A younger, greener council for Newcastle

August 23, 2008

When you see the line-up of candidates running for Newcastle council in the September 13 elections, you notice the average demographic is seriously out of whack with that of the region.

In Newcastle, 40% of the population is less than 30 years old, with 10% between the ages of 20 and 24. But this overwhelming proportion of young people is not reflected in Newcastle's local council representation.

What's worse, the issues that really affect youth now in the future are not being addressed. That's why the three of us — Tom Cameron, Laura Ealing and Zane Alcorn — decided to run as Socialist Alliance candidates.

A February 2007 Newspoll survey found that an overwhelming 94% of 18 to 34-year-olds believe climate change is a problem, with 78% seeing it as a "major problem". Though it's obvious that federal and state governments have the greatest ability to take significant climate action (if only they would!), we think that local councils also have an important role to play.

This role could include providing dedicated bike lanes and supporting the expansion of free public transport, urban agriculture and renewable energy. Newcastle council should also be protecting the region by opposing coal expansion: despite the fact that coal is a major contributor to climate change, Xstrata is about to start construction on the Anvil Hill coalmine.

The summer ice of the North Pole appears likely to melt completely within the next few years, and we are facing a climate crisis that has the capacity to utterly devastate life on Earth.

Meanwhile, Newcastle Mayor John Tate and councillors Helen O'Neill and Aaron Buman have been spending much of their time agonising over how to deal with the graffiti "problem" and doing their best to shut down some important youth-oriented services such as the Newcastle Beach skate park and The Loft, a youth arts and cultural venue.

They have also devoted themselves to vilifying young people for "antisocial" behaviour and have argued for curfews. This may win them some extra votes in the election, but it utterly fails to deal with the root causes of "antisocial" behaviour — unemployment, poverty, housing insecurity and plain old boredom. Surely denying people affordable housing is antisocial.

Empowering young people to have their voices heard and participate as valued citizens in the local community could go a long way towards finding real, sustainable solutions to these problems.

Many young people are really struggling financially with low-paying, insecure jobs, or a Youth Allowance that doesn't even push them above the poverty line. While a local council can't provide all the solutions to these problems, it could take enormous financial pressure off young people by providing more low-cost accommodation.

Converting some of the vacant buildings scattered throughout Newcastle to low-cost housing would be an innovative way of doing this. This would also ensure safer and more vibrant streets — particularly in the inner-city suburbs.

Ideas abound about how to make councils greener, more vibrant and more inclusive of younger people. What's needed now is for people to make them happen.

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