LEANNE SMITH. What Matters to Australia’s Young Citizens?

If we want our children to have a stake in our democracy and our society, we have to treat them as valued citizens and engage with their concerns. Not because of the leaders they might one day be, in our own projection of what that means, but recognising their legitimacy and leadership as it stands today.

In one small way, the Whitlam Institute’s ‘What Matters?’ writing competition is one avenue to encourage our young people to speak up about what’s on their minds and give those voices a platform to be heard.

My son is 5. He had only just started kindergarten when the Coronavirus, a new word in his vocabulary, changed childhood as he knows it. He, like all kids around the world, doesn’t understand what is happening – why he can’t see grandma and granddad? Why doesn’t he get to go to his Harmony Day festival at school? And why, when we take him for a walk, can’t he play on the playground equipment? The other day he asked me if he can catch the virus, can he catch cancer?

I am sure that my husband and I are not the only ones among us in recent years who have stayed up late wondering what kind of world we have brought our child into, what range of challenges he will have to face that we never did, and whether we are at all capable of preparing him for what is coming in a world where climate change, shifting geopolitics, growing inequality, resource scarcity and threats to our environment and way of life are mounting every day.

Kids have questions, and kids have views about all of this – we have to find age-appropriate ways to help them grapple with these complex issues that are getting harder and harder to protect them from – they are seeing the results – and to let them express themselves about how it makes them feel.

Last year was the 30th anniversary on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – which Australia ratified in in December 1990. This means that Australia has a duty to ensure that all children in Australia enjoy the rights set out in the treaty. Article 12 of that Convention states:

“States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”

Australia takes child rights very seriously. In 2013 it established the first Australian National Children’s Commissioner, mandated to advocate nationally for the rights and interests of children and young people, including promoting their participation in decisions that impact on them.

Earlier this year the outgoing inaugural Children’s Commissioner, Megan Mitchell, launched the 2019 Children’s Rights Report, based on in person consultations with 450 children around the country and input from 22,700 children through an online national poll. These children shared their views on how Australia was doing in promoting and protecting the rights of Australia’s next generation. It is an incredibly revealing and important document.

Some of the key findings of this report indicate that Australian kids feel lucky to have their families and friends; are glad that we have controls on guns; love our weather, beaches, rivers, bush, animals and plants; value free education and good health care; and appreciate our many cultures.

On the downside, they are concerned – that there is not more respect for culture and language; they worry about racism and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids and poor children and their families not having the same opportunities; about homelessness; violence against children; mental health; the environment and the treatment of refugees. One of the most striking and most cited responses, for me, contrary to our obligations under the Convention, was that Australian children don’t feel that their voices are heard.

Adults sometimes think kids don’t know things and ignore their ideas’”(10-year-old)

It’s time that Australia start to take the concerns and priorities of Australian children seriously in how we develop policies for our country’s future. We need to stop thinking about our kids as ‘future citizens’ and start recognising the inherent value of their perspectives as children – now.

Despite the rhetoric that Australian children are disengaged from politics and democratic life – or, worse, that they should be discouraged from engagement and ‘protected’ from the worries of the world – research shows that, despite the trust deficit our current democratic system has created, our children are actually keenly political and engaged – in new ways and on issues that matter most to them. Certainly, youth movements here and around the world focused on women’s rights, climate change and other issues demonstrate that they care and they are prepared to act.

Since 2004 the Whitlam Institute has been asking Australian children what matters to them. The breadth and depth of their responses has been breathtaking. In recent years they have raised their concerns about everything from domestic violence to playground access, climate change and the natural environment to sexual abuse, loneliness and depression to drought.

If we want our children to have a stake in our democracy and our society, we have to treat them as valued citizens and engage with their concerns. Not because of the leaders they might one day be, in our own projection of what that means, but recognising their legitimacy and leadership as it stands today.

We must embolden our efforts to engage children – whether that is by creating a nationally agreed core curriculum on civics and citizenship, establishing a mechanism for a youth voice to parliament or by lowering the voting age – it’s time to bring them into the conversation about their future and Australia’s place in the world.

Today, in one small way, the Whitlam Institute’s ‘What Matters?’ writing competition is one avenue we can use to encourage our young people to speak up about what’s on their minds and give those voices a platform to be heard.

For teachers and parents, in this challenging and social- isolated environment where many children are staying home, What Matters? provides an online and accessible opportunity for kids across the country to put whatever is on their mind onto the page. For kids in years 5–12, 400–600 words on any topic they like – they can express themselves and have a chance to be heard. Information on the competition, awards and prizes, teacher and parent resources and examples of previous entries can be found online.

For those of us working in policy and community engagement, there’s a lot we can’t actively do out in our communities right now. And we don’t know how long that will last. One thing we can do, however, is take the time to listen to those who will be most affected by the legacy we have collectively created.

Leanne Smith is the Director of the Whitlam Institute. She is an international human rights lawyer who served as an Australian diplomat and United Nations civil servant around the world before joining the Institute in 2017.

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1 Response to LEANNE SMITH. What Matters to Australia’s Young Citizens?

  1. Avatar Charles Lowe says:

    If we’re to pay due attention to the concept that ‘what children say matters’, we must firstly establish that children’s emotional intelligence is, as a generalisation admittedly, superior to many adults and most decision-makers. That, alone, is a revolutionary statement.

    As is the (non-medical_ aphorism that ‘the mind and the body are one’. (Try asking if the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners agrees!)

    Logically, that leads to an investigation of just exactly what are the elements of our culture which prevent children’s honesty and naivety prevailing politically.

    Even this outstanding and highly respected blog has not seriously canvassed personality factors which, intertwined as a particular set are with sociological factors, then simply translate to a selfish buttressing of the apparent interests of those who seek power/money/status and/or prestige.

    Chris Golis (see https://www.emotionalintelligencecourse.com/about-us/) has contributed mightily to this avenue of enquiry. I hope to keep modestly contributing also.

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