With no dedicated Minister for Youth Affairs, youth policies and programs affecting young people are now spread across six Commonwealth Departments. The Department of Education is nominally responsible for Youth Affairs … including youth transitions. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet will control all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy, programs and service delivery. There's no mention of poverty, homelessness, multi-generational trauma or marginalisation. There has been no commentary on those young people who are currently missing out.
The Coalition Education Policy promises more of the same, using ever-narrowing models of service and a stronger emphasis on punitive approaches to young people who fail to conform to these constraints. Whilst the Policy recognises systemic failures in schooling support for students with learning and other disabilities, it relies on NDIS funding to address these shortfalls and fails to provide any hope of improvement for the many with learning difficulties not covered by the NDIS.
A momentary glimmer of hope for the Flexible Literacy Learning for Remote Primary Schools fund are soon dashed, when you read the small print - that funding is conditional on a rigorous school attendance strategy and an associated State/Territory commitment to enforcing truancy laws) and a strong commitment … to direct, explicitly and systematic teaching of phonics. It's well recognised that education plays a key role in future opportunity. But narrow models of education continue to fail to engage those young people for whom a 'chalk and talk' approach simply doesn't work.
The position of the Coalition on employment is long-standing … that every Australian who is capable of working should be in a job, preferably for a wage, but if not, for the dole. Direct financial incentives for long term unemployed young people who get a job are welcome, but fail to address key causes of unemployment, not least the serious shortage of jobs for young people.
Similarly, whilst the proposed Trade Support Loans scheme with a repayment schedule similar to those for tertiary students will alleviate the immediate poverty of apprentices, the scheme fails to address the ridiculously low pay rate ($310 per week or less for 1st Year apprentices), will leave these full time workers with a long-standing debt and provide little incentive to commit to an apprenticeship over a better paid job. It would appear that the Green Army for those on a Youth Allowance will be the soft option compared with other work for the dole schemes - with no guarantee of any training or qualification for young people who commit up to 26 weeks to the scheme.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
Education and employment are almost exclusively the focus of the Coalition’s Indigenous Affairs policy. Again, the focus is on punitive measures. A no excuses approach to school attendance is coupled with extension of the SEAM scheme (suspension of parental social security benefits for non-compliance) and work with the States/Territories to enforce truancy laws. It seems inevitable that this will lead to increased family poverty and criminalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Despite talking about addressing the social determinants of health, the only strategy in terms of housing focuses on addressing barriers to home ownership. Ensuring the relevance of training and improved employment opportunities sounds promising – until you consider the possible cost of non-compliance with a job offer which forces someone to leave their family and community. There is no mention of cultural or social support services for young people – or their families and communities.
Slickly hidden between strategies to address major organised crime, gun control and corruption within the Customs service, there's a brief mention of addressing anti-social (but not necessarily criminal) behaviour. But… with a massive price tag which rivals expenditure in the other areas. The Coalition proposes to focus proceeds of crime expenditure on those initiatives that assist law enforcement agencies to disrupt criminal activity, including strategies such as the $50 million to be spent on CCTV. In this topsy turvy approach it is a short slippery slope to saying that crime prevention money should be spent on more prisons for the extended group of young people caught up in the CCTV and school truancy net!
Whilst 75% of all mental illness manifests itself in people under 25, the evidence equally clearly demonstrates that emotional turbulence is a normal part of growing up, and many young people simply grow out of it. Further, there is a strong correlation between emotional turbulence and stresses such as poverty, multi-generational trauma, family conflict and criminalisation.
Despite this, The Coalition's Policy for Efficient Mental Health Research & Services is entirely dedicated to a medicalised model of service delivery targeted at young people alone - with an emphasis on clinical trials and use of new and more effective treatment. This fails to value the evident success of non-medicalised strategies in addressing the needs of most young people. It fails to address the dangers of medicalisation of the normal emotions implicit in adolescent development in Western Society. In particular, it fails to recognise the risk of generating pharmaceutical dependency and a lifetime burdened with a psychiatric diagnosis for increasing numbers of young people.
Let's hope that, in practice, the Coalition manages a more coherent, evidence-based approach to youth affairs. In particular, that existing successful programs are not defunded in the drive to control the lives of young people … and lock them up if they don’t comply.