The Future is Bright!

  • Deborah Morris
Associate Minister of Women's Affairs

The Association of Anglican Women, Kapiti


Good morning. It's great to be here in Tawa. Thank you for the invitation to speak to you this morning. It is always a pleasure to speak to groups such as yours to find out a bit more about what is happening on the ground hear your thoughts.

Today I'd like to speak about where I perceive young people to be at in today's society, challenge a few of our perceptions about the future that our young people are looking forward to and question how we should be implementing our social policies.

In May I hosted the Youth Parliament. It was a great experience and the Youth MPs had a lot to say. I certainly have noted their thoughts and intend to try and represent them as best I can. At the conclusion of the Youth Parliament the Speaker, Hon Doug Kidd, summarised his thoughts of the Youth Parliament. He said, " I've seen a glimpse of the future, and I like it".

It's not often that young people get that kind of encouragement and acknowledgment in public.

And it's certainly positive to hear that kind of feedback when you look at what seems to be the prevailing perception of young people and the future they face.

One of the things that has annoyed me recently is that young people get such negative media. They certainly don't have a lack of coverage. However, the stories we read aren't about celebrating success, showing positive role models or telling us about the great things that young people get up to. The occasional community newspaper is an exception to this.

All we seem to hear about is youth suicide, truancy, suspensions, drugs, alcohol and crime.

We mustn't get things out of context.

For almost 90% of young people life is fine. OK, they have their ups and downs - we all do - they experience the turbulent years of adolescence - we all do - and they face an ever changing social and technological environment - yet again, we all do.

Although news stories often depict youth as alienated slackers, most young people wouldn't recognise themselves in the downbeat stories because most of them are excited about the future and want to play a part in it.

On most measurement scales, today's youth are actually better off than their parents were a quarter of a century ago. They are less likely to drink or smoke, less likely to drive drunk, less likely to die at an early age, and more likely to stay longer in education and gain a qualification.

If you were to ask a young person to rate the top threats to youth today, they would probably cite drugs, AIDS, violence, and peer pressure. But the picture shifts when they are asked about their personal concerns. Then, they cite the same worries that adolescents have fretted about for decades - their school, their looks, getting into tertiary education, and getting a job.

There's a quote which goes something like, " protect a lie long enough and it becomes the truth." Quite frankly, if we don't show our young people that they have a positive and secure future and that they have an important part to play in it, then what hope have they?

The fact is that there isn't a problem with young people today - they're just different. Every generation is different from the last and they have to be because the world changes so fast.

We always hear the catch-cry that "young people are the future of this country." And it's true. So, they need to have a hand in shaping what that future will be.

In the 1980's the Government realised that there was a need for young to be represented at Ministerial level, and that is why the Youth Affairs portfolio was established.

The Ministry of Youth Affairs is a small policy agency focussed on the needs of people aged 12-25. It has 24 staff and, for policy advice, communication and facilitation it has an annual budget of $2.2 million.

It was established to provide the Government with information and advice on the effects of their policies on young people. It also provides advice and support directly to young people.

As you'll appreciate there are some important issues facing young New Zealanders as they make the transition to adulthood. Rather than attempting to take responsibility for them all, the Ministry works alongside key agencies such as the Ministries of Health, Education, Justice, Labour and Te Puni Kokiri.

This approach ensures that relevant departments are as responsive as possible to the needs of young people by taking their perspective into account.

In some areas this involves taking a lead role for example the Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy and in other areas the Ministry may adopt more of a monitoring role.

Obviously we have to prioritise our work programme because we can't tackle everything. But areas that we are currently working on include;

developing a national youth suicide prevention strategy,
youth crime prevention,
Conservation Corps programmes,
compulsory superannuation,
a drug and alcohol policy, and
youth employment and benefit issues.
Work has also been done on truancy and expulsions, levels of student debt and the proposal to lower the drinking age.

Just last week, Annette Dixon, the new Chief Executive of Youth Affairs started work. She has a huge, but exciting, task ahead of her. I'm really looking forward to working with her over the next few years.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the jobs of the Ministry of Youth Affairs is to present policy advice about young people to Government. This must be done across a wide range of officials in Ministries, and I have a similar task in presenting this advice to other Ministers.

Ministers and officials must have access to a wide range of contestable advice. It's no good if the advice we're receiving simply concentrates on numbers or philosophies. There must also be real advice about the situation of young people and how to facilitate the participation of young people in communities. And, of course, such advice has to be listened to!!

I'm glad that the Ministry is encouraging further co-operation between government agencies and community groups. I believe that we need to further improve co-ordination - not in an attempt to save money, but as a concerted effort in delivering quality and relevant services to those who need them.

"Partnership" and "co-ordination" are not vague or woolly bureaucratic ideas. They are powerful and effective tools that involve the Government, the voluntary sector, business and the community.

This weekend at the National Party Conference, and in recent speeches, the Prime Minister and some National MPs have talked about devolving more responsibilities to families and community groups. I do think that this is the right way to move, but we must ensure that where government is devolving power and responsibility that it does not wipe its hands totally clean.

I believe that the real power for change lies in communities. Ultimately communities that work together with a vision are unstoppable. And the role of Government in all of this is to empower. But it has to be true empowerment - not just the devolution of responsibility. It is all very well to devolve responsibility but the support mechanisms and resources have to be in place too.

As I've visited different communities in the past few months I've sensed a real frustration with the process of accessing funding.

There is a definite balance that must be struck between what the community and families must provide and be responsible for, and what government must provide and be responsible for.

Recently there has been talk of codes of responsibility between government and beneficiaries. The government has taken this stance in an effort to strengthen families and define their responsibilities.

However I believe the government has a reciprocal obligation to specify what its obligations are: in something like a Citizen's Charter.

The government has a responsibility to provide a quality and accessible health and education system, and it must also ensure that it is able to provide for those who are unable to provide for themselves.

Recent moves in health and employment are starting to make that a reality. The recent Government commitment to providing free health care for children under six is now a reality. And my colleague, Peter McCardle is working on producing a strong welfare to work programme designed to help even more people back in to the workforce.

As I said at the start of the speech young people are facing a positive future. It will be different. But positive. And particularly if we make sure to involve them in the decision-making process. Some commentators have recently been bold enough to claim that we are on the verge of entering a world wide boom that would be the biggest and longest we have ever seen - and they claim that this will be achieved without blowing our environment apart.

Let's hope so. I wonder, if that does happen, what will the media talk about?

Thank you for the opportunity to speak, and I'd be delighted to answer any questions you may have.