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Tuesday, 10 August 2004
Page: 26054


Senator MOORE (7:26 PM) —Two weeks ago, along with Senator John Cherry, another Queensland senator, I had the pleasure of visiting the Gatton campus of the University of Queensland and attending a `Senate hearing'—but a very special one—put on by students representing three local high schools. Lowood, Laidley and Lockyer state high school students in grade 10, as part of the Discovering Democracy program, worked together to show Senator Cherry and I how a Senate committee should operate. And they did show us how one should work.

The students prepared issues that were important to them and their community, they identified amongst themselves a group of senators and they looked at issues affecting the quality of life for young people in their area, the Lockyer Valley of Queensland. They identified key issues and then worked together to develop their arguments. The key issues were transport; employment; sport; recreation, especially retail; and the environment, particularly the issues of water and salinity as they affected their community. The kids got together. They were all volunteers. No-one was forced to take part in this program. They identified that they wanted to be there and they gave up a full day of their time—at a place other than school—to come along and work together on these issues.

The Lockyer Valley is part of the federal electorate of Blair. It is in south-east Queensland and is mainly a rural electorate. It is an area of wonderful wealth in terms of the local rural economy but it also has particular issues to do with access, rural lifestyle and a fairly low income level across the region. The students identified these issues. In terms of the things that could make their life better, they talked about two reasons for living in the area. One was that their families had been born and raised there: this area has a long history of people who settled there in the 19th century and have stayed there, with third and fourth generations on the land. The other was that, increasingly, families have chosen to move into this part of country Queensland, for lifestyle and economic reasons.

The kids were saying that at this point in time they felt isolated from the wider community and that the main reason for that was transport. The degree of knowledge amongst the transport group was quite wonderful. They had taken the time to study transport routes; they had been onto state government areas to talk about rail routes; and they had looked at the key point of independence and the need for cooperation to make the community vibrant. They talked of their concerns about living in a rural area and their total dependence on their families and friends to be able to move around. There are not particularly strong public transport links to the major cities, and they felt that they were stuck and were always reliant on someone else to be able to travel. This caused them to feel as though they were always behind when it came to choice. They came up with some innovative plans about shared transport and new roads. They were particularly concerned about safety on the roads to ensure that large trucks were not destroying the environment or the roads through their communities. They said that public transport was the real key for people to access job opportunities, training and higher education. They thought that they could work more effectively with their government to develop solutions around that area.

The issue of employment came up a lot. There are just not enough jobs in the area for people when they leave school, let alone when they are trying to get part-time jobs to help them through their study. This is also a major issue for university students who are travelling to the Gatton area. There are no jobs around for people who are taking up full-time studies at the local tertiary education centre—the well-known Gatton College—to supplement their study.

The students spoke very knowledgeably about the effect of the cost of higher education and that, for many of their families, increased HECS fees could mean they could not make the choice of tertiary education—and many of them did want that choice. They knew that to take up most elements of further education would mean that they would have to leave home because, as we said, the transport links are not good and there is no way that they can commute to higher education, including to TAFE college in Ipswich.

They talked to me about how they had chosen options for careers. One young woman was very keen to take up medicine and to move on to become a cardiac surgeon. She knew exactly what she had to do for that option. None of that is available locally, of course. People talked about the options of taking up interior design, nursing, education and working more effectively on the land with their families. Unfortunately, that last choice was not available for many of them, because the economic conditions are such that they can no longer absolutely survive by staying on family properties. The option is always there for them to take up other work. But that means leaving the area, which is something that not many of them really want to do but they can see that that would be the reality.

It was not just the fact that there were not enough jobs around. They had a very good knowledge about quality jobs. They were worried about the fact that either the few small businesses could not afford to employ extra people or the kind of employment being offered was often not the best in terms of wages and conditions. And here, as in so many other areas, we heard stories about young kids, students, who needed to supplement their income but who were used as virtually slave labour in terms of being paid inadequate wages or who were fired without warning, with no explanation. They were just being used because some employers—not all—know that they can do it and get away with it, and that is sad.

The students talked about how you need a market to have jobs. They were concerned that in some of the small country towns where they live and go to school there are closed shopfronts. Businesses are not surviving because there is not enough market. They spoke very knowledgeably about how you build up market to attract people. They felt that they could work within their community, with support from governments—Senator Cherry was there for most of this discussion—to increase the opportunities for people at the local level.

This linked into the issue of retail. So many people in larger cities take for granted options that kids who are living in the country do not have. For them to go shopping or to go out with their friends often means a two- or three-hour journey. From where they live, it does not take that long to drive into Ipswich, Brisbane or Toowoomba. But, by the time the kids link up—they share transport; they catch buses—that journey can take them up to three hours. One of the good things about the Lockyer Valley is that you can go up the range to Toowoomba or you can go down to the areas around Brisbane and Ipswich—it is right in the middle—but it takes time and it takes money. That was a major issue for them.

The issue of sport got them all going because they all felt that that was something that could be provided cooperatively between government and community. They talked about upgrading the facilities at local areas. Local sports grounds would have good provision of services so that people were able to have the best quality sport facilities to develop their skills and to have the chance, as many young people from the area have already done, to succeed at and enjoy playing sport across the board. Again, the issue of money came up; it is a major concern. I did laugh with them a bit about how often an area called Plainlands came up in their discussion. At the moment it is quite a small community on the highway, but just about all their solutions included some facility at Plainlands. I think it is a central spot.


Senator Cherry —Yes, Plainlands mall.


Senator MOORE —Senator Cherry, it is a message for the people at Plainlands. The kids were very keen about that place. What came out of this visit for me was a concern that, at the beginning of the day, this whole process seemed to be a bit of debate: people who were putting forward their argument were often in a debate with the senator who felt that they had to argue back to the people who were representing the community. By the end of the day, I think we had worked out that the whole process was much more about a community finding expression rather than about debating points and finding out reasons why an argument could not work. I hope that that message will continue with the people who participated.

This whole experience showed me how valuable the Discovering Democracy program is in our schools. I want to pay tribute to the teachers who keep this program going. It is a great shame that the government are going to cut this program, but whilst we have teachers of the quality of those who supported the students in the three high schools that we visited the other day, elements of the program will be maintained because of its value. I would like to congratulate the teachers and, in particular, those students involved. I hope that their knowledge of democracy through this process will continue. This is a good program, and I thank them for allowing me to be their guest.