult with young Australians using a more focused and targeted approach.”
Those plans are apparently not well advanced. When contacted, the Senator’s office was unable to provide any further details.
AYAC chair Craig Comrie doesn’t actually believe there are any. And he’s concerned that whatever they do won’t engage disadvantaged young people, something on which AYAC has placed considerable emphasis.
Back in 2000, Comrie was a participant in the National Youth Roundtable. He remembers the steps taken to control what participants could say publicly and who they could talk to. It’s an area in which I have some personal experience.
In 2001, I was hired as a casual ‘facilitator’ to work with Roundtable participants. I use quotation marks as the government’s requirement for this role was more about control than enabling participants to freely develop their ideas.
During the first of a two-day training program we were told of problems that had arisen during the first two roundtables.
One of these problems arose when some participants wanted to arrange a meeting with an Opposition party spokesperson.
I was surprised at this, and expressed a view that people make their best decisions when they receive information from a range of sources.
“Be very clear,” our group of trainee ‘facilitators’ was told by the department’s project manager, “this is the government’s Youth Roundtable. Not the Opposition’s or the Democrats.”
At the start of the second days training I was taken aside by the government’s hired hand from the NGO who were running the Roundtable.
I was told of concerns about my professionalism. And my views about a wide range of information sources were badly received. Next morning I had a visit from the hired hand delivering the news my services were no longer required. One of life’s rich learning experiences.
Julian Pocock was executive director of AYPAC for four years until the end of 1997. He also has concerns about the current government direction.
“In 1997 with the support of a corporate and a philanthropic sponsor we developed a model to establish a national youth roundtable alongside of AYPAC,” Mr Pocock said.
“This would provide a direct link with youth through the roundtable while maintaining links with youth service providers through AYPAC. And it would cost the government nothing. But they rejected the proposal.”
Mr Pocock believes the same flawed thinking from 1998 is recurring now with the cuts to AYAC.
In 2006 Jude Bridgland Sorenson completed qualitative research into the experience of a select number of participants over six years of the Roundtable.
She found the Roundtable to be politically manipulated and that participants shifted “from being engaged, excited and hopeful to being hurt, disillusioned and disenchanted,” with feelings of exclusion from the political process.
Of more than 200 recommendations made during the six years of her study just six were accepted.
Bridgland Sorenson’s report goes beyond this, and raises crucial and fundamental questions about how government’s engage with youth.
She suggests a radical re-thinking of these processes is required.
Workers at a strategic level in the youth sector agree that neither the Coalition nor Labor truly know how to engage well with youth.
Reporting of a 2009 engagement under the Rudd Governments Youth Minister Kate Ellis tells a tale of a total debacle.
The Coalition’s budget cuts to youth services, along with the lack of a responsible Minister don’t help their credentials in the sector. But it’s widely accepted that it’s both possible and worthwhile to maintain peak bodies to represent the service providers while still having a means of direct communication with youth.
Let’s hope this Coalition government have learned from the experience of the previous Youth Roundtable and, we see more than another turn of the youth merry-go-round.
* Graeme Gibson is a writer, adult educator and facilitator.
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