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Passing the gavel to young people

Young people are often locked out of power and not able to make key decisions about their own lives, particularly before they turn 18. But give them your trust and they will show you their wisdom.

Tahlia Azaria

This post was written
By Tahlia Azaria


Hear from participants from the Lewisham Young Mayors and Advisors.

At this year’s federal election, young people across Australia changed the way we are governed.

Eight of the 10 electorates with the highest number of young voters (18-29) saw swings away from Liberals to Labor, Greens and Independents. This reinforced that young people are not disengaged in civic life, but they have been disempowered and they want to be part of the change.

For democracy to work for all of us it must involve us all, and that includes young people. A new initiative led by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) will change how young people are engaged in civic participation, repositioning them from advisors to decision-makers. 

Shifting power to young people

The Young Mayors program will back young people to make change through democratically elected youth councils at local government level.

Starting with Mackay Regional Council in Queensland, young people aged 17 and under will be invited to nominate for a local youth council. Guidance from community leaders and advocacy experts, workshops to develop priority platforms and well-being support will build a foundation for their election campaigns. Opportunities to meet their constituents will give young people the confidence to cast an informed vote on election day.

With a mandate to represent their peers, elected young people will determine priority action areas. A cash fund and mentoring by councillors and industry experts will support them to collectively deliver projects and events in their region. 

Genuine trust and support

Young people are often locked out of power and not able to make key decisions about their own lives, particularly before they turn 18. But give them your trust and they will show you their wisdom. In the United Kingdom over 11,000 young people aged 11 to 18 voted for the 2022 Bristol Youth Council. The new councillors have big shoes to fill, with the previous Youth Mayors committing to address issues including knife crime and holiday hunger.

Youth council programs in the UK have fostered civic identity in young people and led to greater participation in the democratic process. Councils have a stronger understanding of the issues that affect young people, which means better, more informed decisions that address young peoples’ priorities.

Tick box engagement

In Australia, ‘youth councils’ or committees are a well-established concept. They usually engage young people to advise adults based on their lived experience. Young people are brought together and asked for their thoughts, but have little visibility on what happens next. For a long time this has been best practice. 

Sometimes it works. But in many communities young people can be treated as a box to be ticked. We hear young people say they have not been heard, and the approach fails to capture voices not physically at the table. Support staff have the best intentions, but they don’t have adequate time and resources, and the outcome is tokenistic. 

Doing it differently

In the Young Mayors program, a young person early in their career living in each local government area (LGA) will be employed to provide administration support for elected youth councils. This means more time and staffing resources to engage meaningfully with young people and embed the approach in council processes. 

Through workshops and training, a focus on who is not in the room and the importance of consulting widely and often will keep a diversity of views on the agenda, setting youth councils up to be properly representative of the people they have been elected to serve.

Building best practice

Joining Mackay Regional Council in the Young Mayors program are four LGAs in New South Wales and Victoria, who together will form the first year of this pilot. Another five LGAs will join in 2023. 

Backing by multi-year state government funding with local council contributions would see the initiative scale to 25% of all LGAs in Australia by 2028.

With genuine backing and a focus on all young people, countless intelligent ideas and boundless passion can be harnessed. When power is shifted to young people, we all win.