Young people push to raise drinking age, signals future legislative agenda

It’s a question as old as Youth Parliament itself; do the Bills presented by participants reflect attitudes of young people in the community, or the participant’s interests? The answer might just be both.

Unremarkable features of Australian society like cyclists wearing helmets, bins on street corners, plastic glasses in popular nightspots and roadside drug testing were once controversial enough to be debated by the Youth Parliament.

With the 2014 Victorian Youth Parliament dissolved for another year, successful Bills have been passed on to Ministers for consideration to be put to State Parliament, while others have been stored safety in the YMCA’s archives.

Many of the Bills called for change, such as reforms to sexual education and discrimination laws.

While the Press Gallery anticipated the participants to push progressive issues, during sitting week the Press Gallery offices were abuzz with discussion of the conservative nature of a number of the participant’s Bills, such as raising the drinking age, plain packaging of alcohol and strict fast food regulations.

Unexpectedly, one of the most staid exchanges of the sitting week took place during the debate over Ivanhoe Girls Grammar’s Bill to raise the drinking age back to 21.

Participants flagged issues with the Bill’s wording as reasons it could not proceed through the legislative process, rather than being concerned about its intent- as many from both sides of the Chamber agreed the prevalence of alcohol in Australian society and youth culture was problematic.

The emphasis and the widespread use of alcohol in our society has increasing been gaining the attention of the media and mainstream society.

As an increasing amount of scientific and anecdotal evidence about the concerning nature of Australia’s drinking culture emerges, there will be more discussions about curbing the rate of alcohol consumption in this country.

Ita Buttrose, 2013 Australian of the year and supporter of trialing lifting the drinking age to 21, believes Australians “need to accept that our dependence on alcohol is a bit over and above what it should be”.

She recalls going along to an annual school fete recently, where “ along with all the other stalls and things that were happening [there] was a tent where parents could go and have a drink, you think well, why? Why do we need that? Why is it necessary for parents to have a drink when you’re spending an afternoon at your child’s school for a fundraiser?”

“It’s a community issue and I think the community needs to debate it, I think young people need to debate it and I think it’s really terrific that the Youth Parliament are doing it.”

Audrey Csutoros, from Ivanhoe Girls Grammar, said the purpose of her team’s Bill was to raise awareness among young people of one particularly insidious side of Australia’s drinking culture; how alcohol is so “embedded” in our culture that it’s associated with “when you become an adult” so “no one really sees it as something as harmful as it is”.

The Minister for Liquor and Gaming Regulation, Edward O’Donohue, who met with the Ivanhoe team, believes “some people have challenges when it comes to drinking responsibly.”

“There’s a number of things we need to do to encourage responsible drinking, responsible service of alcohol and that can be done through a variety of means, but I don’t think raising the drinking age is the silver bullet … that some may think it is.

“One of the issues I raised with them [Ivanhoe Girls Grammar team] in a federation like Australia, if the drinking age was 21 in Victoria and 18 in New South Wales you’d have cross border issues so you may have issues when 18, 19, 20 year olds in Victoria, who live in Wodonga for example, would go out nightclubbing in Albury … there could be unintended consequences for those who live near the border with other states if you had a different drinking age for Victoria compared to other states.”

Sixteen year old Audrey said she took some of the points raised by the Minister on board.

“He bought some very interesting points that could be used against us… he tore it up a bit but not to the extent that we were expecting.

“One thing he bought up was whether people would travel interstate to buy alcohol at the age of 18, because he had a similar problem with gambling licensing so he spent a lot of time thinking about that, and our answer to that was when the 21 law [was implemented in America]…. It spread, so now every state in America has the age 21 laws and we strongly believe this would happen if this Bill was brought into legislation.”

During the Youth Parliament Sitting week, I came to realize participants gained more than public speaking skills and enjoyment from the opportunity to meet with experts and debate their own Bills at ‘Parli’.

The participants gained invaluable experience in fine-tuning their ideas for changes and compromises needed to have Bills passed, and encountering opposing arguments they have to try to overcome before their time as leaders in our community.

“A whole generation of people have to grow up. [The impact the Bill] is 10,15 years [away] … so the sooner people see this as an issue and start talking and having an intelligent discussion, the better it’s going to be for our whole society, really,” said Audrey.

The Bills put before the Chamber are a glimpse of the legislative agenda of the future; they reflect evolving community attitudes.

Who knows, perhaps in the future having the drinking age at 21 and incorporating gender fluidity into the Sex Ed curriculum will be as unremarkable as wearing a bike helmet.