Where will the children play? Carving space for youth in politics

Government policies affect us all, so surely children should get a say? Alice Burton reports on how providing children with both information and a listening ear is important for encouraging their participation in politics.

Too young to care. Too young to understand. Too young, surely, to have an informed opinion. So runs a common assumption around young people and their place in policy making and politics in general. But what if that’s all wrong? New research points to the importance of child inclusion, and how this can be implemented.

A report just released by the Children’s Convention Monitoring Group, titled “Are We Listening?” examines young people’s participation rights in government policy. The report aims to ensure the government is meeting its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child here in Aotearoa, and points to a number of areas where children’s participation rights in political matters could be improved.

Why does it matter? Chair of Action for Children and Youth Aotearoa (ACYA), Andrea Jamison, told The Spinoff that encouraging children’s participation in policy making stems from the recognition that children are citizens, and therefore entitled to human rights. “The right to participate, when we talk about it from a Convention point of view, is mainly around Article 12, which is the right to have a say in decision making that affects you. The rights to have access to information are really important as well, and it applies to all children.”

Although this may seem obvious, Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft says that talk of involving children more has been met with a mixed response from those at the other end of the age ladder. “I’ve had more push-back from this issue than any other I’ve ever raised – that is, about involving children and young people in decision making and even considering whether 16 and 17 year olds should vote,” he told The Spinoff.

“There’s a lot of opinion. I’ve had adults say look, you’re a good guy as commissioner, but you’ve sort of gone a bit weird on us now, these are ludicrous suggestions you are making, 16 and 17 year olds don’t know enough to vote, they’ll be influenced by their parents, most of them won’t vote… well I say most 18 year olds don’t vote.”

As it stands, the 18-25 year old age bracket is the lowest voting cohort. According to Becroft, lack of information and involvement in politics at a young age could create hesitancy for those new to the voting game, or even doubt in one’s validity as a role-player in the democratic process.

So long as it is assumed politics will simply go over children’s heads, many young people are kept unwittingly in the dark. “I think locking out people from meaningful contribution to decision making is a bad precedent,” Becroft says. As the report states, young people have “constructive value” to add – but their involvement needs to be encouraged.

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft

Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft (supplied)

Personally, my own involvement was limited until I reached the voting age and began to actually investigate how government policies affected me. But as far as I’m aware there’s no magical shift when you turn 18 that makes you suddenly susceptible to the consequences of political decision-making. As long as you are a New Zealand citizen, regardless of your age, government policies affect you. So, one could argue that being informed and involved is important long before your 18th birthday bash.

Becroft says that a large part of his ‘politics for children’ vision involves providing an adequate civil education, with an agreed curriculum. “I think it’s got to be clear that we’re talking about different arms of government, how proportional representation works, what is a vote, how decisions are made, and young people are encouraged to read and see what different parties are saying, and are encouraged to see the issues but make their own decisions about it.”

“We’re talking about good information, habits formed early – we want people engaged in a democracy.”

Beyond good civil education, Becroft says there are many methods and mechanisms for children involvement. “When we talk about engaging with children and young people, we can do that in many ways: focus groups, surveys, we can go to schools… what it would look like in practice, starting from the top, is we’d have a child impact assessment tool available which would measure every piece of legislation that would directly or indirectly affect children.”

In a rather adult-centric political environment, inviting the voices of young people into the mix provides opportunity for a significant part of our population to be represented. And, Jamison says, who would know what young people need better than young people themselves? “Practically, they are the experts on their own lives, so unless we talk with children and listen with them, then as far as the policy process development goes, we’re missing out on a quarter of New Zealand.”

This doesn’t mean turning children into “mini-adults,” Jamison says, nor is it about listening with an adult-based agenda. “It’s not just about consulting children and young people on issues that are important to adults, its providing them with information so they can assess what they want to get involved in, and engaged on that.”

Although the report suggests it is the responsibility of adults to provide children with this information and listen to their response, this doesn’t mean doing everything children say, Becroft says. “What I am saying is that their view should be factored into decision making along with other views, and balanced and assessed and they should be told, in light of what they’ve said, what the ultimate decision is. We haven’t done it well but I do see an appetite for change and this report hints at that – that there are government departments that are wanting to do it better, but they’re needing help and guidance as to how to do it.”

The recent student strikes for climate action are a good example of what happens when young people’s views are taken into consideration. The fact that both Auckland and Wellington councils have declared climate emergency show that the child and youth voice can have a strong influence, and yet Becroft says we still had senior politicians saying the children should be at school learning, rather than out expressing a view.

“I think it got under adults’ skin to be told they aren’t taking this seriously enough… I don’t think people like to hear from a large group of the community you’re not doing enough or taking this issue seriously enough… I think that is unsettling” Becroft says.

When Becroft first raised the issue of children involvement in politics, he said the push-back from some politicians was “staggering.” “They said, we’ve got to consult with Māori, we’ve got to consult with the aged, we’ve got to consult with the disabled. How much more do you want us to be going to other interest groups? And I said shame on us if we relegate nearly 25% of the population to being ‘just another interest group.’ They don’t have a voice, much less a vote.”

But when those young people are given the opportunity to speak, Becroft says they often have something worthwhile to say. “When I travel the country and speak to 15 and 16 year olds, I am constantly impressed and chastened to realise how thoughtful their views are, how well thought out they are and how committed they are to change.

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“One 15 year old girl said to me we should have two votes to your grey-haired old man’s one. We’re twice as invested in the future – we have twice as much to lose as you have.”

The fact of the matter is that our tamariki are vulnerable to policy failures. And, as Jamison says, it’s about “growing a culture of respecting children as active participants in their own lives and in the life of broader society within Aotearoa.” Ultimately, it is about providing children with the tools to make informed decisions and shape their own views, as well as being committed to listening to the voices of young people.

As the report said, there is no age limit on the right to be heard.


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