The Changing Face of Australia: Promises of a New Generation

Delivered by Jason Yat-Sen Li

29 August 2000

Jason LiFeatured on the ABC's Australian Story in March 2000, Jason Yat-Sen Li is the Australian born son of Asian migrants.  After completing a law degree in 1995 he went to Europe to be a Judge's Associate at the UN Balkans War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.  On his return to Australia, Li was an outstanding, publicly elected young delegate to the Australian Constitutional Convention.  His lecture touches on issues of reconciliation, multiculturalism, the republic, technology and peace, and provides a youthful perspective.

Introduction by Elizabeth Ho, Director of the Hawke Centre

Our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Denise Bradley, would like to send her greetings to you all, unfortunately she is unable to be here tonight. The University of South Australia is very proud to be hosting this lecture which is a Hawke Centre lecture; we are very pleased in particular to welcome students of Pembroke School, Trinity College and Eynesbury here this evening and also members of the Institute of Public Administration Young Professionals Forum and also members of Youth Plus ... as you can see that I am starting with the younger generation this evening.

I would also like to acknowledge the Law Society for their support and welcome representatives of the legal profession here tonight. Members of Amnesty International, the Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission and the Global Education Centre are also here this evening. We also hope that our patron Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue will be able to join us later.

And now to our speaker. On every seat you have some details about our forthcoming lecture program and we have Peter Sellars on The Politics of Architecture and later on 8 November, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, who is the Managing Director of the World Bank who will be here to talk about Human Development. But we also have some brief information about our speaker, Jason, and if you look at that brief outline you will note that his commitment to humanitarian values, to justice and to the importance of the political process in Australia is articulated in those very brief words.

A colleague of mine at the University of South Australia, Dr Anne Hawke, addressed the Institute of Public Administration last week and in the course of her very erudite discussions on the economy and worker productivity and workplace change and the impact of training, I asked her a question about her time as the youngest Commonwealth Public Service Director in the early '90s and what she would have done differently, if she had been back in that position, knowing what she knows now about all of these matters. Rather than give us a dry managerial answer, she said quite simply; "I would have been more courageous. I would have not stopped myself from saying what I believed in when I was present with older people and I would have believed enough to say what was important to me." Those of us who know Anne know that she is, in fact, courageous but I think all of us, as we have taken note of where Jason Li is heading, have seen the signs of courage, the generosity to share his perspectives and so I would like you to join with me in welcoming him. Thank you.

Jason Yat-Sen Li

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. I am just getting used to this microphone and setting myself up here. This has got to be the largest lectern that I have ever spoken in front of. Thank you, Liz, for that very kind introduction. I always tend to get the nicest introductions at academic institutions that I speak at. The last one that I did was for the University of Canberra and the organisers there in the program had mistakenly referred to me as Dr Jason Yat-Sen Li. There is no such luck this time.

I am very, very happy to be in Adelaide. It has been quite a while since I have been here, so thank you sincerely to the Hawke Centre for inviting me to talk to you tonight. There is a real lack to my mind of these sorts of institutions that provide a prestigious and an influential forum for the discussion of truly national and international issues. So I am very, very grateful for this opportunity.

I am also very sick at the moment with the flu, so if I cough after I have said something, that does not mean that I did not believe in what I just said, I just coughed.

The topic for my talk tonight is Australia's Young People - The Promise of a New Generation and to set the tone for this I would just like to perhaps give a bit of a verbal snapshot as to what comes into our mind immediately when we say "young Australians", or "youth"; fashion conscious consumers, the Internet, independence and dependence, education and training, drug and alcohol problems, optimism and despair, young life and suicide, dole bludgers, dance music, multicultural pro reconciliation, environmentally conscious, voted "No" to the Republic, laid back, easy-going, occasionally dope-smoking but in the end, so diverse that they probably can't be summed up in any general statements.

For some background information we do have some vague statistics. Australia has about 2.6 million young people aged between 15 and 24, that amounts to about 14 per cent of the population. That is quite a lot. Nearly 15 per cent of all young people were born overseas, mostly in the United Kingdom and Ireland. 2.7 per cent are indigenous Australians. The youth unemployment rate hovers at around 29 per cent. That is quite a lot too. The notion of youth has always been an important part of our history. Images of youth are everywhere in our national identity. Our nationhood is nascent in comparison to the 40,000 years of indigenous occupation and yet the earliest nationalistic images of The Bulletin magazine depict the nation as a young white boy. A young white boy under the paternal scrutiny of Britain.

In forging a national identity our history has celebrated the romantic youthfulness and the vitality of the digger, the surf life-saver, the Man from Snowy River. In the decade leading to Federation of the colonies some of the most iconic and important figures of the time helped to imagine distinctive Australian identity. These figures were themselves young men. Their names are still central to our own national imaginings. Banjo Patterson was only 26 years old, Henry Lawson and Steel Rudd were in their early 20s. Arthur Streeton was 23. These young citizens embodied the youthful nation. They helped shape Australian political and cultural life and it is largely due to them that when we recapture and remember that time we conjure up images of youthfulness and optimism.

Interestingly, Federation did not institutionalise egalitarianism or democracy. Rather, Federation was about protecting Australia's British integrity by excluding non-whites, including the threats of the 'black curse' and the 'yellow peril'. As such, in the lead-up to the centenary of Federation on January 1 we should not see Federation as our great democratic moment. Federation was founded on the desire for a white Australia and a privileged new form of Britisher, the Australian type, personified in young men like Lawson.

In 1909 the influential British study, the Commonwealth of Australia described the Australian type and I will quote:

This is the true Australian, a curious restlessness also marks his character due to the vicissitudes of his life and the speculative spirit of the country. It is to this type of restlessness, energy and daring that Australians by birth and adoption converge.

Now, that was almost 100 years ago and I wondered how the British conceive of the Australian type now, and after some searching it suddenly hit me, my God, what if it is Shane Warne. If we recast Federation as the moment where citizenship to Australia was excluded on the basis of race and the assertion of a masculine ideal, the promise of the youthful nation in 1901 is not our democratic watershed. Perhaps that is yet to come and perhaps that is when we achieve our own Australian Head of State. If it has been 100 years since the currency of these sentiments, have we really progressed all that far from when these ideas were held?

I would like to tell you a little bit about myself and my background at this point. I was born 28 years ago at Paddington Women's Hospital in Sydney. I grew up playing touch football with my mates on the grassy playgrounds of Kingsgrove Public School. I grew up with the sea by my side and having lived overseas, in Europe and in different places for as long as I have, I would often find myself returning to the sea sometimes, when I was reflective of when the heart was low. And if you stand there, regardless of where you are, and you close your eyes you can hear the sounds of the gulls and the waves crashing and you can feel the presence of that immense body of water in front of you and for that moment you would feel ground and you would feel at home because it reminded you of Australia.

But then I could walk into a bar, it would be in Holland or in France or wherever and inevitably when you strike up a conversation people ask you where you are from and I would always say, "I'm Australian, mate" and so often the reply to that would be, "Oh, you know, you don't look very Australian. Are you sure you're not Japanese? Oh, Jeez, I don't know, let me just check my passport".

About a year ago I was outside of a petrol station in Port Stevens when a car load of guys yelled at me, "Go home, get on your boat" and I would have said to them if I had not driven off so quickly, I would have said to them, "Look, this is my home. My first connection to Asia was a two-week holiday in Hong Kong with my mum when I was 17 so if Australia is not my home, then there would be no other place." During the Republic campaign as well, after at 60 Minutes program, someone rang up a Sydney talk-back program and said, "Look, you can't listen to that Jason Li fellow, he's not a real Australian." It is with this background and in this framework that I would like to look at Australia's young people, the promise of a new generation, and I would like, if I may, ask you to keep this question in mind when you are listening. What is going to happen to our political landscape when people from this generation of young Australians grow up, if you would, and take the reins of political and social and corporate power.

Now, this question came about because one of my colleagues in New York, where I recently got back from, and somebody who became a very good friend was a young Iranian woman, and I would often ask her, "What is life like in Iran for a young person in so repressive a regime?" And she said, "You'd be surprised", and I was. She said, "Life for young people in Iran is not a hell of a lot different than it is anywhere else in the world" she said. "We have parties, we smoke, we drink alcohol, you know, we have sex, we even take drugs, the only difference is it all happens in the private realm, rather than in the public realm. It all happens behind closed doors." And she was absolutely convinced that when that generation of young Iranians takes control of the country, becomes the decision-makers, the political elite, if you would have it, the people who run the country, it will fundamentally change the Iranian nation for the better in her mind, and for the better in mine.

So can we apply that sort of thinking to Australia? What is going to happen to Australia? What is going to happen to the way we think about a lot of the issues that we seem to be struggling so much with at the moment? Will we be a republic? Will we finally solve the problems and the issues with reconciliation? Will we bury the multicultural debate once and for all? In short, what exactly is the promise of the new generation? This generation, to my mind, offers us something quite rare in our austere, adult world and that is optimism and freshness. The promise of the future is the unfinished challenge of nationhood and that the young men and women of Australia today can build an understanding of citizenship that is based on inclusiveness.

In comparison to the first generation of the Australian type at 1901 the new generations of young Australians are the first to have grown up in truly multicultural polity and it is this generation that can genuinely reject the link between citizenship and race and it is this generation, I hope, that create a definition of being Australian which is de-linked from membership of any particular group, other than the group we call Australia. So this is a citizenship not of cultural sort of identification, not of what we are but of participation, what we do. You become part of the group we call Australia by contributing to its production and its reproduction.

Today, Australia stands at a cross-road, I think. We have moved barely noticeably into the new millennium, our third century of modern citizenship and it is no surprise that we are confronting these issues of our identity. Reconciliation is the challenge to understand our past with honesty and courage and to build upon that. Multiculturalism, as an expression of social reality on the one hand and policies to reconcile equality indifference in a population of increasing diversity on the other. And then there is my particular hobby-horse, the Republic, which to me is an acknowledgment of our maturity as a people, knowing where our destiny lies and in whose hand it lies. A progressive step into the future.

These are the intangible issues of a nation now, which I think is looking at itself in the mirror and asking itself, "Who am I? Am I beautiful or ugly? Am I good or wicked? How do I treat my citizens and what does the future hold for me?" These are, as Lindsay Tanner calls them, issues of Australia's soul and they are inextricably linked to one another. They share a common logical and intellectual platform.

So what I want to propose - and if you disagree with me, I would like this to be slightly interactive as well so if you fundamentally disagree with me in anything, please shout it out. What I want to propose is that it is in respect of these intangible issues of the soul primarily that we will see the clearer shift, as this generation of young Australians takes control of the country, if you will. Young Australians are the visible and identifiable agents of change. This is exactly the change that other generations might find overwhelming, frightening, powerless to control. Our generation intensifies the questions of national importance because we seem to represent a unique, historical moment.

We are no longer the white Australian type. Many of us are children of migrants. Those of us who are born overseas, more of us come from Asian countries than we do from European. One in five of us has been raised in a one-parent household. We are deferring marriage and preferring de facto relationships. We are living with our parents for longer, our faces reflect a culturally diverse nation. Who are we as Australians now? What does an Australian look like? Can I ever go into a pub in Europe and go, "I'm Australian" and they go, "Ah, that's right, you're Australian." What are the things that bind us together as a people?

I am confident that our generation will end the multicultural debate once and for all. Hugh McKay last year reported a surge in Australian optimism and one of the reason he cites for this is that he says that Australians are beginning to adapt to the changes that are re-shaping our society and I think that young Australians will see this adaptation to a far more completed stage. You see, most of us have grown up with diversity. We have built ourselves from the plurality that surrounds us. For many of us it has always surrounded us, in our playgrounds, in the streets, in our schools, it is everything that we know and so here is the chance to finally get right what has been so wrong in the multicultural debate and that is the reason why it has been so divisive.

I think the fundamental misunderstanding about multiculturalism so far is that it has been a static multiculturalism. In other words, it has been about tolerating distinct cultures that will remain distinct. The Italians versus the Greeks, versus the Chines, versus the Vietnamese, versus the Anglos and having to tolerate all these distinct parts of the Australian society. And we know now - and I think that young Australians know because they have seen how this is wrong. We know that culture evolves. Culture is carried by individuals and as individuals change and evolve, so does the culture they carry.

My grandmother migrated from Hong Kong in 1955 and I used to watch her, she used to pray every night before she went to sleep and I used to watch her in her big living room and she had three shrines up in her living room, three different corners. In the first shrine was a Buddha with 12 arms and 12 legs and two heads that was meant to symbolise good health and prosperity. And grandma would pray in front of the Buddha. And then she would move a bit to her right where there was a porcelain figure of the Virgin Mary and she would pray in front of the Virgin Mary and then she would move again to her right where there was shrine with the ashes of my grandfather and she would pray in front of the ashes of my grandfather.

I would watch this as a boy and it struck me, this is what happens to individuals when they are transplanted from one cultural context to another. This is a very intimate and personal journey that people make over a course of a decade or perhaps longer. This is the evolution in individuals and the evolution of culture that we see happening in a multicultural country such as Australia. But then again, maybe grandma was just trying to hedge her bets.

Most of us have seen how as individuals interacting evolve, so does the culture they carry and they reproduce. It is nonsense to suggest, as some have, that Australia is becoming Asianised. I think it is more accurate to suggest that the Asian Australians who come here, or the Asians who come here are becoming Australianised not because they are forced to, not because of any particular Government policy or that they are losing their Asianness or their Asian values but simply as part of a broader irresistible process of them interacting with far greater social forces such that they imbue those forces and at the same time they contribute their own particular culture to the broader whole.

We are all part of this dynamic, evolving, morphing mass that we call Australia. This is not static but this is what I would like to call evolutionary multiculturalism and that is something I think that young Australians will confront sooner or later in their lives and in their dealings with the broader Australian community. So even those who might still be labelled as racist, I do think it is just a matter of time and as they interact and have more positive experience with people and Australians from different cultures they will break down the stereotypes and the prejudices that they have and they will realise that it is diversity that unites us and makes us strong.

The Indonesian motto is Diversity and Unity. This could be rephrased as Unity Despite Diversity. Young Australians, I think, could adopt a similar but radically different motto: Unity Through Diversity. Paradoxically, it is the difference we all share that makes us all the same. In 1998 young people in the largest capital cities and the smallest town led protests against Pauline Hanson's One Nation. In Bendigo, for example, nearly 1000 high school students forced the cancellation of a public appearance by Pauline by singing, "We are Australian".

This demonstrates that despite former political neglect and disengagement of young people, they have strong political views, especially in relation to the future and the face of the country. In 1998 young Australians also played a large role in protests and activism at Jabiluka, in opposition to the Federal Government's waterfront reform and the failure to embrace reconciliation. In all of these instances at issue were fundamental notions of Australian identity. Paradoxically, however, young Australians were the second largest group behind over 55-year olds to vote No for a Republic.

A recent Youth Partnership Study on what young people think about the future surmised that they do have the capacity for idealism, altruism and optimism, which is in greater need of recognition and encouragement. The study included a national poll of over 800 young Australians aged 15 to 24. It found that despite these general positive sentiments the young Australians did not have an optimistic view of the future. They saw society as motivated by individual greed and selfishness. They wanted greater emphasis on values of community, family and the environment. They thought that Australia lacked a coherent vision for the future.

What is becoming clear in all of this is that young Australians have political concerns that are fundamentally different from traditional political priorities. The environment and reconciliation are key issues from which young Australians generally support. The National Youth Round Table in 1999 found that 85 per cent of young people consider reconciliation to be very important. Polling of young people by the Australian Democrats in 1988 found that 65 per cent believed that Australians were racist and 54 per cent believed that the Prime Minister should apologise to the Stolen Generations.

In other words, these are the areas where the national leadership has failed to reflect the values of the next generation. In more and more areas young people are embodying a divide in Australian politics and it is in these areas that I am reasonably confident the complexion of the Australian polity may shift in the future. Or will it? Maybe it won't happen. How do we understand this difference in what young people find intrinsically important, what they want to get involved in politically and what the mainstream traditional, political concerns are? Can we be confident that the painful, difficult and often divisive struggles we have today over our identity will be resolved naturally with the passing of a generation? Can we sit back and wait?

I think there is two problems with this. Two problems with being complacent about it. The first is that there is a chance that our young people will lose their optimism and compassion. They may well become bitter and cynical. This could happen if young people continue to be isolated, marginalised and victimised in Australian society. And if cynicism does come with age perhaps there is a role for the most optimistic part of our society to have a direct input into setting a social vision for the future of the country.

Secondly, why should resolution of these problems have to wait a generation? Why can't the opinions and the views of this very large and legitimate part of our population be taken into account now? What does it do to the psyche of young Australians and their ability and desire to be active citizens if they are ignored and how can we achieve greater input, greater confidence, greater interest by our youth in the political process? In short, what can we do to realise the promise of the next generation? It is to this issue that I would like to turn right after I have a glass of water.

Young people are our future. Nobody is going to disagree with that. That is so trite, Whitney Houston wrote a really bad song about it a decade or so ago. What astonishingly is not acknowledged, however, is that they are consequently our most important resource. Intelligent corporations have for a very long time acknowledged the need for succession planning and the value in human resources. Ansett Australia, Westpac, Proctor & Gamble, they all have elaborate and very well run management sort of nurturing programs where they recruit bright, young people and they groom them to be managers of the future to ensure the success and the continued viability of their organisations.

Rupert Murdoch has been grooming Lachlan for ages. I'm sure Kerry Packer has been grooming Jamie. My father, however, owning a small electrical engineering company and upon discovering I was useless at maths, didn't really bother. Neither does Australia, it seems. While in the abstract the Australian nation values and prides itself on its youthful image in reality our younger citizens are among the most under-valued and neglected parts of society. They are excluded from all levels of decision-making. They are hopelessly under-represented in parliaments. They pay taxes as adults but they are not paid as adults.

Succession planning means investing in the future today. The rewards could be great. A revisioning of participatory social democracy, a culture of inclusion and diversity and a diffusion of political power. Most importantly, it could mean a compassionate society with a clear sense of who it is, where it came from and where it will go. The reality, however, is that everywhere there are the warning signs of the social cost of excluding young people from participating in the life of the nation. There is a very well documented sense of despair, disengagement, helplessness and hopelessness.

Yet images of young Australians are everywhere. We are the face of the modern consumer society. My topic this evening has already sold Pepsi-Cola for over a decade. Archetypal images of young white western people sell the world a diversity of modern essentials. The striking exemption being Mr Okamura who sells NEC products and is one of my favourite people on TV.

Images of young people are the currency of advertising executives who sell a utopian lifestyle, a world without the burden of responsibility, full of optimism, vitality and beauty. However these images do not really reflect the social and political standing of young Australians. The reality of young lives is very, very different as we know. Young people live with the fringes of society. In almost every area of government responsibility there has been at best a neglect of young Australians and their vision for the future. At worst there is a push towards a more disciplinary government role which punishes young people and demonises youth.

In a report commissioned by the Government on images of young people in the media the findings revealed stereotypes of young Australians as alcoholics, drug abusers, criminals, bludgers and as lazy, complaining and aggressive. The pessimistic vision of our generation is that above our shared values of cultural diversity and inclusiveness we also share social disadvantage. Young Australians born after 1975 face a lower standard of living than their parents faced. Unemployment today impacts disproportionately on young people. Young people are also falling through social safety nets. In a report on the deepening divide of skills in Australia it was noted that 25 per cent of all young people were involved in marginal activity.

Now, that means unemployment or a complete failure to be involved in the workforce at all or in casual employment without any element of training or skills development by which they can improve their skills and gain more meaningful employment in the future. We are staying at home longer. Not because we want to but because of the increased cost of education and because of government policies designed to make young Australians dependent on their parents for longer. Retention rates for high school have plummeted, even in the last 10 years and of those who don't finish high school one half will never gain full employment.

These lack of opportunities for young people are a significant challenge for Australia and despite the moral anxieties that young people embody these new iconoclastic visions for the nation that is going to turn everything upside down, in truth young people still strongly identify with the aspirations of their baby boomer parents. They want to achieve independence, autonomy, the capacity to consume and to acquire qualifications and a career.

In other areas young Australians also face distinct challenges. In a national report on the health and well-being of young people published last year the prevailing health trends were those of alcohol dependence, depression and suicide. The suicide rate for young men has increased 70 per cent in the last 20 years. Why is this happening? How can we be so dumb? Why are we letting this happen? Why, if young people of the future of our nation, why are they being treated so poorly?

Before I go into some of the possible reasons why, I would like to make a disclosure at this stage. I have been one of the lucky ones. I have experienced only to a very limited extent some of the hopelessness and the helplessness that other young Australians have experienced. I have had a really privileged upbringing. My parents made sure I had the best education and the best opportunities and I really can't fault them for anything, except for maybe perhaps a little bit of an over-emphasis in true Confucian fashion on education. I remember three weeks before my high school certificate when my girlfriend at the time ruthlessly broke up with me and I was completely devastated and useless and could not study. All my mother said to me was, "Just study hard and when you become rich doctor, the women, they flock to you".

The reason for our neglect of young Australians are complex and multi-faceted and I would like to offer you too of my view. Firstly, Australians have been reluctant in recent years to engage in issues of national importance. They would rather focus on things that are more local, more personal to them, and I think this is because the bigger the issue the more powerless people have been feeling to do anything about it.

The second reason revolves around the nature of our system of democracy. Our Federal Government and thus our parliaments and everything connected with that is subject to election by a hard-fought adversarial procedure every three years. Now, there may well be very good reasons for this. This is accountability through the ballot box but there are also negatives and most notably a democratic system that is inherently incongruous with long term national planning and consensus building. What is more, these electoral contests are closely fought and won. Both parties now are driven by the almost mathematical political need to engage with middle Australia and the swinging voter.

Mapping the concerns and the preferences of these key groups has become crucial to short term political survival and as we have seen these are precisely the groups that either do not understand young Australians or feel threatened or anxious about the lifestyles, the identities and the attitudes of young Australians. In other words, young people are way out of the picture. Those under 18 don't even have the right to vote. There are very few young politicians. There are no direct avenues for young people to have their input into government decision-making. The only peak independent national youth research and advocacy body, APAC, was de-funded by the Federal Government in 1998 and, sadly, has had its voice fade ever since.

If things have not changed since I was at high school, we learned almost nothing about our system of government, about our Constitution, about our democratic system. By the time I finished Year 12 I could write a 15-page essay on Michael Gow's play Away in my sleep, regardless of what the question was. I could give you the atomic weights of about half the known elements in the world. I could ask for the nearest post office in German, you know, "Wo ist das Post?" I could do simple calculus but I didn't have a clue about how our governmental and our political system worked. That was also the year that I voted for the very first time.

What will it take to effect a fundamental shift in thinking? How do we foster an understanding that the future of Australia offers us tremendous opportunities but only if we prepare for it. Only if we implement generational change within the social, cultural and political structures of the nation. Succession planning means engaging young people in the mechanisms of decision-making and thinking about Australia's future. Young people offer distinct perspectives to the large questions of national identity Australia faces. Succession planning means the opportunity for young voices to be heard within a framework that is legitimating rather than alienating. It means that these issues cease being marginalised or minimised as merely youth issues and become the concern of the whole nation. It shifts the debate away from the partisan nature of politics.

On top of this succession planning can be a unifying agenda. It can bond Australians together across all political persuasions through a common desire to serve and nurture our future generations. Succession planning means putting in place the social and political infrastructure that will enable young Australians to express themselves through our common political institutions. Most significantly, it means developing a deeper and more sophisticated notion of participatory democracy. That process must begin with instilling in young Australians an understanding and a belief in democracy. It does not have to be boring. It can be more than boring historical texts in primary school.

Democracy can be invigorating. It can be empowering and it can be exciting. My mother is a primary school teacher at Hurlstone Park Primary School in New South Wales and she does something really interesting, I think, and this is the second graders who are about 8 or 9 years old. At the start of the semester all the decisions about the class-room, mum lets the students decide, from whether the students are forced to sit boy/girl, boy/girl, boy/girl, to how the naughty children are to be punished, whether the posters should go on this wall or whether they should go on that wall, and what she does is she divides the class into two, she makes them debate the issues and then they vote by a show of hands and she actually implements what the children decide.

Now, what this does - I think this is fantastic, because what it does is two things, it encourages the children to have pride in their opinions and it gives them the confidence to express their opinions. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it shows them that this action, voting, actually affects the world around them. It actually affects the environment in which they live. In this way young Australians can be shown that their opinions do matter, that they do have important roles to play in Australian society and we need to think about starting this process, right at the very beginning, right from the beginning of school.

There was a story about a certain Western Australian politician who was having a dinner at a very posh function a couple of years ago and there was only one piece of butter on the table with each bread roll, so he called the waiter over, who was a young fellow, and he said, "Look, there is only one piece of butter with my bread roll. I want another piece of butter", and the young waiter said, "Look, I'm sorry, sir, there is only one piece of butter per guest." The WA politician was indignant. He said, "Do you know who I am? I was a Rhodes Scholar, I was the youngest person elected to representative office when I was 30 and then I was the youngest person elected to Federal Parliament when I was 32. That is very nice", said the waiter, "Do you know who I am?" He said, "I am the man who is in charge of the butter." I was going to explain the meaning behind that, but I'm sure you can figure that out for yourselves.

Presently, young Australians are extremely cynical about politics. A study of Year 11 students in Victoria by the Australian Council for Education in 1988 found that half of the 600 respondents had no interest at all in politics. Only 30 per cent thought that politicians were smart and knew what they were doing and two thirds had doubts as to whether governments actually cared about people. It is no surprise that the positive manifestations of youth activism have occurred outside traditional political fora. Young people identify less with partisan politics and focus more on a core set of values and ideals that appeal intrinsically to their own self-image as young Australians.

Another study found that pessimism increases with age. Young people at school were the most optimistic. Those in their early 20s were the most pessimistic and sadly for us, I guess, it was in the vein of this pessimism that the No campaign in last year's Republic referendum tapped so effectively. The result was completely devastating and there was no sort of raunchy risque T-shirt branding or funky slogans that the Yes campaign could put out to turn that around to get over this intrinsic deep-felt cynicism towards the political process that young people felt. That line, "Say No to the politicians' Republic" hit the spot big-time with young Australians and the result was the paradox that the group in Australian society that should intrinsically have the least connection with the monarch of a foreign nation actually voted No.

This wasn't an endorsement of the monarchy, this was not because young Australians love the Queen, obviously, but it was an assertion in very, very clear terms of their cynicism and their disenfranchisement and their disengagement with the political process. Now, this is so dangerous and it is so hurtful in a democracy whereby people's minds and their hearts are so affected by cynicism that they cannot bring themselves to think rationally about a progressive change. Perhaps there is my bias coming out there but in my view a progressive change to the nature of our country.

To answer these problems, let us think about how to re-engage young Australians with government. We need to set up formal avenues through which their voices may be brought directly to bear on government decision-making. There have been recent proposals in New South Wales that young people should fill government board positions and statutory bodies. Now, I think this is a good start and similar initiatives should be put in place at a Federal level and throughout the States. Another way might be to lower the voting age to 16, with voting between 16 and 18 being optional and not compulsory because I think it is fundamentally unfair that although people aged 16 and 17, they can work, the can pay taxes, they can get married, they can consent to heterosexual intercourse but they don't have the basic democratic right to vote.

More fundamentally still, let us think about how we can move politics beyond this 3-year cyclical framework to allow it to encompass greater long-term planning. The Constitutional Convention in February 1998 brought together members of the Australian Community who were both well-known and unknown. They were brought together with politicians from all political parties. They were brought together in a place of unifying significance to Australia, Old Parliament House. That forum, although at times it was fiery and it was passionate was in essence a united multi-partisan effort to debate and to discuss an issue of national concern.

That issue transcended traditional political alliances. Traditional, political enemies found themselves crossing the floor and becoming allies and that was remarkable to witness. Perhaps we can have a little think about replicating this convention model for other issues of national importance that should transcend the short-term political agenda and I think that one possible candidate is a convention to develop a long-term, whether it be a 5-year or a 10-year plan for bettering the position of our young people. It would encompass policy areas, such as citizenship, civics, community, employment and skills, health, education and welfare.

Young people at the Constitutional Convention were universally praised for their contribution and I believe they could make an even greater contribution at a forum such as this. The product could be a communique, that is non-binding but a guiding declaration of principles and objectives and yardsticks. A blueprint for a truly consensual, multi-party effort to look after Australia's future in the best way possible and that is through its young people. Successive governments' performance in relation to these yardsticks would become transparent. They would become accountable and perhaps more importantly, national awareness about the issues that confront young people will be greatly heightened by this exercise.

Let us also think about how do we rebuild the social infrastructure, to turn the tide of the increasing isolation of young Australians and the breakdown of community and spirituality. A parent respondent in Hugh McKay's research had this to say about suicide. She said:

When you look at suicide one of the real things missing from people's lives is a sense of belonging. They haven't got it. I think the term is spiritual anorexia.

Now, I heard it suggested at a forum for Australian churches that the churches have an enormous role to play in rebuilding this sense of community and spirituality in the younger generation and I think that that is right. But in order to effectively do so the churches to my mind have to become more relevant to young people and that is by re-branding themselves along the lines and according to the values by which young Australians now live their lives. By increasing their openness, by increasing their diversity and their inclusiveness.

So what do you think about all of this? Are you thinking, Jason has got to be out of his mind? There is no way in the world we are ever going to be able to do these things? Perhaps it is the optimism of my youth that makes me feel all this is possible and indeed, if we can achieve it, there will be flow-on effects to so many other areas of political debate. The entire political process might take on what I would like to see as a prospective element and I would just like to turn to this very briefly now, in finishing. Re-conceptualising the Australian political process' perspective as planning for the future may offer a way forward in some of our most difficult and divisive national debates. That would require that our decision-makers are aware that their decisions are for the future, not just for the present and that their decisions must withstand scrutiny in the context of a succession planning model.

One of the most inspiring comments during the Republic debate was made by the Right Honourable Ian Sinclair, a man not often known for his progressive and left wing views. But he said this, he got up and he said, "Look, if it was just up to me, I would be a No voter, but I'm going to vote Yes and I'm going to campaign Yes because I know that is what my children and my grandchildren want." And I thought that that was just absolutely fantastic.

Prospective political thinking could mean the way ahead on many of the issues that divide Australia now. Let us try applying it, for instance, to in my mind what is a rather manufactured political debate over IVF treatment. The IVF debate to me seems like one that is directly relevant to the lives of young Australians but the general tone of the rhetoric so far as been a reiteration of the desirability of the nuclear family. The deployment of the mythical - well, mythical in my view - nuclear family is politically astute but it fails to reflect the true values at stake in this issue. Patterns of Australian family life are changing and while the nuclear family has not disappeared and its value for many has not been lost, it is appearing less and less attractive to many young people.

The most important point is not that the family is nuclear in the traditional sense, but that it is supportive, loving and stable. Australian families are now touched by divorce. Many of our generation have been raised in one-parent households. Between 1986 and 1996 the number of one-parent families in Australia increased by 50 per cent. This equates to 19 per cent as a proportion of all families. Furthermore, of these lone-parent families women headed 87 per cent. It is now estimated that one quarter of all Australian children will spend at least part of their life in a single-parent family. Those in de facto relationships are more likely to be under the age of 35 and these relationships equate to 69 per cent of all de factos.

The interesting question that the IVF raises is intensely generational. Young people are predominantly living in relationships other than marriage. A prohibition on IVF treatment for lesbian women and heterosexual de factos is antithetical to a generation that has been brought up in many diverse family structures. And in all the political discourse and the agonising over the role of morality in politics it is important to note that the greatest impact of these laws will be on young Australians. The views of older Australians more inclined to uphold the nuclear family may well push the debate but it is undoubtedly younger people who will bear the impact of the removal of these services.

So I am inclined to think that the stance of the Federal Government does not reflect the attitudes of young people who value the quality of family life rather than its composition. And yet in this whole political debate, how often have people thought, what do young people want in this? What is the best thing for the next generation who will come and take over and take the reins of the country?

Similarly, in the Republic debate, and I may not be fair in saying this, but I would like this to be a completely honest discussion forum, I absolutely understand the position of older Australians who feel a very great allegiance to traditional Australian values, to the heritage of Australian institutions, to the Queen herself and to the monarchy, but perhaps there could be an element of thinking there about what is best for the younger generation and what sort of an Australia would they like to live in? Because when it comes to large, national issues such as these the implementation and the execution of these policy issues will take 5 to 10 years and again it will undoubtedly be the younger generation that bears its impact and has to live with its consequences.

So where does this all leave us? We have spoken about the promise of the new generation, the promise of optimism, social compassion and an inclusive identity. We have spoken about natural progress, on the identity debates that are now dividing Australia, reconciliation, multiculturalism and the Republic. We have spoken about how, if these promises are to be fulfilled to their full potential we must treat young Australians as our most valuable resource. This means more than just providing them with adequate opportunities. This means more than allowing them to get to the starting line politically. This means arming them with the democratic skills they need to be active citizens. The way forward offers us not just inter-generational exchange but inter-generational learning and progression. The promise of our generation is the promise that our opportunity to leave our mark on the Australian nation will not be squandered.

In 1994 the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, said: One of the greatest challenges we face as a nation is to generate a deep sense of optimism within our young people. We need to do that because without optimism, without a sense that we do have the wherewithal to build a better future, we will find no reason to build for that future.

So I would like to finish with a reflection on somebody I once knew. We have spoken a lot this evening about optimism and despair. A primary school friend of mine committed suicide when he was 22. At his funeral his father spoke of how he was a wonderful poet as a boy. His father recalled how, when Edward was nine, they were walking together one night and there was a full moon and there was a light wind. Edward noticed how the clouds were playing hide-and-seek with the moon and he said to his father, "Dad, the moon is not moving, the clouds are moving past the moon. The moon has no legs. I shall give the moon my legs and the moon will run with my legs". If we can meet the challenge of treating our young people as the future of our nation, as a valuable resource, but perhaps most importantly as young human beings who need love and compassion, perhaps we can translate some of this optimism to our austere adult society and perhaps then Edward's dad would be vindicated when he said, "And I know that the moon has been running with Edward's legs ever since".

I have a tremendous amount of faith in our generation. This is the generation that will produce our first female Prime Minister. This is the generation that will produce our first Prime Minister of non-English speaking background. This is the generation that will produce an inclusive Australian Republic and then our first indigenous Australian President. Past generations have tried to smash down the barriers between races and the injustices that has caused. This is the generation that can succeed. Thank you very much.

Elizabeth Ho

Well, as the mother of two teenagers, I have learned a few things tonight, as I'm sure we all have but before we go to a formal vote of thanks, can I perhaps invite you to ask some questions which Jason would be very happy to answer?


Thank you for that, Jason, a most enjoyable presentation. I was very impressed with your showing at the Constitutional Convention indeed, with a lot of the other younger people, showed great advantages for us in the future, but I would just like to ask you, where do your aspirations lie in the political sphere? Where are you going to be to introduce these grand changes that you are offering for the future?

Jason Li

Are you a journalist?


I am not, sir, no.

Jason Li

That is a hard question. I recently got back from New York. My professional background is in genocide law and human rights law and that is my sort of other passion in life and one of the things that I have struggled with is that if your interest is in international human rights and war crimes, it is quite difficult to be based in Australia to do these things but I did make a decision very recently to come back home because I do have a sense that my community is here and I would like to spend more time here. As for mainstream politics I don't really know yet.

My main concern is the Republic right now and I would like to see that get up before I think about, you know, where another political avenue might lie because I do think that any effective move to a Republic has to be on either a non-partisan or a multi-partisan level and some of the people involved in the political debate have to be able to work on all sides of politics and because that is my main concern at the moment, mainstream politics will be something for the future.


Well, thank you very much indeed for your optimism regarding the young people in our society. I'm slightly puzzled though, because many of the surveys which have been taken show that on many issues the generation you are talking about is more conservative than those who are 10 years older than them and more conservative than people were in their age group just a few years ago and I wonder how this will translate into what are global issues, even if people like working at a community small-scale level, nevertheless one can't ignore the great global issues.

I am led to think, as I heard today, that the Australian Government has just announced that Australia will not be signing the optional protocol CEDAW, that is the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. They have announced this today. Is this the sort of thing which is a global issue which is going to interest young people or is it only old fogies like me who get very concerned about it?

Jason Li

That is a very good question and it really goes to the heart of how young people feel a part of or don't feel a part of Australian society at the moment. I don't think that young people are intrinsically conservative. Certainly not when it comes to the identity issues that I have been talking about. I think where their conservatism comes through is as a product of their political isolation and their political disengagement and the cynicism towards political processes that I have been talking about and their fear of being left out of the picture.

The way forward to cure this is in the very broad terms. I mean, I don't have all the solutions but if we can think about them together as a nation I'm confident that we can find the solutions to solve these problems. As for globalisation and things such as CEDAW, which is the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, I don't think any nation lives in a fire-safe house at the moment and one of the things that our generation is very much in tune with is the sort of global economy, the sort of global world and aspects of global culture, technology, you know, being one of the fine examples.

I think one of the things that we need in Australia when we - I mean, when you think about technology the things that immediately come to mind are: materialism, IPOs, you know, young people getting incredibly rich incredibly quickly, individualism, and it strikes me that there is a very great lack of an underlying spirituality or a philosophy guiding the development of this technology for, you know, human development reasons and perhaps this is something that the Managing Director of the World Bank might talk about.

So there is, I think, a very legitimate and a very achievable area and a way in which we can utilise something which is very much part of global culture and part of the global economy and that is the development of technology, and let the young people, and this younger generation, who are very much in tune with this technology to apply it and to develop into a system developing it to a greater good and that way they may feel more in touch and more in tune and more connected with people beyond their communities and break down some of the isolation that are making them feel defensive and embittered.


Firstly, Jason, thank you. A lot of the time people get up and tell young people about the problems that are facing us at the moment. Instead I commend you for offering some solutions which is very rare in these forums, but my question is twofold and relatively simplistic. Firstly, we are not taught, Australian politics as a subject compulsorily at school. Do you think that should occur across the board in all States in the education system? That is one, and two, if offered a great amount of food for thought for a lot of the young people who are here, a lot of people who are about to leave school and begin their careers, but to me, as a young person, it makes my brain hurt, all of this information. What would you say to a young person who came up to you and said, Jason, I want to help out but I don't know where to start. Where would you send them?

Jason Li

Okay, first question first. Yes, I do think that there should be a compulsory civics education in all schools at a primary and a secondary level, as long as it is not boring. Now, you know, there is a way that you can teach civics. Civics is not boring, you know. Aspects of Australian history may well be boring, depending on how it is taught but democracy and debate and the exchange of opinions and voting is intrinsically very empowering, very, very exciting. It can have you, you know, at the edge of your seat sometimes and if that practical way, if practical democracy can be taught in our schools effectively, I think that would be such a great thing and would start our young Australians really on the right foot to being active citizens.

To a young Australian who came to me and said, how can I get involved in different things, I would say, seek out - there are a huge number of initiatives, of public interest organisations, of volunteer associations, whether it be Amnesty International or Greenpeace or Youth Advocacy bodies, if you are in the legal profession there are community legal centres. There are a large variety of very worthwhile causes who are screaming and crying out for volunteers. I would say this: never be afraid to speak your mind. I guess I have been very, very fortunate in that, you know, through no particular genius of my own or whatever things have happened such that, you know, I am offered platforms where I can get up and talk and people actually listen to me and I don't believe that the things I have to say are any particularly more brilliant than any other young Australian can say but what did happen was that I had the background and the encouragement to actually speak my mind in the forum that I had available to me.

So perhaps what I would say to young Australians who asked me, how can I get involved, is: make your voice heard at every opportunity that you can, whether it be writing letters to the editor or starting up your own political forum or speaking at existing political forums. And get involved in politics. Join a party if you need to, if you want to. Run for preselection if you want to, because we certainly need more young Australians in Parliament.


Just a very quick question. You touched on a point on the IVF treatment, the changing importance of the nuclear family. Now, just to bring it back to your Chinese culture and how family values and relationships have a very high emphasis, out of curiosity, what do your parents think of your view that maybe the mother and father isn't exactly that important these days?

Jason Li

My mother is the matriarch of the family, as you might have guessed by a comment I made earlier. I guess to get quite personal, my mother and father aren't together any more and that in itself really rocked their traditional upbringings as part of the traditional family, the way the family is understood and perceived in Chinese culture. The family unit is an intrinsic part of the social structure and that turned their lives upside down to a large extent but there are two sides to that. I think one of the advantages that we have in Australia is that we can take the best from what our many cultures have to offer.

The advantage and one of the good things about the Confucian view of families is that when the family is working and when it sticks together it is an extremely strong and supportive and nurturing environment. The problem is that when it is not working it can lead to a lot of forced suffering, particularly for women and before the change in divorce laws in 1975 a lot of Australian women, even though they were forced to undergo what the law recognised were cruel beatings, had to wait for a year before they could get divorced. So there is two sides to these things. My parents have no problem at all with my views as to the nuclear family. I think that is the way that they feel themselves and again this harkens back to my earlier point about how cultures and individual cultures evolve over time.

Elizabeth Ho

I think we are now out of time so I will call the questions to a halt. I am now going to ask Professor Michael Rowan, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University, to come and give the formal vote of thanks. Thank you.

Michael Rowan

I would just like to add one thing, one matter of fact to what you were saying, Jason, when you were talking about the condition of youth in Australia now, and it relates to what you were saying about your lack of knowledge of Australian politics. In fact, in the South Australian Certificate of Education in this State there is a compulsory subject in Australian studies and I don't know the curriculum intimately by any means at all but I know it was there with the intention that students should not graduate from high school without some understanding of their society. The tragedy is that the percentage of young people now going on and completing Year 12 in this State is below 60 per cent and that, I think, is a State shame and I would encourage everyone in the audience to find an opportunity soon to ask a question of the high school principal or a local politician or a local councillor or a journalist about what is happening to young people in our schools and why our participation rate should be so low.

Now, I have a confession to make and that is that you have made me feel very uncomfortable and you have made me feel very uncomfortable because I realise I am now cast in the role of an older person, giving a vote of thanks to a younger person and that is something I have so far managed to avoid and I am not very keen to take the role on. But also I didn't completely agree with what you said, although I agreed more and more as you went on. I thought you were going to adopt a position which I would describe as historically conceited, that is to say, believing that you belong to an extra special generation and I think that is not only false, but it is dangerous.

It is dangerous because if I go to your question, what is going to happen to our political landscape when this generation assumes power? If you wait until you assume power, the answer to your question is not very much more than what happened when all of the succeeding generations assume power. Not, I think that we should under-estimate the achievements of succeeding generations because indeed our society is now very different to what it was when I was born and when my parents were born and some while before.

So the important thing, I suggest to you, and I will hazard an answer to your question, is that what will change is when young people don't wait to assume power before they begin to exercise political influence. And indeed you did go on in your talk to encourage us, or encourage young people just in that direction. What is important, I think, if youth is to make a difference that they act when they are young, that they act when their stake in the future outweighs their stake in the present and in the past. To use another of your words, when their politics is prospective, rather than retrospective, and in this, Jason, you provide an excellent and an enthusiastic example of young people's engagement in the political system and we are grateful for that and we are grateful for your talk this evening. Thank you.

Elizabeth Ho

Thank you very much for your attendance and we do hope that you will be able to come to our future program. You will be very welcome. Thank you.