Ohen you hear the words “youth parliament”, what comes to mind? Perhaps you imagine some kind of mini-model ONE stacked with the Payton Hobarts, Tracy Flicks or Paris Gellers of the (fictional) world.
Perhaps you imagine LARP (live role-playing) students as politicians when they should be perfecting their beer pong skills instead. After all, why would young people want to spend months of their time crafting and debating fictitious laws?
After signing up for exactly this, I expected my friends and acquaintances to respond questioningly. Even laugh. I expected them to at least wonder why I would spend so much time and effort defending something that would probably go nowhere.
I had been prepared to expect this response from my friends and community, and perhaps with the never-ending stream of thoughts on apathetic youth, you will too.
But instead, when I signed up for the Youth Parliament of Victoria, the response I received from my peers was overwhelming support. The enthusiastic questions and genuine interest confirmed what I had hoped to be true: young Australians really want to see us and the issues we care about represented in politics.
Despite the myth of our political complacency, we are eager to participate in the democratic process.
Voting or joining a political party is not the only form of political participation, and since we often engage politically before we can vote, we have found other ways to make our voices heard.
This is why young people have always been actively involved in major demonstrations and protest actions.
So why don’t we still have a seat at the table? We are rarely taken into account in formal processes, such as political consultations, or encouraged to present ourselves 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. Their mission is to improve youth representation by organizing grassroots campaigns for young candidates at all levels of government.
Young people are often labeled as apathetic or politically disengaged, but scenes of climate change rallies, including the school strike for climate, the campaign for marriage equality and the outpouring of support for climate change awareness mental health in recent years show just how lazy that stereotype is.
We try every way we can to make our voices heard, but we are still ignored, patronized and, at worst, mocked. Despite this, even with our limited channels, we run for office, get elected and talk about the issues that concern us.
Being disenfranchised should not be confused with being disengaged.
As the federal election approaches this year, youth registration has hit an all-time high: 88.8% of us were registered to vote. One would think that this influx of young voters, but for decades of rusty party loyalty, would have presented a ripe opportunity for political parties to target a new demographic. Yet first-time voters received little mention during the election campaign.
We stay away from the political agenda.
There are, however, programs that give young people the opportunity to engage more directly in democratic policy-making.
The Youth Parliament demonstrates that, given the opportunity, young people can and want to have a real impact. This program empowers young people by giving us the tools to advocate for ourselves and others.
This year, participants in Victoria’s Youth Parliament prepared, debated and voted on reforms to the education system, the energy sector and the youth justice system. Of course, these bills are not sent to the government for Royal Assent, but our ideas have proven valuable.
Since the program’s inception, more than 30 Victorian pieces of legislation have their origins in the YMCA’s Youth Parliament program.
Young people are capable and competent; we should be involved in decision-making and encouraged to stand for election ourselves. Laws don’t magically begin to affect us when we turn 18. Nor is it that on this anniversary we will suddenly be gifted with problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
It is often argued that parliaments should be representative because it gives parliament greater legitimacy, but it is much more than that: diversity makes parliament better, our laws better and our society fairer.
We know this to be true of the diversity of genders, races and classes. This is just as true for age.
Rather than criticizing young people, it is important to focus on how political institutions fail to meet our needs. Political parties, politicians and educators need to improve processes to hear and respond to the perspectives of children and young people in Australian democracy.
This will engage Australian youth in new and meaningful ways.
This is probably the best way to generate civic and political engagement for future generations. We deserve to have our voice heard in key political institutions. When we have that opportunity, we will be valuable assets to Australian democracy.
The voice of young people is essential to building a more just society, and our leaders must make room around the table.