In Defence of Youth

27 July 2011

In late 1998, in the second year of my political career, I took my Palestinian born father back to his birthplace of Bethlehem.

It was an emotional journey for us both.

When he left the war torn Palestinian state in 1948 as a Christian educated 21 year old, he swore as he crossed the Allenby Bridge into the Hashemite Kingdom over the grand Jordan River that the land he was born in had no future for a young man.

So 50 years later when we walked amongst the refugees in Gaza and then Amman, my father sadly had his youthful anxieties confirmed. A new generation of young Arabs shared his despair that they had no hope, they had no voice, they had no freedom and so they had no future.

This year it all changed.

I, and my father, have lived to see the sea-change events unfolding in the Arab Spring.

We were shocked by the self immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor that started the revolts that led to the toppling of Ben Ali in January.

We cheered as young Christians and Muslims took to Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest against the denial of democracy and ultimately force a long overdue regime change.

We were gutted and horrified when reports emerged more recently of a young Syrian teenager, just 13 years old, who was tortured and murdered by Syrian authorities. That boy has become the enduring symbol of the struggle against the tyrannical and murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

A close observer would note there is a common narrative among all these movements.

Young people, across the world, are rejecting the demands of conformist past generations and starting the struggle for democracy that we in Australia, all too often, take for granted.

The young people of the Arab world have exhibited creativity, idealism and a zealous desire to make a difference.  They are empowered by their demographic muscle. An amazing 51% of their population is aged under 25.1 Their willingness to try new things and seek out adventure is not just forged in the face of a gun barrel but it is the historical destiny of this generation.

These qualities are not confined to the Middle East. You can find them in the young in Soweto and in Sydney, in Mumbai and in Melbourne.

Around the world young people are relentlessly searching for the next opportunity to make a difference. This desire for change is made all the more possible by new technologies which empower individuals and make the collective much more mobile.

The ‘youth revolution’ is happening on every laptop, desktop, iPad and mobile phone around the world. It poses many challenges, but it also delivers endless opportunities for government, for business and for the activist.  It has changed our community forever.

Young people as Global Citizens

Your generation is the first generation of truly global citizens.

Even though social philosophers like Canadian Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase “the global village” in 1962, foresaw the impact of new technology on society and its intercourse, there is still little appreciation we are, in this age, citizens of the world.2

My children will grow up as ‘participants’ and not mere observers of some of the greatest periods of change in this ongoing Age of Enlightenment.

The rise of a resurgent China and India, the decline of the traditional European stronghold, the increasingly confused and unclear role being played by the United States, and growing turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East are reshaping the geo-political and economic framework of the past three hundred years. Their lifetimes will encompass a fascinating period of change in the world’s history. Unlike their grandfather they will have more opportunity to forge their destiny in their country of birth than any generation before them.

This global citizenship is not tied to a common base. Young people communicate and engage with each other despite differences in faith, heritage, culture and economic circumstance. They are empowered by the belief that they can change the world.

This empowerment of ‘youth’ is by no means new –at the age of just 32 Alexander the Great had conquered most of the known world and Jesus Christ had saved it. Joan of Arc never made it out of her teens and Alexander Graham Bell had invented the telephone at the age of 28.

Robert Kennedy had a premonition of the power of technology in his address to Cape Town University in 1966:

Everywhere new technology and communications brings men and nations closer together, the concerns of one inevitably becoming the concerns of all.  And our new closeness is stripping away the false masks, the illusion of differences which is the root of injustice and of hate and of war.3

At that time Kennedy was simply talking about the power of observation as events unfolded in near real time on television. However the globalisation of the young was already at work:

…as I talk to young people around the world I am impressed not by the diversity but by the closeness of their goals, their desires, and their concerns and their hope for the future……It is these qualities which make of our youth today the only true international community.4

Smashing the Barriers

The fact that we can now travel so easily, communicate so cheaply, and share knowledge so quickly are all things that help break down the traditional cultural and religious barriers between men and women.  Just as the printing press took the control of knowledge out of the monasteries and the palaces, the Internet is allowing hundreds of millions more to access information and the works and deeds of others.

Facebook and Twitter are the modern printing presses but it is the young people that are writing the manuscripts.

No longer can political tyrants avoid the scrutiny of their people by operating in dark corners with complete control of their media. Not even the meanest leadership on earth in North Korea has been able to avoid the power of new technologies. Modern tools have been able to shine a spotlight on the worst behaviour in the darkest corners of our world.

This became more of a reality for me on a recent trip to the United Arab Emirates where I spoke with Ministers and students alike about the role that Twitter and Facebook are having in Arab uprisings.

At the University of Wollongong’s Dubai campus students told me that Twitter was a way to both disseminate and collate information, while Facebook was a method and tool of organisation and control.

The decentralisation of power through the internet has opened up new opportunities for influence and it is young people that have stood up and forced governments, civil society and commentators to change their ways to accommodate a ‘new voice’ on the Arab Street.

Young people in Australia don’t have to look overseas to see examples of their peers taking the lead.

We see the very same values of creativity, idealism and a desire to make a difference by looking at a critical aspect of European immigration in colonial Australia. In this we can trace an undoubtable trend – that of young people coming to Australia in the search for adventure and excitement and ultimately a better life for them and their children. Indeed adventure, experimentation, and even risky behaviour are part and parcel of being young – they always have been. Too often these traits have been portrayed as negative values – I see them as inherently positive.

Adventure, experimentation and a healthy wariness of authority should be encouraged and even applauded among our younger generations. They are the traits that spur on entrepreneurship and are characteristics to which we can attribute so much of the Nation’s history. The chance of adventure and ‘exploration of the unknown’ are the traits that encouraged a young William John Wills, a British surveyor to migrate to Australia in the 1850s. 5 Only a couple of years later Mr Wills would lead the first expedition crossing Australia from north to south. He accomplished this at the age of 27, yet he will be remembered as one of the pioneer geographers of our continent. He was part of the iconic Burke and Wills duo that had the 150th anniversary of their death just weeks ago.6

I fear that our next William John Wills will grow up in an Australia where he is stopped from participating in activities because of an overprotective society that spends all of its time mitigating risk through regulation and tax.

Why defend Young People?

Criticizing young people has always been one of the indulgences of the elders.

None of the criticisms of today’s youth are in any way new.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) wrote nearly 2,500 years ago in reference to young people:

“Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning… All their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently… They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it; this, in fact, is why they overdo everything.” 7

But today’s criticisms and restrictions on young people go beyond merely deploring the changes in manners and customs of the young . We regulate or tax in their name every part of their being from the drinks they consume to the cars they drive. For example it is older generations that have imposed draconian expectations on a young person to spend 120 hours at the car wheel in the presence of a licensed driver in order to get their provisional licence which must be carried around for 3 years.8

Some rules are necessary but we cannot go too far.

As a general rule we should be mindful that young people need the chance to explore, experiment and engage in calculated risk-taking behaviour, in order to grow into balanced adults and pursue the future they aspire to.

I am a fervent believer in calculated risk taking. Our challenge is to encourage it in the areas of business, politics, and broader global engagement. As legislators we must build a safe and secure environment for prosperity without diminishing reward for risk and innovation.

Young people need to be defended because the overwhelming majority are upstanding and hardworking individuals willing and able and indeed anxious to make a positive contribution to our society.  They have a vision for society that is as much ours as theirs.

Who are young people?

A quick look at any high school, or university college, shows there is no stereotype that accurately defines young Australia. Furthermore we know that the statistics are ever changing.

For example, in 1945 only 1.5% of 15-19 year olds in Australia were born overseas.  In the last census this was 12% with about a third speaking a language other than English at home. 9  Being Australian is not based on the country you are born in but the values you display and embrace as a citizen.

We do know that young people sometimes engage in mindless risk taking, manifesting itself in dangerous behaviour like drug, alcohol and substance abuse. 10  This is not something new although the level of debate and awareness today is far greater than it was previously. However we also know that the vast majority of young Australians  who do engage in some of these risky behaviours soon give them up and live their lives with the scars of past indiscretions.

More calculated risk taking may manifest itself in starting a business. 9% of all small business operators are young Australians under 30. 11 However, the businesses started by young people tend to be more risky, engaged with technology, and have limited initial outlay by using the internet as either a marketing tool or a shopfront.

A recent article on notes:

“Consumer Internet entrepreneurs are like professional basketball players… They peak at 25, by 30 they’re usually done.” 12

Sometimes it all works. Take for example 28 year old Ruslan Kogan, founder of the $30 million online store Ruslan funded his online TV and technology sales by pre-selling his first shipment of goods and undercutting major brands offered at retail stores.13 His enterprise did not require any special knowledge about business nor electronics, it was not a idea that could be taught in a formal education system. It required creativity and the recognition of a niche market. It was delivered by a young mind.

The success of young entrepreneurs with limited formal education is easily explained. Our education system has a basis of teaching knowledge, whereas new entrepreneurs are using technology to create new knowledge and new ideas. It is why so many young entrepreneurs do not have high levels of formal education; creative and digital entrepreneurs often expressly reject the ‘knowledge based’ education system we have in our high schools and universities. Into the future our education system needs to find new ways of encouraging creative thinking and fostering the best ideas of young people.

Education System

Modern education should focus on teaching ideas and values relevant to tomorrow’s society.

Of course this is not as easy to deliver as it is to proclaim! Esteemed creative educator Sir Ken Robinson in his famous TED talk, Do Schools kill Creativity?, recognised this educational challenge when he said that:

“Nobody has a clue… what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it”.14

It is only by encouraging a questioning mind that we can create an environment where young people feel their opinion is important, and as valid as someone their senior.  This is a formula that encourages creativity in our younger generations, it is a lifelong skill that remains pertinent to everyday life no matter how advanced human knowledge becomes.

Healthy scepticism allows young people to question their superiors in a respectful way, providing a level playing field for experimentation and risk taking.

The Australian National Curriculum should take a leaf from our successful international competitors.  The academic rigour of programs such as the International Baccalaureate requires students to study basic philosophy and complete a mini-thesis on a topic of their choosing during their final year. It ensures a breadth of education that allows students to ‘know a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a little’. Most importantly the skills rather than content focus of the IB ensure that students graduate with skills that will be relevant no matter how much human knowledge changes in the future.

Learning science from first principles provides you with the foundations necessary to question modern research and views. Learning the principles of critical analysis of literature facilitates your examination of public policy. Learning the principles of historical inquiry allows you to discern future trends.

There is nothing new in challenging orthodoxy with a sound educational base. In fact my alma mater teachers, the Jesuits, have been teaching just that for over 400 years.15

The responsibility of a student to question assumptions and authority was an integral part of my own education.

However, I fear that far too many of our schools are made up of a ‘teach to the test’ attitude – a dangerous situation that encourages ‘swatting’ among students intent on achieving the best marks but lacking broader interests. Unfortunately this is a product of our tertiary education system; harming the freedom of choice for Australian university students to select their courses based on their qualities as a whole, rather than just a final school year number.

Our university system does itself a disservice by generally assessing applications on the basis of the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR). 16 The ATAR is a percentile rank of a school finisher, a score that bears little, if any, resemblance to a student’s academic vigour, lateral thinking skills, or success at university. Research skills, group work and essay writing skills – all important and essential for university study – have no bearing on whether you are accepted into the course of your choice. 17 Sir Ken Robinson further observes:

“The whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.”18

Out of the top 20 universities in the world, as ranked by the Times Higher Education Supplement, not a single institution has entry based on marks alone for undergraduate education.19 If our universities want to be the best of the best we must ensure that it is the most intelligent, determined and well rounded students who get places in the top courses, not just the ones that memorise essays and rote learn facts. We need to ensure that assessment should be based on a combination of marks, participation and success in extra-curricular activities, and recommendations.

Our university entry assessment is worse than most, indeed well below the United Kingdom and the United States.  However I am very pleased to see that the University of New England has broadened its selection criteria to take into account community leadership as well as academic achievement.

Furthermore, in recent years most Australian Medical Schools have stopped accepting new enrolees based simply on their HSC or other ranked scores – the 99.9s so easily manufactured in certain subjects.  They have now added a component of assessment based on the interviewing of potential new students to test such vital – but subjective things – as their ability to communicate or show empathy or respond to another person in the way a successful medical practitioner needs. After all, who needs a doctor who is simply brilliant but has no capacity to listen, communicate, advise, empathise?

To look at best practice in this area we will take a journey to North America, where the college admissions process is one of the most competitive in the world. An application to Harvard University requires a high school diploma, a Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), peer and teacher testimonials, personal statements and a one on one interview. 20

My five year old, who started Kindergarden in February this year, is constantly academically assessed in school. As a parent I do want to know that he is doing well.  But I cannot help but think of how constant assessment of students over 13 years of school education could eventually undermine their self esteem should they fail to keep up with their classmates.

Of course we expect all students to do well at school, regardless of their abilities or interests.  We should not be afraid of formal education failure. After all Einstein and Leonardo Da Vinci dropped out of high school and the Wright brothers got the first plane in the air without passing their final high school exams.21

The pressure of the Higher School Certificate has been growing over time. The pressure I faced was more than that of my older brothers and sister. As my nieces, nephews and family friends do the HSC I see a trend continuing – the stress of the HSC increasing for little material gain, and at a physical and emotional cost to our young Australians. As with anything once the expectations get higher, the possible fall gets greater.

I would even attribute this increased pressure and assessment with contributing to problems of depression, anxiety and suicide in our younger generation. It is a harrowing statistic that suicide is the leading cause of death among young Australians under 35.22

A strong education system is one that encourages responsible risk taking, channels student’s idealism and proves to them that working together, they can make a positive difference. It should not stifle creativity, but encourage it. We should nurture these values to develop the greatest potential in our young Australians.

Making Culture

Young people are remaking our culture.

In Australia we have fantastic young film makers (especially among groups from non-English speaking backgrounds) who are leading the revival of our film industry, especially in the areas of animatronics and animation, 3D and new media. It is our young film makers who are walking off with the prizes at Cannes and Sundance.

Let me also refer you to a recent article by Janet Albrechtsen– not a usual source for me – praising the role of Lady Gaga – as a genuine role model for young women.23

Similarly, do I need to remind you of the influence of role models in sport.  Consider the impact that the Stephanie Rice’s, Ian Thorpe’s and Matthew Mitcham’s have had on young swimmers and divers. And I fully expect a new generation of cyclists to emerge in the older footsteps of a slightly, older Cadel Evans. Mentoring and leadership are not only limited to only face to face engagement.

Arts and sports are complemented by science in the making of culture. For example I hope all of you are familiar with the career of Adelaide born Terence Tao, son of immigrant parents from China. At age ten he competed in his first International Mathematical Olympiad. At age 24 he was appointed a full professor at UCLA. He went on to win the Fields Prize – the Nobel equivalent in mathematics. His greatest and pioneering work was done before he was 30. 24

He is a leader and mentor to many young people he has never met!

Lack of a Reform Agenda.

As someone who entered Parliament at a young age I also wish to raise tonight the issue of young people in politics.

Kevin Rudd in 2007 promised that he would offer a new approach to government, and engage young people. Young Australia was promised a voice, a representative, and someone they could relate to in a Prime Minister. They were sorely disappointed with the results.

Young voters became disillusioned with a Kevin Rudd who told Australians that climate change was the greatest moral challenge of our time, and then proceeded to dump the policy after it became politically difficult to sell.

They became disillusioned when Kevin Rudd showed his distrust of Australian young people by considering raising the drinking age to 21. 25

They became distrustful when Kevin Rudd increased the alcopop tax as a way of addressing excessive alcohol consumption by the young.  The policy, arguably, did not work.  A Victorian Government Report released last year found that the increase in tax had little impact on alcohol preferences or consumption. The report states:

There was also no change in preferences for beers or spirits, the data also suggests that the tax increase did not cause students to switch their beverage preferences.26

The Liberal Party would not treat young Australians with the same blanket contempt.

Education, not restriction, is the key to curbing this behaviour, but in all cases it is the individual that must be empowered to make decisions about their own life.

This is what differentiates the Liberal Party from the Labor Party.

The Labor Party wants to control the behaviour of young people by imposing state based controls. Whether it be a filter on the internet or a tax on alcopops the heavy hand of more tax and more regulation in the absence of any sense of personal or even parental responsibility is an affront.

The Liberal Party wants individuals to be in control of their own life, and to have sovereignty over their own decisions. This is why for example, I so vigorously opposed the view of Kevin Rudd in raising the drinking age to 21. It is an inherent issue of trust.

If young people are old enough to own a gun, fight in our armed forces, drive a car, get married and beget children, then they are old enough to freely engage in society without age based restrictions.

Young people should be made aware of life risks without the Government immediately defaulting to regulation and control of behaviour.

For example young people should be made aware of the fact that words or photos posted on the internet will be there forever and can be accessed by future employers, law enforcement agencies and friends and family.

Of course many of the photos of my University days have thankfully faded or have been forensically destroyed. For my friends and family that is a good thing. A Joe Hockey in red 1980s budgie smugglers is best left unseen.

Young People in Politics

In politics young people are initially attracted to what claim to be ‘issue based’ organisations like GetUp or various environmental organisations. However, young Australians quickly lose interest once they realize that so many of these organisations are not the non-partisan issues-focused groups they claim. Rather, they bear the same characteristics that drove young voters away from allegiances to either of the two major parties in the first place.

Political parties must take action to bring these voters to the table, rather than assume they have the same motivations as older Australians, families, pensioners or other Australians. The beauty of our compulsory voting system is that it means that almost everyone regardless of age has to think about their future at least once every three years. Therefore political parties have a strong incentive to engage the 2.6 million Australians under thirty on the electoral roll.27

Sadly, there remain over 1 million Australians, most of them young Australians, that have either never enrolled or have found themselves not correctly enrolled to vote.28

Personally, I am a strong advocate for automatic enrolment of young Australians on the electoral roll through the high school system with provisional enrolment starting at 16 rather than 17.  We have already started automatic enrolment on a state level, but the Commonwealth Electoral Act prohibits the AEC from using details from state enrolments to enrol people.29 Perhaps it is time for this to change.

Often that ‘little nudge’ is all that is needed to push young people towards active and sustained involvement in the political sphere.

But this engagement will need to be coupled by a change in attitude of community leaders.

For me, as a legislator and hopefully one day as Treasurer, the most respect I can show you is to leave the country in better shape than the day I first walked into the House of Representatives. In particular it means repaying Government debt and ensuring our quality of life is not ‘borrowed’ from future generations.

In 2014-15 our interest payments on government debt will amount to $7.5 billion a year- that is the equivalent of building 7 world-class hospitals or nearly 30 high schools a year. 30

It is my hope that our decisions today in regards to borrowing money to fund our current expenditure will not leave your generation with a large debt to pay off and a decreased quality of life. Labor’s debt will need to be serviced. In addition your generation will have some heavy lifting to do with low population growth and an aging population. Only productivity growth can ease that burden but sadly that discussion is for a later day.

It is the job of Government to lay the foundations and remove the obstacles to innovation so that young people can seize the opportunity of modern times.

Big tax and big regulation inhibits the freedom of individuals.

Now more than ever – the bigger the government the smaller the people!

The Liberal Party is a political movement with values that endure the test of time. In previous speeches In Defence of Liberty and In Defence of Opportunity I have talked of these liberal values. In Defence of God and In Defence of Enterprise I have talked about my own core beliefs.

My Party embraces diversity and diversity of opinion. Even more importantly it delivers real action to match its values.

On Thursday 26 October 2010 a 20 year old rose to his feet in the House of Representatives to deliver his maiden speech.31 He was 2 years younger than the previous youngest ever member.

Before he had uttered a word that day Wyatt Roy and the people of Longman proved that Australia has come of age. His very presence proved that the Liberal Party practices the values that it preaches.

Instead of shunning the ideas of young Australia we have taken the proactive step of including them in our Party Room.

It is this respect for diversity that has meant that the Liberal Party delivered the youngest member (Wyatt Roy), the first woman (Dame Enid Lyons), and the first indigenous Australian (Ken Wyatt) to the House of Representatives.

Young people want to be talked to honestly, with integrity, and not be pigeon holed into one particular party. They become engaged in politics because of issues, not ideology, but it is the ideology of the classical liberal that rings true in so many of their hearts.

In my time in government, especially as a Minister at the age of 32, some of the most creative ideas came from young members of our community, or from young people working in my Departments. They were not always the most senior, but they brought a fresh approach to public service and the problems we faced.

Given that my father changed the destiny of my own family by coming to Australia at the age of 21, I have never seen wisdom and foresight as the exclusive domain of the old.

If he had not left a war torn Middle East in 1948 then my fate and those of my children would have been so very different.

Each generation must do some heavy lifting so that those that follow may have a better life.

If your generation is not better, more advanced and more prosperous than my generation then it is as much a reflection on our stewardship of Australia as it is on your actions as young Australians.

Young Australians have the capacity to be leaders right now. You do not need to wait for the future.

Your creativity must not be unfairly restricted by government regulation and tax.

Your aspirations must not be limited to time and chance.

You are not ‘youth’ leaders, but you are leaders in your own right.

Age should not be a factor. Destiny must be your only guide.


1 U.S. Census Bureau, International Data Base, Near East Region (2010 Data).
2 The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, Marshall McLuhan, 1962.
3 Robert F Kennedy, Day of Affirmation Address at Cape Town University, 6 June 1966 accessed 27 February
4 ibid
5 ANU Dictionary of Biography, William John Wills,
6 ibid
7 Rhetoric by Aristotle, Book II, Full text available online at:
8 NSW Roads and Traffic Authority,
9 1947 ABS Census of Population and Housing: Statisticians Report, Detailed Tables and 2006 ABS Census of Population and Housing, CData on line
10 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, 2008, Feature: Risk Taking by Young People.
11 8127.0 – Australian Small Business Operators – Findings from the 2005 and 2006 Characteristics of Small Business Surveys, 2005-06,
12 Michael Arrington, Tech Crunch Website. April 30 2011.
13 BRW Young Rich List 2009.
14 TED 2006, Sir Ken Robinson, Do schools kill creativity?.
15 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Entry: The Society of Jesus.
18 TED 2006, Sir Ken Robinson, Do schools kill creativity?,
19 Times Higher Education Supplement.
20 Harvard 2011 Admissions Application. Available at:
21 Leonardo da Vinci: Origins of a Genius by David Alan Brown
Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 1152-1153; The Education of Albert Einstein, Clayton A. Gearhart, St John’s University Faculty Colloquium, 1992; Biography of the Wright brothers.
22 ABS Data, 3303.0 – Causes of Death, Australia, 2009
23 Hermione and Lady Gaga heroines for our times, Janet Albrechtsen, The Australian, 20 July 2011.
24 UCLA Media Release, Young Prof ponders proof,
25 Kevin Rudd, ABC Q and A with Australian Young People, February 08, 2010.
26 Victorian Secondary School Students’ Use of Licit and Illicit Substances in 2008, Victorian Government, published 2010.
27 Australian Electoral Commission, Election 2010 statistics, Elector Count by Division, Age Group and Gender.
28 Australian Electoral Commission, Annual Report 2009-10, p2.
29 Antony Green Election Blog, July 16 2011,
30 Budget Paper 1 2011-12, Page 10-8.
31 Wyatt Roy, First Speech, 26 October 2010.