At a time where Australian democracy is under significant pressure, it is more important than ever to understand young people’s views on social and political issues – and consider what they mean for governance and public policy. Since 2004, the Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney University has run a writing competition for Australian students posing the question 'What Matters?' Since it began, more than 30,000 entries have been received. The Whitlam Institute has commissioned the authors to analyse writing submitted between 2010 – 2018. The aim of this work is to understand what young people are concerned with, how they conceptualise different issues, if and how those issues and concerns are changing over time, and what they reveal about the contemporary politics of young people.
The essays reveal young people are engaging with ideas about what makes for a good society, what kind of civic and political actions, communities and institutions they believe should support this – and what role they should play as individuals and as young people. The analysis shows that young people are an untapped resource for Australian democracy – not for what they will become as adults, but because of their concerns and ideas on social issues and how they can be addressed right now.
This research was inspired by Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: that young people should be involved in decisions that affect them. We were interested in how we might enhance ways of hearing – or reading – what young people have to say when they ‘speak’ from their own contexts and communities.