Tackling New Zealand's Social Issues

  • Deborah Morris
Youth Affairs

New Plymouth

Thank you for the opportunity of speaking to you today.

I'd like to speak to you about some of the challenges New Zealand faces in the area of social welfare and the role of our population-based Ministries - and in particular, the Ministry of Youth Affairs.

New Zealand has led the world in many areas of social change. We have introduced some innovative legislation to help tackle some of our most pressing social problems.

A good example of that is the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act. It attracts a lot of criticism in this country, and yet it is held up internationally as an excellent piece of legislation.

We are also fortunate to have an army of people working in the community, in local government and in central government agencies committed to making a difference in a variety of ways.

Often those people don't get the public acknowledgment they deserve. Yet without them there would be many more young people and families without the support they require.

I believe this Coalition Government has been very successful in balancing the need to maintain a strong economic base with a more focussed outlook on our social policy too.

There is still some way to go, but the recent Budget highlighted what we plan to achieve over the next two and a half years. We have already implemented some of our priority policies.

Over the years New Zealanders have enjoyed the right to receive help from the State when unable to provide for themselves. Indeed, we have come to expect it.

In the majority of cases, the State assistance makes a vital difference for many New Zealand families. But some New Zealanders are now questioning whether we have moved too far in one direction.

The perception is that some New Zealanders are now more aware of their rights than their responsibilities.

In the Budget the Treasurer, Winston Peters, spoke about a code of social responsibility for New Zealanders. This has attracted some publicity in recent days, and will no doubt generate plenty of debate.

When we look back at our childhood years and think about how it is that we learned to clean our rooms, get ourselves to school on time, to tell our parents or whoever was looking after us if we were going to be home late - how did we learn those basic rules of living?

Simply, our parents or relatives taught us. From a very early age most of us learnt to take responsibility, and we pass that on to the next generation by teaching our children similar guidelines to live by.

Unfortunately for some this is not the case.

They do not learn these most basic responsibilities because their parents or caregivers do not, or can not pass them on.

The question is, where does the role of the parent or family end and the State's begin?

In my view the State has the resources to help parents, but the State cannot be a parent.

The State can't provide the vital nutrients of love, affection and support.

Only a family can provide these basic building blocks.

It must be acknowledged, however, that it's not just beneficiaries who need encouragement to be responsible parents.

Rather than limiting a code of social responsibility to punitive measures, it should also include parenting education and support. And, if we are going to define parental responsibility should we not also clearly define the State's responsibility?

In the late 1980's New Zealand had the foresight to set up a range of social policy Ministries focussed on specific sectors of the population. We realised that not everything could be contained within the mainstream departments and Ministries. Much better results could be achieved by policy agencies able to provide government with contestable advice about specific population groupings.

So now, for example, we have a Ministry of Youth Affairs which looks holistically at the issues facing young people. And we have a Ministry of Women's Affairs for the same reason.

The contribution of population based departments improves the quality of policy decisions. They enable government to take into account the various circumstances that exist in people's lives - rather than expecting a generic approach to deliver the results.

I have to say there are some Ministers who prefer not to hear the contestable advice provided by the population Ministries. But the fact remains, that without their input we are at risk of pursuing policy decisions with only part of the information before us.

Recent research by an advertising company showed that if you portrayed young people doing something "cool" in order to sell something, then in reality they would do exactly the opposite of what you want.

Communicating health or advertising messages to youth presents a real challenge for both government and corporates alike.

I strongly believe that we must acknowledge the essence of youth culture in all our dealings with young people - recognising the diversity that exists in the youth population.

Defining just what that essence is no easy task. That is why, when we make policy and seek to address social issues, we must involve youth in the process.

The Ministry of Youth Affairs is charged with facilitating the participation of young people in their communities. We have various ways of enabling their input in to central government; student reps in schools, the Youth Parliament, focus groups, non-governmental organisation forums and the like. There are also youth councils operating at the local level seeking to find solutions to local issues.

One example of youth contributing to the policy process is the 1994 Youth Parliament. During that Parliament the issue of the drinking age was debated. The youth MPs debated all of the health and social issues associated with alcohol consumption, and, on balance voted to lower the age at which young people could purchase alcohol. Their final decision informed the Ministry of Youth Affairs' submission to a committee reviewing the liquor laws.

The Ministry and I therefore have expressed support for a lowering of the drinking age to 18 years.

We have taken a harm minimisation approach - taking account of what's currently going on in the lives of teenagers and seeking to minimise the harm that can come from abusing alcohol without having regard for the consequences.

Up to 94% of 16 - 18 year old males are already drinking alcohol. This demonstrates the need to promote safe and sensible drinking rather than duck the issue and pretend it doesn't happen.

A recent survey produced some positive results. It told us that four out of five young people believed that drinking can damage your image. That message needs to be reinforced. When asked what the biggest risk was, most of the young people said drink-driving. It seems to me that message has sunk in.

Recently a new advertising campaign began. It asked viewers the question: "Where's that drink taking you?".

The campaign was developed with young people - allowing their input and constructive criticism. The result is a series of advertisements that are honest and thought provoking.

It seems to me that youth participation and consultation is one of the keys to addressing social issues. That means providing information, but it also means allowing young people the chance to provide their information and perspective to us.

That avoids the situation of policy makers on The Terrace guessing what might be going on in the real world.

Sadly, a number of older people have a rather negative view of younger people. Younger people often have an equally strong reaction towards older people.

It's amazing however, when different generations have the chance for communication.

I recently heard a seventeen year old describe with excitement the amazing stories she had heard an elderly person tell.

It was intriguing to see the realisation in her, that older people did have a life and they did have something that she could learn from.

Most weeks New Zealanders see stories in the media about youth. But more often than not the stories fail to show positive role models or highlight the great things that young people are getting up to. They prefer to focus on some of the less palatable issues.

We do have to be brave enough to recognise and address the issues that affect young people, but we must avoid the trap of only focussing on those things. What does it say about our expectations for youth?

Lastly, I would add that if we present young people with the facts and options, then they are likely to make the right choice.

But how do we present those facts and opinions?

Let's ask the young people.

- ENDS -