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National Youth Roundtable chopped in half?

By Sebastian De Brennan - posted Thursday, 17 November 2005

There are not too many formalised opportunities in this nation for youth to get in their politicians ears (or wallets for that matter). So when the government decides to halve the amount of youth participating in its National Youth Roundtable (from 50 to 25), with no representation from Tasmania whatsoever, there ought to be cause for concern.

Established in 1996 to create a direct dialogue with young Australians and ensure their views are taken into account in policy-making processes, the National Youth Roundtable (NYR) was seen by many as a significant step forward. The optimists among us might even suggest that this evolving youth consultation mechanism augured well for further collaborative efforts between youth and their elders on other issues of national concern.

However, the reality is that applications for the NYR have fallen by more than 50 per cent since 2000, with only 450 people applying this year. It would seem that fewer and fewer people are applying for the NYR because the chances of being selected are so remote. For all the hype surrounding the selection for the NYR, many of my fellow participants have remarked that the impact of the program was, at least in the end, disappointing.


The reasons for less rhetoric and more action with respect to youth-related issues cannot be understated. With over 200 million youth living in poverty, 130 million youth illiterate, 88 million unemployed and 10 million young people living with HIV-AIDS (UN figures), the case for a renewed commitment is clear. At stake is one preventable child death every three seconds, 20 each minute, 1,200 an hour; 29,000 a day: day after day.

There can be no denying that Australia’s youth have it better than most on many of these fronts. It would be self-indulgent to believe the acute lack of youth services in country NSW at present, or the fact most young people are too timid to ask for a pay rise in the current atmosphere of individual wage bargaining, have a greater distress value for us than the death of “youngsters” overseas from starvation or disease, or from violence by an oppressive military regime. Nevertheless - and so that no one is mistaken - we have our own unique set of challenges.

Our Indigenous youth remain some of the most disadvantaged in the world. Moreover, when countries for which suicide data are published by the World Health Organisation are ranked according to rates for young males, Australia ranks in the highest third. In 2003-04 the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimated there had been one formal notification to authorities of child abuse every two and half minutes. As one colleague put it, “a true crisis but we are unable to even discuss it openly”.

The problem is that we are speaking to the wrong people. I have argued elsewhere that this is typical of an order quick to voice young peoples needs and desires for us, with minimal consultation, and under the assumption that we are incapable of articulating those concerns for ourselves. With youth, aged between 16-24, constituting 14 per cent of Australia’s population, the political ambivalence towards this demographic can only be described as surprising.

Compounding the issue is the absence of any kind of peak national body to represent youth (the Australian Youth Policy Action Coalition was abolished by the Howard Coalition in 1999), and the failure of the government to embrace the idea of an independent Commissioner for Children and Young People (despite compelling evidence, indeed a Senate Committee recommendation, to do so).

We are therefore left with a dangerous situation in which youth play very little role in the development of public policy. Yet, in the not too distant future, are expected to be the guardians and drivers of it. The fact that Australia is a “greying population” makes it all the more important for older generations to engage with youth now.


The decision to reduce the number of participants on the NYR, or “centrepiece of the government’s youth consultation mechanisms”, is a regressive one. It is yet another attack on the ability of young people to participate in the Australian democratic system. Youth are frequently heralded as the “leaders of tomorrow”, but it must be asked why they are not considered as the leaders of today?

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About the Author

Sebastian De Brennan is principal of De Brennan & Co. Consulting and teaches in the College of Law & Business at the University of Western Sydney and the School of Business at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

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