Does Australia Need a Minister for Youth?

By Andrew Heaton

(image via Rotary District 5040)

By all means, years through which people experience youth and early adulthood are not only critical but can be challenging.

For the 4.014 million Australians who currently sit within the twelve to twenty-five-year age bracket within Australia (ABS data, September quarter 2016), the current environment is no exception. Courtesy of a more than 40 percent increase in median dwelling prices throughout capital cities within the past five years alone (ABS data), hopes of getting into the housing market are fading. Unemployment rates among 15-24 year-olds who are not in full-time education stand at 12.4 percent – double the national unemployment rate overall and higher than at any other time since the late 90s/early 2000s. Almost a quarter of all Australians aged between 14 and 19 meet the criteria for having a probable mental illness (e.g. anxiety, depression). Amongst youth who have work, many are exploited: a recent study by the Young Workers Centre found that one in five young workers in Victoria are paid at rates which are below the minimum wage.

Of course, not all is negative. The Commonwealth Youth Development Index which measures performance across sixteen indicators of youth development shows that Australia is performing well by international standards and has improved in every area over the past ten years except for health and well-being. Despite rising house and rental prices, the proportion of young Australians presenting to specialist homelessness services has edged downward over the past five years – albeit with it possible this reflects a growing reluctance upon young people to use these services as much as any reduction in youth homelessness.

Nevertheless, challenges confronting young Australians should not be underestimated. Furthermore, there are fears that this generation is being increasingly marginalised within the political sphere as politicians curry favour with the burgeoning cohort of older Australians. In 2013, the Youth portfolio was dumped from the Commonwealth ministry line-up. This was the first time that Australia had not had a minister dedicated to young people since Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser introduced the first minister for youth affairs in 1978; during the Howard years, Australia had three youth ministers. Labor, too, no longer has a shadow minister for youth. The Australian Youth Affairs Coalition – an advocacy body for young Australians – was defunded in the 2014/15 budget.

At a policy level, now abandoned Coalition measures from the 2014/15 budget to force those aged 29 or less to wait six months before being eligible for unemployment benefits or the Youth Allowance seemed particularly targeted at young Australians – as did measures within the recent Omnibus Bill which would have set a four week waiting period before claiming the Youth Allowance for those under 25 and seen young adults aged between 22 and 25 years old transferred from the Newstart Allowance to the less generous Youth Allowance. Funding for drug services and mental health initiatives such as Headspace have been cut. Whilst the government obviously faces a need to restore the Commonwealth’s fiscal position, many of these measures have seemed to hit young Australians hard.

Now, calls to reintroduce a youth minister are growing. In March, Rebecca Sharkie from the Nick Xenophon team and Independent MP Cathy McGowan submitted a motion which called on the government to appoint a ‘Minister for Young People’.

That was quickly dismissed. In response to a question from Sharkie about appointing a youth minister, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull responded by saying that many members of his Coalition government were ‘young at heart’ and stressed that everything which his Coalition government did was in line with a goal of working toward a better future for upcoming generations. This included by working to restore the Commonwealth’s fiscal position in order that future generations are not burdened by debt and deficit, he said.

That has youth advocates concerned. AYAC chairperson Katie Acheson said the lack of a current ministry or department to engage specifically young people and those who work with young Australians means insights about issues which impact young Australians are being lost.

As a result, she said, current policies reflect a position of ignorance and indifference toward these issues whilst taxpayer money was being wasted on programs which fail to adequately address needs. Whilst the Work For the Dole scheme was not a bad idea, Acheson said young Australians needed realistic opportunities for paid employment more so than unpaid internships. As another example, she says large amounts of taxpayer funds are being wasted in education because there are no mechanisms to facilitate exercises such as focus groups including engagement with teachers or analysis of approaches being adopted oversees. By contrast, she said, having a dedicated youth minister and office would ensures a mechanism whereby this feedback can occur and a voice within government who is well versed in the challenges which impact young people. Such a minister could advise colleagues in areas such as education and employment not just about issues which are relevant to youth from a viewpoint of programs already under consideration but also upon potential new programs or initiatives, she said.

This is critical, Acheson said, given the impact of foundations laid during these years in terms of a person’s ability to contribute to our economy and society throughout their life.

“What happens when you don’t actually have any one particular department or industry really focusing on a group is that you then lose the ability to see the big picture for that group,” Acheson said.

“It’s important to have people in government who know the issues that are happening who are talking regularly to young people themselves and other people who are working with young people on a regular basis … and then be able to create policy responses.”

“Because we don’t have anything in Parliament at the moment, what we are seeing is a whole bunch of policies coming out which are either neglecting the issues that youth and young people are facing and are ignorant to those things or are putting in place programs and policies which don’t actually respond to the current needs of young people.”

Professor Robyn Broadbent, head of Youth, Ongoing and Community Programs at Victoria University, agrees. In absence of a youth minister and department, she said young Australians were without a voice at a national level and policies across areas such as health, education, employment, justice and housing are not being assessed for how these impact young Australians.

This, she said, was occurring in an environment in which youth were experiencing challenges in areas such as unemployment, underemployment, employment for graduates and the cost of education following the increase in student fees and the lowering of the threshold above which HECS debts would have to be repaid following the most recent federal budget.

Asked about the potential for overlap and duplication with respect to a youth minister and ministers in functional areas which impact young Australians, Broadbent says this would be the case were policies in this area catering for specific needs of young Australians. At the moment, however, this was largely not happening and policies on issues which impacted youth were largely being geared toward the need of adults and older Australians under policy agendas which are being driven by the aging population.

That, Broadbent said, was impacting the way in which services were being provided. In the case of homelessness and employment services, for example, she said that young people were being crowded out of these services by older adults. Youth employment specialists, she said, have gone beyond the wayside, as had specific entry points into the homelessness service system.

Furthermore, Broadbent says the absence of a government office dedicated to young people to advise government ministers has driven a disconnect between what experts in the field knew needed to happen and decisions which were being made by people who were not getting this information. Nor, she said, was there any forum through which state youth ministers could discuss different approaches which had been tried in different states or any mechanism through which the effectiveness of programs for which co-funding arrangements were in place were being reviewed or assessed.

To address this, she says we need not only a minister for young people but also an office through which to advise the minister.

“When we have had ministers for particular cohorts – whether that be for women or welfare etc., it means that policies get a review from an office that actually has the advocacy of that cohort in mind,” Broadbent said.

“Currently, young people are out of that discussion and there is no policy focus. We are getting no leadership direction whether that be around education, employment, mental health or legal aid. There is no direction, no advocacy and no-one is even thinking about young people.”

Acheson accuses the current government of waging a ‘war’ against young people.

“I think that most people think of young people as being at war with the older population,” she said.

“Actually, what has been coming through is that it seems like there is a government war on young people. It’s not necessarily about baby boomers and millennials, it’s about a government neglecting and ignoring an entire demographic and a very big demographic for our country.”

“It’s important that people who care about it (the younger generation) have conversations with the Parliament. Hopefully, we will see the government realise that young people are important and try to address some of the big issues.”

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