It frustrates me to hear name-calling during a debate. Argument should be based on understanding the other person’s argument, picking out the why as well as the what. This necessitates understanding your own views – not to the extent that they cannot be questioned, but possessing the ability to justify your thoughts rather than simply calling out another for being ‘wrong’.

This low-level critique is the method our politicians have learned. It’s something that I’ve been working to change, through helping to develop future community leaders and engage them with issues, not petty politics

About three weeks ago, YMCA NSW Youth Parliament concluded for 2014. I’ve been helping to run this program for the last three years. More than three hundred young people aged fifteen to eighteen have participated in the program during my time volunteering.

In its thirteen years in NSW, Youth Parliament has engaged more than one thousand young people in social issues affecting local communities, NSW and the world. Participants are split into committees, developing a Bill or Parliamentary Report addressing a particular problem that they have identified. Committees I’ve advised have written a Report into mandatory sentencing and Bills on coal seam gas regulation and bail law reform for young people.

The focus of the program is on engaging young people. It’s very easy to say that the majority of young people are apathetic about issues affecting our world. I don’t think this is the case. On social media platforms, young people engage with issues – we do care about what’s happening in Australia and the world. The problem that exists is the lack of opportunity we have to engage with general policy debate around these issues. The distrust in politicians and media outlets that young people hold is a typical result of these institutions’ construction of young people. More than negative perceptions of young people, the reality of Australian politics presents a barrier to young people getting engaged in policy debate. Good debate does get ignored, but looking at the ‘accountability’ institution of Question Time would make anyone lose faith in being listened to by an elected representative.

What really strikes me is the genuinely positive response to the program from members of Parliament. Two of the bits of feedback that I receive are that the standard of debate is high and that participants are much better behaved than our real political leaders. They look like adults when compared with the majority of our parliamentarians. This is important. It means that young people are engaging with substance not name calling in business attire.

Youth Parliament does result in some people joining political parties. I think that this reflects what the program aims to do – engage young people in substantial debate on issues of public policy. Political parties are a tool to doing so, if only by allowing people to collaboratively develop their ideas. Much more effective than political parties are genuinely youth led organisations, whether local or broader in scope. Even small steps are important – when participants in the program take their newfound confidence in their ability to be heard back to their school and speak to their friends and teachers about their passions and their ideas.

When young people complete the Youth Parliament program and become more confident in their ability to engage with policy debate, I see the program as successful. I’ve seen the Legislative Assembly floor in a rare silence as a sixteen-year-old student stands up during a debate on mental health policy and reveals that they are struggling with their mental health and that they receive no support in their rural community. This silence phenomenon happens every year. There’s a moment when you can see fear, timidity, a lack of confidence in those silent become a determination to be listened to. That’s how I think young people become engaged in policy debate and that’s why I volunteer with YMCA NSW Youth Parliament.