One hundred and twenty young people between the ages of 16 and 25 from around Victoria made their way to Parliament House in the first week of July for the YMCA Youth Parliament program. Spending up to four months preparing their bills, students in 20 teams of six presented and debated the issues most important to them. After debating each bill for an hour, each student was allowed a conscience vote.
The 20 bills presented by the Youth Parliament were mostly progressive responses to social issues, with a quarter having an environmental focus.
Students from Overnewton Anglican Community College recognised significant problems with current laws affecting transgender and gender diverse youth in Victoria. Their bill proposed to lower the age for medical transition without parental consent to 17 and allow children to alter their sex as a status on government documents with parental consent from the age of 12, without undergoing gender reassignment surgery.
Overnewton College team member Sarah Cadzow, who identifies as transgender, said she prioritised the opportunity to speak out on the issue over her own anxiety and the stress of public speaking.
“The opportunity was so rare and held the potential to be very powerful,” she said. “The few sleepless nights that it took to get here and present something so emotional was 100% worth it. We now have footprints in place for my fellow trans and gender diverse Australian youth to tread on.”
Local member for Prahran and LGBTI spokesperson for the Greens Sam Hibbins acted as Speaker during the debate. He said the proponents made a strong case, and the opposition, even though they were opposing the bill, made some respectful arguments.
“The bill was fantastic; obviously, a considerable amount of work had gone into it,” he said. “Breaking down barriers for the treatment of transgender young people and transgender Victorians is really critical.
“Unfortunately, we had a similar debate in this Parliament and that legislation didn’t pass, but I think this bill will renew the impetus to change that law.”
Protecting the Victorian environment was a hot topic for students. The Bass Coast Youth team focused on the regulation of pesticides in the agricultural industry. Their bill proposed prohibiting all dangerous pesticides within five years.
The Bass Coast students selected their topic as they are concerned that more than 80 pesticides currently used in Australia are prohibited in the European Union and the US. They argued these pesticides pose a threat to food security, the economy, the environment and the health of farmers and consumers.
Bass Coast team member Mathew Fletcher said survival and sustainability were at the heart of their bill.
“We are not just poisoning our country, but also our environment and ourselves,” he said. “This is our environment and our future; it is not something that can be pushed aside.”
The impact of pesticides on the ecosystem and specifically on bee populations was also a major argument for the Bass Coast Youth team. Saxon Taylor-Le Page said she would like to see people realise the impact bees have on our lives.
“Bees are responsible for 60% of our crop pollination,” she said. “You’ve got to think about the drastic implications of 60% less food and how many people that will affect if our bees die off. They are one of the main reasons we’ve been able to survive so long as a species.”
Both bills were successfully passed by their peers. The program can effect real change in Victoria as all bills passed are handed to youth affairs minister Jenny Mikakos for consideration by the state parliament.
Youth Parliament provides young Victorians with a platform to voice their opinions on issues that are often not heard by the wider community. More than 3000 young Victorians have participated in the Youth Parliament program since its inception. More than 20 of their bills have been enacted into Victorian legislation. These include laws covering the mandatory wearing of bike helmets and nightclub safety reforms.
The topics in this year’s program ranged from racial discrimination to alternative school punishments, accessibility to public transport for the deaf and hard of hearing and a container deposit scheme. Only two bills failed to pass.
[Natasha MacFarlane is a journalism student at Deakin University and was a member of the YMCA Victorian Youth Press Gallery for 2017 that reported on the YMCA Victorian Youth Parliament.]