Federal Election Priority: Place our children and young people front and centre for a change.

On the eve of our Federal Election I am reflecting on what it means to put our children and young people front and centre when designing policies and programs that will specifically address their needs.

Do I think this is a particular lens our politicians currently apply to the work they do as our elected leaders? In general terms no — though I’m not sure this is because they don’t think about the needs of our children and young people, but more that they think their needs are currently addressed through improving the situations of the adults in their lives. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account the policies and programs designed for adults that do not fit the needs of children.

Adopting a mindset that assumes that if we improve the lives of adults then the lives of children will also by default be automatically improved is what I would term ‘old thinking’.

Current generations of young people are calling upon us to account for the uncertain future they face. They are asking us to listen to what they have to say about what needs to be done, including the solutions they are proposing. They want to be taken seriously and to be listened to by adults.

If we were to place children’s and young people at the front and centre of our decision-making processes what would this involve? Firstly, we would need to ask them what their opinions, ideas and concerns are — in much the same way we currently ask adults these questions. Then by logical development we would need to design mechanisms that enable them to have input into decision-making and policy development around things that impact on their lives. Local Council’s already do this in a partial way through their Youth Advisory Councils or YACs as they’re more commonly referred, but why isn’t there a fully functioning Children’s and Youth Council operating at the State and Federal levels too?

I am in a privileged position as Commissioner for South Australia’s children and young people to listen to what our children and young people think and feel about the quality of their lives. The majority of what I hear is that our children and young people lead happy, active lives. They feel respected by the majority of adults with whom they regularly interact. They value school, education and learning, family relationships, their culture and communities, their opportunities to participate, and of course their friendships and pets.

If we agree it’s no longer fair to assume there are benefits that will naturally flow to our children as a result of the advances we have made, we can also agree we need to do things very differently where they’re concerned. There is a huge appetite for change throughout the world at this time, and our opportunity is to embrace the youthful vitality our children and young people naturally bring. We should listen to their ideas and concerns and find ways to implement some of the solutions they propose.

Unsurprisingly, the impact of climate change is worrying our children and young people most. They understand that 100% renewable energy targets are the alternative we must embrace, and they don’t think our governments are doing enough to prevent our environment, our food and our water from becoming polluted. They also know poor quality food and water will impact greatly on health, and that this in turn will increase the burden on the health care sector.

“ I want coal industries to be replaced by renewables so children, especially the poor, are not affected by future climate change; so indigenous children can remain on country […] the most affected by these industries will be the least privileged, …it’s vital. (Female 16 Mannum)

They have told me repeatedly that they want to learn more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture in school. They know the importance of culture in shaping identity and want to see positive relationships cultivated through mutual respect and trust to help eliminate Aboriginal disadvantage from our society.

“More Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander education in our schools — we learn many things about the first fleet and Aboriginal culture, from non-Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander people. I think more speakers could come to schools to talk about their personal experiences. Aboriginal culture is the oldest culture and should be treasured.”

Many of our children and young people live in low socio-economic circumstances with growing evidence the divide between rich and poor is expanding across our communities. Finding jobs for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds would provide genuine relief in the short term, while simultaneously cultivating long-term opportunities that can alleviate intergenerational disadvantage.

“Helping and supporting others to ensure they don’t have to

go through what I’ve been through.”

(Male 16, Riverland)

And while we’re talking employment opportunities, big industry and small and medium size businesses are rapidly and radically challenging our traditional pathways to work. We need to be rethinking our approach to careers and job readiness in general and develop in our children and young people a more entrepreneurial mindset less dependent job offers and more about creating a job that suits their interests, circumstances and abilities.

“There is a lack of pathways from volunteering and internships into paid employment. We need to address this.”

(Female 16, Adelaide)

As young citizens who cannot yet vote, our children and young people rely on us to choose political representatives focused on future-proofing their lives. They need to be confident politicians are prepared to develop and implement policies and programs that will enable them to thrive across our communities — not merely survive in the light of their adult carers.

It is my hope that those who are elected by the Australians who are voting tomorrow, will test their policies and programs against the key issues our children and young people see as priorities at this time, and will take the much needed action that is required placing their concerns front and centre at all times.

Please note: All quotes appearing in this document have been selected from notes written by South Australian children and young people in documented conversations.

Helen Connolly, Commissioner for Children and Young People SA.
Friday 17th May 2019

Helen Connolly is South Australia’s inaugural Commissioner for C&YP. Her work ensures their opinions and ideas are being sought and that their voices are heard.