Parliament – young people and COVID

Tuesday, 01 September 2020

Something that has been said a number of times during this pandemic is that the virus doesn’t discriminate. The intention of that statement is fair enough: anyone can catch COVID-19 and feel the full force of its dreadful health effects. That is why we have to take care and follow the rules to
protect ourselves and those around us.

It’s also fair to say that no Australian has been spared from hardship during this crisis, but there are two corners of our society that have been hit exceptionally hard, and they are older and younger Australians. While older Australians have tragically borne the brunt of the health impacts of COVID, young Australians have disproportionately felt the social and economic pain that restrictions and recession have brought. They are
suffering from high unemployment, interruptions to education and training, social isolation, depletion of their retirement savings and mental health impacts.

Last week the Prime Minister said to young Australians: I’m counting on you. You’re counting on me. And so let’s make a deal.

Well, Prime Minister, young people have certainly held up their end of the bargain. They have made sacrifices. Many work casual or part-time hours and have been hardest hit by job losses and cuts. Disruption to education and training have also dented the aspirations and career plans of many. Many young people have missed out on once-in-a-lifetime milestones and the rites of passage of their most formative years, things like graduations and gap years, formals and significant birthdays. Young people rely on seeing their friends frequently for support even in the best of times to get through challenges as they grow into adulthood. This year that has been made so much harder with extreme social isolation due to lockdowns, some schools being closed, campus life being extinguished, social gatherings restricted and/or prohibited. For all these reasons, and more, young Australians have taken a big hit to their wellbeing and their potential future.

So what is the Morrison government doing to hold up its side of this deal with young people? I’m sad to report it’s doing very little. It’s a terrible deal. All of the sacrifice is going only one way. Young Australians have been disproportionately cut out of job and income support. The government deliberately left casuals out of JobKeeper. And young people have missed bill payments at a rate two to three times higher than the general population. More than half of all young renters are concerned about their ability to pay rent. But instead of taking responsibility and supporting young people, the government stepped back and left young people to fend for themselves. Young people have been left with no choice but to raid their own retirement savings, forced to make a terrible choice between a comfortable retirement in the future or keeping their head above water now. Seventy per cent of young Australians are now concerned about their financial wellbeing, and some 600,000 superannuation accounts are
now completely drained. The government brags about this as a policy success, but really it is putting poverty into the future for many current young Australians.

The government has also made radical changes to university, which will hike up the costs of many courses, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the government not taking the issues of young Australians seriously. It was only back in May, when asked about the pre-existing problem of high youth unemployment, that the Prime Minister said: The premise of the facts of your question are simply not right …

Young people need so much more from this government than the arrogant dismissal of the facts and the flippant replies, because it’s not just the immediate impacts of this crisis that need to be dealt with. COVID-19 has exposed the many deep fault lines and inequities that have been developing for years in this nation.

A key component of the fair go in this country has been a compact between generations that children could grow up to be better off and enjoy a better quality of life than those that came before them. Increasingly though we’re seeing living standards and economic growth—it does take work. It takes government intervention, it has done since Federation. But for the past seven years this Liberal government have just shrugged their shoulders and left this generation of young people to face stagnating wages, increasingly insecure work, plummeting home ownership, mounting personal debt and an environment in decline. The relative wealth and wellbeing of young Australians is lower now than at any other time in the past two decades. Generational progress can no longer be taken for granted, because this government is failing to do its job. But this future is not inevitable. The government can shift the dial on these problems, but it takes courage and commitment.

This is why over the last few months I’ve been doing what the government and Minister Colbeck have been failing to do, and that is speaking directly with young people. I have been attending and holding youth forums with my Labor colleagues across this country to hear directly from young people on what they think needs to be done. The government is in denial, but Labor has been listening. This is just some of what young people are saying. Anita spoke to me about losing hours and not being eligible for JobKeeper, as well as the need to support young carers. Daniel was anxious about the declining quality of life due to the degradation of our environment. Tiffany said it was important that we continue to normalise talking about mental health and emotions. Sammy was worried about the difficulty in transitioning from study to work. Others were concerned about housing affordability. Lauren saw this crisis as an opportunity to invest and improve in responsiveness, job pathways and the role of technology in education. Vanessa thought the government could do a lot better in communicating with young people, rather than shaming and blaming them. Liam was concerned about bullying, particularly during vocational training. Celine expressed alarm about the government’s superannuation policies and what
they were doing to current young people’s retirement. Carina wanted more work to be done on solving high youth unemployment. Jesse and Ellen wanted more compassion in Canberra. Zach, Mackenzie, Lillian, Robyn and Declan all thought the government should consult and engage more with young people. It’s clear from this feedback that young Australians have a lot on their mind.

Last week the Prime Minister said the government always has and always will engage and consult with young people. If that is true, the minister for youth would be coordinating a holistic response to this crisis to ensure that young people don’t get ignored and left behind. Trying to address these interrelated, complex challenges facing young people with isolated bandaid solutions and media releases with no follow-up will fail. The fact
is there hasn’t been a national youth strategy developed in over a decade, and that is why Labor is calling on the Morrison government to work with young people and urgently design a comprehensive COVID-19 youth recovery strategy. We need a strategy that considers how the myriad problems facing young people interplay and produces real solutions and policies to successfully address them. We need all the siloed parts of government, all
the different agencies and departments, working together to deliver better outcomes for young Australians. The strategy must also include an ability for young people to have oversight and input into their own futures. It must be co-designed with young Australians and ensure that young Australians have targets for which the government can be held accountable. When I say ‘co-designed’, it’s not just holding a few focus groups and saying, ‘Job done!’ It must also include accountability measures and targets.

Young Australians certainly did not enter this crisis on firm ground, and yet they’ve still made huge sacrifices to protect our community, taking a disproportionate share of the economic toll, suffering social disruption, missing important rites of passage in their most formative years and dealing with disruptions to their education and training. They have kept their side of the deal, and it’s now up to the government to keep theirs. When it
comes to things like education and training, we don’t need a government that will hike up university fees, cut apprenticeships and traineeships and let the market rip when it comes to low-quality vocational education. We don’t need a government that puts in internships that deliver no outcomes to young people, where they work for an extra $50 a week and get put into a job that does not match their aspirations. We can do better at this as a country.

We can do better for our younger Australians. They deserve it. They deserve a real plan for secure jobs, accessible education, affordable housing, good mental wellbeing and a healthy environment. I urge the government to take Labor’s ideas seriously. We want to work with young people. We want to work with the government. We want a better future for young Australians.

More News

Wednesday, 26 August 2020
National Youth Commission Youth Futures Summit
Monday, 24 August 2020
Prime Minister fails to commit to a national youth strategy
Saturday, 22 August 2020
Young people urgently need a COVID-19 youth recovery strategy