The voices of young people are essential to building a fairer society. It’s time our leaders listened

The voices of young people are essential to building a fairer society. It’s time our leaders listened

When you hear the words “youth parliament”, what comes to mind? Perhaps you imagine some sort of mini-model UN stacked with the Payton Hobarts, Tracy Flicks, or Paris Gellers of the (fictional) world.

Maybe you’re picturing students LARPing (live action role-playing) as politicians when they should instead be perfecting their beer pong technique. After all, why would young people want to spend months of their time developing and debating mock legislation?

After signing up for exactly that, I expected my friends and acquaintances to respond quizzically. Laugh even. I expected them to at least wonder why I would spend so much time and effort advocating for something that would probably end up nowhere.

I’d been primed to expect this response from my friends and community, and perhaps with the never-ending stream of think pieces about apathetic youth, you have too.

But instead, when I signed up to the Victorian Youth Parliament, the response I received from my peers was one of overwhelming support. The excited questions and genuine interest confirmed what I hoped to be true: young Australians badly want to see ourselves, and the issues we care about, represented in politics.

Despite the myth of our political complacence, we’re eager to participate in the democratic process.

Voting or joining a political party is not the only form of political participation, and because we often become politically engaged before we can vote, we’ve found other ways to make our voices heard.

It’s why young people have always been actively involved with large demonstrations and protest actions.

So why do we still not have a seat at the table? Rarely are we considered in formal processes, such as policy consultations, or encouraged to run as candidates.

As a result, youth-led nonprofits such as Run For It and Not Too Young To have had to pick up the slack. They are on a mission to improve youth representation by running grassroots campaigns for young candidates at all levels of government.

Young people are often labelled apathetic or politically disengaged but scenes from climate change rallies, including the school strike for climate, the marriage equality campaign, and the outpouring of support for mental health awareness in recent years show just how lazy that stereotype is.

We’re trying every avenue we can to get our voices heard, but still we’re ignored, patronised and at worst, mocked. Despite this, even with our limited channels, we are running for office, getting elected and speaking about issues that concern us.

Being disfranchised should not be confused with being disengaged.

In the lead-up to this year’s federal election, the youth enrolment rate broke a record: 88.8% of us made it on to the electoral roll. One would think that this influx of young voters, without decades of rusted-on party loyalty, would have presented a ripe opportunity for political parties to target a new demographic. Yet first-time voters received little mention on the campaign trail.

We continue to be left off the political agenda.

There are, though, some programs that give young people the opportunity to engage more directly in democratic policymaking.

Youth Parliament demonstrates that, when given the opportunity, young people can, and want to, make a real impact. This program empowers young people by giving us the tools to advocate for ourselves and others.

This year, Victorian Youth Parliament’s participants prepared, debated, and voted on reforms to the education system, the energy sector, and the youth justice system. Sure, these bills aren’t shipped to government house for royal assent, but our ideas have proved valuable.

Since the program’s inception, more than 30 pieces of Victorian legislation have had their origins in the YMCA’s Youth Parliament program.

Young people are capable and competent; we should be involved in making decisions and encouraged to run for office ourselves. Laws don’t magically start affecting us on the day we turn 18. Nor is it so that on this birthday we suddenly become endowed with problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

It is often argued that parliaments should be representative because it gives the parliament greater legitimacy, but it’s so much more than that: diversity makes the parliament better, it makes our laws better, and it makes our society fairer.

We know this is true of gender, race, and class diversity. It is just as true for age.

Rather than criticising young people, it is important to focus on how political institutions are falling short of catering for our needs. Political parties, politicians and educators must improve processes for hearing and responding to children and young people’s perspectives in Australian democracy.

This will engage Australia’s youth in new and meaningful ways.

It is likely the best way to generate civic and political engagement for future generations. We deserve to have our voices heard in key policy-making institutions. When we are given that opportunity, we will be valuable assets to Australian democracy.

The voices of young people are essential to building a fairer society, and our leaders need to make room at the table.

By Sam Ibrahim
The Guardian, 12/8/22