Robust debate around drug harm minimisation initiatives. Proposals for health education that’s inclusive of all sexualities. Discussion of essential environmental reforms and new ideas for ways to make women feel safe on public transport. Our people and our planet’s wellbeing prioritised over votes or elections. No political parties. Just a debate of ideas. No spin. No soundbites.
Sounds idealistic, right?
Earlier this month, Victorian Parliament had the week off and the chambers were left free for the YMCA Victoria Youth Parliament: 120 young people debating the legislation they wish politicians would consider. As a member of the YMCA Youth Press Gallery, I covered these debates and spoke to many participants throughout sitting week.
I had a glimpse of what politics could look like if young people were given a real voice and, I gotta say, it looked pretty good.
‘The defining issues of our generation’
Most participants in the 2019 Victorian Youth Parliament, arguably all of whom are more politically engaged than most Australian adults, are high-school age and therefore not allowed to vote in our elections. In fact, in their day-to-day lives, young Australians are discouraged from participating in politics. When tens of thousands of Australian students participated in the global March 15 School Strike for Climate, many of our politicians and media commentators told them to go back to class
Youth Parliament provides young people with a rare chance to be included in our politics. More than 30 Youth Parliament bills having gone on to become Victorian legislation since the program’s inception in 1987.
In the eyes of Youth Premier Declan Negus, however, the Youth Parliament’s most pressing concern will not be addressed by our current politicians.
“Victorian Parliament is not doing anywhere near enough to combat climate change,” he told Crikey. “It’s such an all-encompassing issue that will destroy our futures if we don’t take extreme measures to combat it. It should be up to the older generations to do something, but we’re realising more and more that they lack the motivation and the drive we have to change things.”
Over the summer of 2018-2019, three mass fish kills occurred in the Murray-Darling Basin near the NSW town of Menindee due to poor water quality, sparking widespread criticism of the basin’s management from scientists and environmentalists. The Victorian government is digging its toes in the sand on the issue, but Josh Davis from Gleneagles Secondary College sponsored a bill in Youth Parliament proposing essential reforms to the basin’s management.
“Climate change and environmental degradation will be the defining issues of our generation,” he said. “No government — federal or state — has addressed this issue satisfactorily, and many have not addressed it all.”
Youth Parliament is an apolitical program, but all proposed bills were progressive — many with a big focus on social and environmental reform.
Another bill advocated for implementing a recyclable container refund scheme in Victoria. Victoria’s recycling system is currently in crisis, but Victoria and Tasmania are the only Australian states which haven’t committed to establishing a recyclable container refund scheme. While this obviously isn’t the entire solution, it’s a start which most other states began years ago.
Olivia Vlahakis from Hobsons Bay put forward a bill proposing Year 11 and 12 students be allowed to take four mental health days off school per year. “Many students will not feel comfortable asking their parents to take them to a doctor,” she said. “There needs to be a new avenue for these students so they are not indirectly punished for their mental states.”
Where to from here?
That last bill has a good shot at garnering support. The Victorian government agrees the mental health system desperately needs reform, and is currently undertaking a royal commission to hopefully address the system’s failures.
This is excellent news, but it is essential the royal commission listen to what young people are saying about mental health. According to Beyond Blue, over 75% of mental health problems begin before the age of 25, and young people are the least likely age bracket to seek professional help. Four teams at Youth Parliament sponsored bills about mental health, providing numerous strategies to address these systemic issues, and they deserve consideration from the royal commission and the government.
There were also three bills about illegal drug use, all advocating for harm minimisation strategies rather than outright bans; one proposed pill testing at music festivals, which the students argued will prevent overdosing and save lives. The Victorian government has said it is not considering trialling pill testing, despite support for a trial from the crossbench and the Australian Medical Association.
Despite thorough debate and scrutiny, all these bills passed. Youth Parliament has a government and opposition, but participants don’t vote along party lines. The aim is to work together to pass legislation which will benefit our state, and the rest of the country. Research shows young people today are less engaged in electoral and party politics. In both Youth Parliament and my life, that rings true; but it doesn’t mean young people aren’t political. They are hugely engaged with the issues, just not always with the system.
Maybe it’s the system, rather than young people, that’s the problem.