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Wednesday, 21 April 1999
Page: 4002

Senator LUNDY (1:09 PM) —There has been recent comment in the media about how political parties relate to Australia's youth. In particular, there has been some suggestion that Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett is one of the few politicians who understand youth issues. Mr Kennett and his conservative colleagues see the so-called generation X and generation Y in terms of vote buying rather than a policy issue. It is this approach that I believe highlights the absolute lack of sincerity that is expressed by Premier Kennett.

It is relevant to note that Mr Kennett came to politics via the advertising industry, which, by its nature, is renowned for treating sectional and identifiable groups in society as demographic targets to be manipulated. That is why Premier Kennett has been the master of the launch, the master of the political stunt and the master of the rhetoric. It is also a direct reflection of why so many young people, and people generally, become even more cynical of politics and politicians in an age when they are seeking leadership and looking for some form of philosophical inspiration in their political leaders, rather than the shallow effort to be seen in the approach that Premier Kennett and others bring to Australian politics.

Mr Kennett thinks that if you can get in on the hip stations and go the FM radio route in discussing the trend issues of the day, then you're addressing youth issues. A presence in the popular media is not enough. It is certainly important to be able to reach young people through the mediums that they listen to, respect and enjoy, but it is another to provide and build a policy platform of substance beneath that rhetoric.

A perception exists on the conservative side of politics that quality policy development can be somehow substituted with talkback radio commentary and high profile launches and public events. The fact is that neither the federal government nor conservative state governments have produced quality policies and ideas that are pertinent to Australia's youth.

Indeed, the coalition's Youth Round Table is an exercise which illustrates how the policy agenda that is absolutely germane to young people is being marginalised and devalued. Thus, we find Minister Kemp talking up his consultation process with the 50 round table members, yet he has publicly stated that the government's policy direction will not be influenced by any recommendations arising out of the Youth Round Table. In fact, what we see is the establishment of a publicly funded focus group for the benefit of the federal government, without any opportunity for formal recognition of the endeavours of the incredibly talented and, I think, focused young people who came together as part of that group.

This concerns me greatly because we have previously witnessed the minister bypassing AYPAC, which was the peak youth representative body, primarily because their analysis and input to government was seen as too critical by the minister. Since then, we have seen a peak consultative youth group marginalised in the extreme by this government. Why? Because they actually served the purpose of collating information about young people in this country and collating information about the impact of the policy changes experienced by the coalition over the last three years.

Whilst we sit back and wait to see whether the round table experiment will work, I am also highly critical of the merits of establishing the youth representative body unless you act on the recommendations that evolve from that process. Why? Because it is about credibility and about saying to young people, `We value your input; we value, in political terms, what you have to say about issues and how you feel about the way things are and the way things should be in the future.' If this government is not prepared to embrace the recommendations emanating from youth representative bodies, then it should dispense with its tokenism and rhetoric and admit that youth issues hold no place in its policy platform.

Contrast the coalition's marginalisation of youth policy initiatives with Labor's endorsement of the National Youth Congress report, Building the nation, which was launched here last month. The Youth Congress—which is an initiative arising out of the National Youth Initiative, supported by many community groups, including Rotary—formulated a series of recommendations on issues such as the environment, unemployment, crime, homelessness, suicide prevention, education, drugs, multiculturalism and race relations. The Youth Congress also issued a challenge:

We challenge the government to have the courage to include us, the youth of Australia, in developing our nation and people. We recommend that the government embraces the recommendations presented in this report, to listen and act upon them with the passion and vigour with which we have developed them.

For three days, 300 young people from around the country met here in Canberra. I had the privilege of participating in several aspects of that particular gathering, including a two-hour workshop looking at the issue of drugs. I know that the young people involved were not there because they saw themselves as token contributors to an exercise. They were there because they believed, one, they could make a difference and, two, the work they were doing was absolutely critical to Australia's future. And they are right.

The challenges that they brought forth include youth suicide and the drugs issue. Recently Kim Beazley released Labor's illicit drugs discussion paper which canvassed a broad range of policy initiatives that are both realistic and achievable. Events like the Youth Congress are very important to the process that Labor is going through at the moment in policy development. We need to know what young people are thinking and feeling about these issues. Our paper explicitly acknowledges that many young people are prone to experimenting with the boundaries of what they are permitted to do in the context of community standards and the law. We therefore place great emphasis on educational programs that help young people make sensible choices and temper risk-taking activities. It is about empowering young people with the knowledge and the ability to make decisions for themselves, not assuming for a minute that for some reason related to how long we have spent on this earth older people are in a position to dictate the terms and conditions of survival and existence to other generations.

Labor also understands that youth suicide and youth crime are frequently born of alienation and dissatisfaction with the structures and policies of society. I come back to my earlier point: it is about how we as political leaders construct our policies and how they reflect the needs of the people that we represent. You cannot treat youth issues in an isolated policy vacuum; conservative governments have failed dismally to create workable policies because that is exactly what they do. To hive off the whole concept of youth policy in one small section of a portfolio area is marginalising youth in the extreme. You cannot approach youth issues without specifically addressing social welfare, health, education, sport and recreation, and then embark on the most hypocritical path to cut funding to all of those areas and then throw money at some form of committee or board structure initiative that is theoretically going to address this issue in one fell swoop.

We have seen this too often across a large number of areas here in the ACT with the Liberal leader, Kate Carnell. In response to a community issue or problem that arises, we see yet another board or committee established with a flurry of media attention. Then that issue is put to bed in political terms. There are no solutions developed. Because of the incredible activities on behalf of most conservative governments to disempower and remove the voice of community activists—be they youth, women or people with disabilities—we find that the power balance of how these groups express themselves and contribute to the political debate is affected to their detriment.

The damage caused to the social fabric of Australia by the coalition has severely impacted on young people. Imagine this: imagine being a young person today in the midst of the debate about higher education funding. Imagine every day being confronted by the fact that the leader of the country is arguing to cut funding. The subliminal message—and indeed the overt message—to young people is that we do not value them. This is what the government say every time they run education into the ground. Why? Because education is the key to opportunity for young people, not just here in Australia but everywhere in the world. The countries that are getting it right at the moment are the ones that have been brave enough and bold enough—and I say those words sarcastically—to invest in education.

Is it not disappointing that in 1999 the coalition has the status of being the only Western democratic government to have reduced education funding on a net basis in the last three years? It is the only one. On the brink of the new millennium where knowledge is going to become the commodity of the future, the thing that draws economic value into nations like Australia is being divested by this government, not invested in. That is a great indictment. Perhaps in historical terms we will look back on this period of coalition government and see the structural damage that has been done by Mr Howard and the coalition government. It seems to me that this government is intent on making victims out of young people. It seems that, through all its policies, with all the focus it has on its launchism and its building of initiatives that are shallow in the extreme, we find a government that is dismantling the social fabric that is there to support young people.

Recent studies have showed that the government has been quite effective in doing this. I would like to refer to Rod Cameron's ANOP study which demonstrates that this government's approach is actually having an impact on the values, thoughts and feelings of young people in this country. Why? Because to struggle in this country now is no longer to struggle to get ahead. To struggle in this country now is just to survive. The measure of success for young people is coping. The opportunities for young people to take on challenges and to further themselves through their own endeavours are diminishing because of lack of education, lack of opportunity and marginalisation of those most in need.

This study demonstrates that indeed people are looking into themselves. They are becoming introverted in such a way that their survival is contingent upon their activity only, and the notion of social fabric and community support is diminishing in our society.

In short, the coalition's approach to young people is based on keeping them out of the big political picture. It is about a framework of policies that reflects not the shape of things to come; that reflects not where the leaders of the future will actually be in terms of environ mental, social and, indeed, economic values. They are taking this country to a place where we have been before, and this is not a place that the young people of today feel comfortable with. But whilst ever they are marginalised and forced, where struggling becomes the symbol of just coping and not actually getting ahead, we find the options become limited.

In closing I would like to turn to a more positive note, and there are many positives in youth affairs. The level of initiative, enterprise, dynamism and intellect amongst our young people is actually the key to our future. We need look no further than the intellectually based industries like information technology, biotechnology and environmental technology to find where our economic future lies.

We know that the brains behind so many technology firms are not even with the 18- to 25-year-old age group, but with the 15- to 25-year-olds. It is this generation that understands where technological development is going and the value shift from material commodity to intellect, and I look forward to the future.