Menzies Oration: Do I have a future? A better deal for young people in Australia

24 August 2022

Menzies Oration
24 August 2022

Travers McLeod
Executive Director, Brotherhood of St. Laurence

I start by adding my acknowledgment of the Wadawurrung people as the traditional owners of this land and pay my respects to elders past and present.

Our answer to the question asked tonight, ‘Do I have a future?’, surely starts with the Uluru Statement from the Heart, produced by elders who had come from all points of the southern sky. Pat Anderson AO, who was Co-Chair of the Uluru Dialogues, wrote on the weekend how “a genuinely shared future is possible with a constitutionally enshrined First Nations voice to parliament”. That’s a future in which current and future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth are properly heard. Young First Nations voices were essential to formulating the Uluru Statement – the Youth Dialogues were led by Sally Scales and ran alongside the Uluru Dialogues.

I want to thank the Menzies Foundation and Federation University for making tonight possible. It’s an honour to give this Oration and to do so as Executive Director of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence, which for more than 90 years has worked to prevent and alleviate poverty in Australia. Our 2500 staff and volunteers focus on key transition points across the life course, transitions that can build capability and confidence or deepen disadvantage. They do so across our services and within our policy and research teams.

Many Federation University alumni are among BSL’s workforce. I was in our NDIS office in Coburg in Melbourne a few weeks ago and two of the first team members I met – Gaurab Gurung and Dipti Thapa – are recent graduates from here. A leader of our youth team, Elle McLachlan, is in the house tonight. Elle told me used to do somersaults down the hallways because her Dad, Angus, taught here for over 30 years. Your Chancellor, Terry Moran AC, is a Director of the Menzies Foundation and Chair of the organisation I used to call home, the Centre for Policy Development. Terry is a champion for empowering local and regional communities. His devotion to public service over many decades has helped to build a better Australia.

Tonight I will set out a five point plan for a better deal for young people in Australia.

It means a lot to be speaking in Ballarat, where my family reaches back several generations. My great-grandfather, Neil McLeod, was born here 150 years ago, in 1872, two years after the School of Mines was established – the foundation stone in the history of this university. Neil’s story in Ballarat speaks to the way life trajectories can suddenly change for young people. When he was 18, Neil was part of a tragic event with his three brothers (Norman, Harley and Percy) at the Newlyn Reservoir, close to here, where their Dad was the caretaker. It was just after Christmas, in 1890. I’ll read an excerpt from The Age, on New Year’s Eve.

A shocking fatality occurred at the Newlyn waterworks last evening, when three brothers, named McLeod, aged 8, 10 and 12 years, lost their lives through the capsizing of a boat. The police were engaged all night in dragging for the bodies, but it was not until this afternoon that they were recovered. It appears that the boys went out to moor a boat, and when about to return the small boat in which they were seated almost immediately capsized. They were accompanied by an elder brother, who experienced a narrow escape, just managing to reach the bank. Mr McLeod is the caretaker of the waterworks, and only a short time ago was left with a family of young children owing to the death of his wife.

Neil ended up going West – and I’m very grateful he did, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. But his story, at age 18, is an example of how quickly a life can be completely derailed. How confidence can be shattered. How someone can be left needing to pick up the pieces.

Of course, we don’t need to go back far to see how a big shock can change the trajectory of all our lives. COVID continues to disrupt life for everyone. Young people have been hit hard. They had the largest share of job losses and largest increase in unemployment during lockdowns. Over 40,000 young people presented alone to homeless services during this period. And it will be a while before we know the true impact on young children – the COVID generation.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge my perspective on what a better deal for all young people looks like is limited by my age, gender, experience and background. All young people bring their own equally important perspectives based on their diverse experiences. While Neil was able to chart a course out of tragedy, thanks in no small part to supports and networks around him, many young people today do not have access to the same opportunities he or I have enjoyed.

I’m looking forward to listening to the panel. They are in the thick of it and have critical perspectives on what can be done. I’m thrilled Raneem Bajjour and Rachel Wilks, key members of BSL’s youth team, are on the panel. I joined a session several weeks ago with our youth advisers to hear their stories and ideas. It’s their futures that bring us together tonight.

Young people, like Raneem and Rachel, immensely talented and capable, are staring into a future of rolling crises and uncertainty: economic and environmental disruption, geopolitical unrest, ongoing health challenges, especially in mental health, insecure, unaffordable housing and social disconnection.

The question they’re are asking is: ‘do I have a future?’. And they are right to do so. Older generations have bequeathed to young people some monumental challenges, chief among them the failure to take decisive action on climate change, which is already sparking big economic shocks and the loss of nature and diversity. It’s been a lazy and self-interested response – one that acts as a handbrake on the future of all young people.

In recent years we’ve seen the voices of brave young women and men speaking truth to power on issues like climate change, mental health, gender diversity and fluidity, safety from abuse, and the corrupting of our democracy. If only others had been so courageous.

Three major challenges are limiting young people’s wellbeing and chances of a sustainable livelihood right now. Those challenges are:

One, a mismatch between job vacancies and the young people equipped to fill them.
Two, an outdated education and training system.
And three, a broken jobs ladder.

Let’s start with the mismatch between job vacancies and young people equipped to fill them.

We’re in a strange situation where supply and demand aren’t matching up.

National unemployment is low, at 3.4%, we have record job vacancies and not enough skilled workers. Yet there are 770,000 Australians who are part of our employment services system, Workforce Australia, which is 26% more than before COVID and includes 111,000 young people.

The second challenge is an outdated education and training system.

The problem lies not in young people’s capabilities, but the systems whose job it is to prepare them to enter the world of work.

Seven out of ten of the fastest growing occupations require vocational training. The social services sector is crying out for skilled and trained workers. But the statistics are damning.

Less than half of learners in vocational education and training complete their training. Only one in three (34.4%) young training graduates say their qualification was ‘highly relevant to their job’ post training. It’s even worse for young people with a disability, with only 30% of graduates reporting training as highly relevant. Less than half of 20–24-year-olds who were unemployed before training were employed after training.

The third challenge is a broken jobs ladder

The Productivity Commission found in the decade following the Global Financial Crisis, young people were the only group who experienced zero wage growth . This was the case regardless of education. For so long, we’ve told young people to study hard and get a qualification because that’s your best chance of getting a decent job. But the transition from school to work is getting longer. Where education does lead to work, for many it’s low skilled, low income work outside of their area of study, or work they don’t believe in.

In my conversation with BSL’s youth advisers we talked about the impact this was having on their mental health. They said they keep being told about new opportunities and jobs, but finding and accessing these jobs is difficult. The broken skills and training pathways lead many to see themselves as ‘not good enough’. They blame themselves for systemic failures.

To ask whether young people have a future is to ask whether they have a reasonable hope that they are going to be living a life that they value. As time goes on, this hope is eroding. So let’s turn the question into one of possibility – how can we rebuild real hope among young people?

At the Jobs and Skills Summit next week, young people will want see a future they can hold on to. The Treasurer, who is organising the Summit, has stressed the new government isn’t here to ‘stuff around’. Jim Chalmers doesn’t want a ‘fairy floss’ government . On this, young people are key allies. They don’t want to be a part of a fairy floss future.

A critical question for the Summit and the White Paper will be how we can redesign our employment and training systems so they're fit for the future and can grow young people's capabilities to take up opportunities in a shifting economy.

I want to suggest a five point plan that can help us to convert training into decent work and build employment pathways that benefit young people, meet employer needs and empower communities. The five points are:

1. Recognise and include young people directly in decision making;
Rebuild hope by putting wellbeing and capability at the heart of a new youth guarantee;
Reimagine the role of government in the delivery of essential services, especially employment;
4. Reframe youth employment as a core part of social license for business; and
Restore dignity to the education and care professions.

First, recognise and include young people directly in decision making.

80 years ago, Robert Menzies said Australians “disagree among ourselves on almost every conceivable subject, but we are all democrats”. He said democracy was like a piano that had to be played, that “we must understand and experience democracy if democracy is to be a living faith and is to survive”.

This hits home when we talk about young people’s participation in our democracy. On this, the piano is out of tune. Young people aren’t even allowed to play. Youth has sat in and out of various portfolios in the Federal Government. In the 1980s and 1990s it was paired up with combinations of employment, education and training. In the 2000s and 2010s it sat alongside children and school education. Now, we’re fortunate to have a revitalised Office for Youth, headed up by Minister Aly, the Minister for Early Childhood Education and Minister for Youth.

In Minister Aly, we have someone who gets the need for a coherent national youth strategy that can strengthen the transitions from early education, to school and then work. She understands “transitions” from childhood to mature age are often artificially imposed and socially constructed.

At the centre of such a strategy must be the voice of young people. Consultation isn’t enough. Young people must be co-creators of the policies shaping their futures. They need to be in positions where they can hold government to account and monitor progress towards better education and employment outcomes for their generation. Next year is the 50th anniversary of lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Perhaps it’s time to lower it again.

It’s also well past time to raise the minimum age of incarceration to 14. Scenes in Western Australia recently confirm how our criminal justice systems trap young people in cycles of disadvantage. We must do better.

Second, rebuild hope by putting wellbeing and capability at the heart of a new youth guarantee that equips all young people for fulfilling jobs and careers.

In 1945, Ben Chifley used the metaphor of the trapeze artist to describe the Australian social security ideal. He said:

“The trapeze artist’s net protects him through the whole course of his life. The net is not, of course, part of the main show; that goes on high above, and the higher it goes, the better we enjoy it. … But anyone who has ever seen an artist miss his hold knows what peace of mind the constant presence of the net means to performers and audience alike. So it is with social security. The modern ideal is that there should be social security provisions to protect every citizen in his or her emergencies, from the cradle to the grave.”

We all needed the net during COVID. And you know what, any of us could be in another emergency in the blink of an eye. For too many young people, if they’re disconnected from the education system or thrown off the jobs ladder, they fall into a net where you don’t bounce but you sink. It’s a net where you are sentenced to interact with a broken employment services system. It’s a net where mutual obligation and income support trap you in deeper disadvantage. Australia’s net is not a guarantee, to paraphrase Lyndon Johnson , to open the doors of opportunity and equip young people to walk through those doors.

A better deal needs to be based, as the Treasurer has signalled, on wellbeing and capability, where young people can be the directors of their own show and our future.

Decent and secure work underpins wellbeing. Young people’s ability to access decent and secure work requires not only the building of human capital and skills, but capability growth in all areas of life –physical and mental health, relationships and networks, and housing.

A new youth guarantee must deliver employment pathways that work in place, allow training to be converted into work, and for workplaces to be better places for training. Decent income support and wage subsidies should smooth transitions into training and work. The youth guarantee would reform the training system to provide a strong foundational education for young people to enter the workforce and thrive once they get there, recognising they will work more jobs in their lifetime than previous generations. This means backing what we know works: on-the-job training opportunities in the local community; and engaging employers who are invested in attracting the next generation of workers. We need to work with employers to design the right type of entry-level training and jobs that will set young people up for success – both in their businesses and long-term as young people progress into other jobs. We also need to provide sympathetic and ongoing sources of career advice to young people at the community level on how to progress from school to satisfying jobs and careers.

BSL is doing this in Barwon Heads – working with employers, educators, students and industry to develop a better pathway for agricultural careers. Federation University’s co-op model is another great example of this theory in action, and perhaps why they are the best university in Victoria for graduate full time employment. Their partnership with IBM shows how it can be done. A new youth guarantee will only work if TAFEs and universities are prepared to dig into their communities, align with their worries and help to define solutions. They need to be leaders and brokers as well as educators.

Third, reimagine the role of government in the delivery of essential services, especially employment.

At the end of 2018, a report on Australia’s employment services landed. It was not happy reading. Wait lists for disadvantaged jobseekers were 2-5 years. Incredibly, only 4% of employers were connected into the system. Even more incredibly, contracts were then extended until the middle of 2022.

The new system, Workforce Australia, repeats the basic mistake of keeping government behind the contract gate. It expects digital delivery to do the heavy lifting. And specialist youth programs, like Transition to Work, have been recommissioned, with private providers replacing many community-based providers .

Consider this counterfactual. Imagine if Workforce Australia, which costs well over $1b a year was scrapped. Imagine if we accepted blind faith in contracting out doesn’t work, the current approach to mutual obligation is a poverty trap, and the model of completely privatising employment services delivery has failed . Imagine if we recognised Australians want government to partner in communities rather than just manage a market for job services.

The National Youth Employment Body run by the Brotherhood of St Laurence shows the benefits of a different approach. It’s an alliance of key players – government, community providers, employers and industry, training providers and young people – working together to redesign systems to provide young people with decent and secure jobs and provide employers with a skilled workforce. It’s similar to the Community Deals model used by the Centre for Policy Development and applied in Melbourne’s West for refugees and new arrivals.

The NYEB has worked together to engage unemployed young people into aged and disability care jobs, supporting them with entry-level skills and setting them up with the foundations to move into a range of other high-demand jobs in the care sector in the future. This is just one example of how collaboration and action at a local community level yields life-changing benefits for young people, whilst supporting businesses and the economy.

Reimagining government in this way is not for the faint hearted. It’s not for a fairy floss government. It requires a reorganisation of government to do more than manage contracts. They have to devolve power to local communities and work alongside them to shape youth employment strategies. They have to get back into the delivery game and help to benchmark best practice – this is something Robert Menzies understood and which Terry Moran has spoken about . It’s at the heart of the levelling up initiative in the United Kingdom.

Now this will be tough with depleted public-sector capability at the national level. But it’s what the brilliant economist Mariana Mazzucato means by a mission economy and entrepreneurial state. It’s one the new Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet understands . And it’s one that could be driven by a new Commission for Social and Economic Policy and Practice – which was part of the ALP election platform in 2016 and developed by Jenny Macklin – to connect up key services, like housing, employment and care.

Fourth, reframe youth employment as a core part of social license for business

Business must be part of the solution. My sense in the wake of COVID and the focus on wellbeing we’ll see the social dimension of the environmental, social and governance expectations of corporate Australia (or ESG) come to the fore. This has already happened in climate change, where work by CPD helped to reveal why directors had a duty of care to act on climate, and prompted financial regulators to take action. Our moderator, Dan Ziffer, has written about the governance side of this following the Banking Royal Commission.

Over the next decade I think we will see much greater focus on what businesses are doing to address vulnerability and poverty, boost economic and social participation, and ensure their operations look like and support the communities they serve. At BSL, for example, we are seeing huge interest in our Given the Chance program, which works directly with businesses like ANZ and Arup to build career pathways for jobseekers marginalised in the job market. The Sustaining Economic Empowerment and Dignity for Women Project (or SEED Project ) being trialled by BSL in Seymour Victoria and backed by ANZ builds on ideas of dignity and wellbeing in place. I hope at the Jobs and Skills summit we see employers sign on to ambitious social procurement targets, and agree to be part of and support solutions at community level.

I hope there is also recognition that fostering full employment requires more public and private investment in social infrastructure. Young people are often unable to take up training and job opportunities because they’re isolated from essential services. The lack of affordable transport, health care, housing, and early childhood education, particularly in regional and remote areas, cuts off young people’s life chances. The Foyer model pioneered by BSL recognises that care, housing and employment often have to come together for young people to thrive.

Fifth, restore dignity to the education and care professions.

One of the most promising training and employment trials in the country right now is being driven by Emma Freitas at Swinbourne University in partnership with the Victorian Government. It’s a new model for the Diploma of Early Childhood Education and Care that involves much more learning on the job – on campus days two days a week and two days of work placement for the whole course. I met Emma on Saturday night. Her perspective, like others, was of people burnt by the training system, with inadequate support, who need money and a chance to grow while learning and working.

The sad reality is not enough young people see a future for themselves in the education, health care and social services. This is because we don’t give those jobs the pay, conditions and dignity they deserve. Yet these are jobs – especially in early childhood - that grow wellbeing for all. Last week Danielle Wood described this situation as an “ economic insanity ”. It is. She said:

“The unvarnished truth is that [early childhood] roles pay less because of the gender make-up of the workforce. We pay less for care work because we expect women to do it selflessly and, therefore, for modest pay. For too long, we have relied on the goodwill of our carers to subsidise government budgets. But now the market has caught up with us. We will not be able to deliver the services we need or boost workforce participation unless we improve the pay and quality of these crucial enabling roles.”

It’s time to make education and care careers much more attractive to young men and women. The average age of a care sector worker is 41. Young people make up only 9% of the care sector workforce. Unless we restore decent pay and dignity to these nation-building professions the rest of this five point plan won’t be worth the paper it’s written on.

During times of crisis we often project our concerns onto young people. But what I’ve heard from young people is they want to lead. They can see the possibilities if the conditions are right. For those who work in the youth sector and youth policy, it can be a creative and innovative space. Youth policy cuts across many issues, it demands collaboration and in return opens up the space to rethink and redesign the status quo. That’s exactly what we need to do, because path dependency will break Australia over the next decade.

We can make Australia offer a better deal for young people through those five steps:

1. Recognise and include young people directly in decision making;
Rebuild hope by putting wellbeing and capability at the heart of a new youth guarantee;
3. Reimagine the role of government in the delivery of essential services, especially employment;
Reframe youth employment as a core part of social license for business; and
5. Restore dignity to the education and care professions.

Earlier I paraphrased Lyndon Johnson. In the same speech in 1964, after the Civil Rights Act was passed by the Congress, he said: “Great social change tends to come rapidly in periods of intense activity and progress before the impulse slows.” I am willing to believe that between the Referendum on the Voice, the Early Years strategy, the White Paper to follow the Jobs Summit, and new strategies on Youth and Women’s Economic Participation, Australia could be in for a period of enormously positive social change. There is a chance to rewire our country for the future, and generate a future young people can believe in, connect with, and see themselves as agents within. A future all young Australians can flourish in. We have to take it.

The Brotherhood of St. Laurence (BSL) is a social justice organisation working to prevent and alleviate poverty across Australia.

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