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2019 What Matters? Patron's Address



Monday 9 September, 2019
Check against delivery.

Welcome Aunty Sandra Lee and thank you for your Welcome to Country.


Good afternoon to the Chancellor of Western Sydney University, Professor Peter Shergold, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Denise Kirkpatrick, Catherine Dovey, and other members of the Whitlam family with us today, Members of the Whitlam Institute Board, The Director of the Institute, Leanne Smith, Academics from Western Sydney University, Program Sponsors, Parents, Supporters, Friends…and most importantly welcome to our What Matters? Finalists.

Firstly, may I apologise on behalf of What Matters Patron Lisa Wilkinson who has been called away at late notice on an urgent matter.

I am myself am very pleased to be here on behalf of Lisa, Patron of the What Matters? writing competition.

I agree with Lisa’s observation when she first became associated with the competition, that she never really bought the idea that young people aren’t interested in the big issues. We hear this again and again, young Australians homogenised into this stereotype of a disengaged, entitled teen glued to a screen – more interested in selfies than the world around them.

But each year, Lisa was uplifted to read the entries of the What Matters? participants. I too, having read this year’s finalists work, am greatly impressed. 

Not that I can say they are an easy read. You have written with passion and skill, and your entries are incredibly moving – but many of them shine a light on those areas in which we as a society can, and must, do better.

And while the themes can be challenging and confronting – topics like climate change, extinction, drought, domestic and sexual violence, poverty and the value of time in our incessantly busy world – your essays do not seek to simply complain, or even blame. They do not succumb to despair. Every single essay that I have read this year has proposed a way forward and implored – even demanded – all of us to act.

It has made me reflect, what example are we adults setting?

When I think about the public conversation in 2019, it is combative.

There are 116,000 people in Australia who are homeless tonight, and 40% of those are under 25 years old. Rather than focusing on solutions, our public conversations around young people accessing housing have been about ‘the Boomers hoarding the nation’s wealth’ and ‘young people wanting to have their `smashed avo’ and eat it too’.  In the wake of a movement like #metoo, and with the statistic that on average, one woman a week is murdered in Australia by a former partner, we have a media commentator suggesting that negotiations with the New Zealand Prime Minister could be aided by ‘a few backhanders’. 

These are complex issues and they require thoughtful, comprehensive responses. Are we so hung up on assigning blame and defending ourselves that we’ve forgotten how to really listen to each other?

As Louis Denton says in his entry, “It is easier for us to trade blows than to trade stories. How can we create meaningful solutions, how can we solve real problems, when we can’t even listen to each other?”

Emilyana Di Meco captures the essence of what many of you seemed to feel in your entries when she says “You don’t talk to us, but at us, about us, when all we need is for you to listen.”

When I think about the sort of public conversation we’ve been having, would it really be any wonder that young people might not want, or feel encouraged, to join in?

But they do. You do. This competition and your entries have the power to make us listen.

In the year since the 2018 Awards Ceremony, we have seen young Australians raise their voice more and more. Most notably in the School Strike 4 Climate, which has been a rallying point for those of you deeply concerned about the future of our planet.

In 2019, we live in a world where the effects of global warming are visible, and constant. Talisen Magee writes in his entry of life in drought ravaged Coonabarabran, “Happiness measured in millilitres.” Joseph Solina implores us to wake up to the rapidly dwindling populations of insects, pointing out that “Eventually, the road to extinction would lead to us, humans.” Sarah Heynes, writing from the perspective of the Earth itself, says “Sometimes I try warning them by making rivers and oceans rise, or making the wind strong. I just get so mad sometimes and my ground shakes.” Mia Horsfall writes “This is my home. This is our home. It deserves to matter.”

Earlier this year, Lisa pointed out in an open letter to the Prime Minister that most of us now fear the kind of planet we are leaving behind for our kids and grandkids.

She went on to say “…the planet’s CO2 levels had broken all records and were at their highest in the last 800,000 years. Human beings have never existed, let alone survived, in an atmosphere such as this.”

“Our summers have never been hotter, our riverbeds drier, our farmers more desperate, our native animals more endangered. As the magnificent David Attenborough has warned us, we are in the midst of a climate emergency.”

And yet, the response to the School Strike 4 Climate from the ‘adults in the room’ has been one of patchy support at best, and at worst, outright contempt.

But we adults, we can’t have it both ways. We cannot lament the perceived political apathy of young Australians and then deride and denounce their participation in the next breath.

As someone once said:

“It is the voice of the young which has been the strongest in the demand for change, the demand for a new spirit.”

This could be a statement about our young people on climate action, but these words were actually spoken by Gough Whitlam AC QC in the 1972 Charter for Youth. I was 11 at the time (no need to do the maths on that one, thank you), and he was speaking about my generation, the Baby Boomers.

It is the prerogative of the young to look around themselves, see where the world is broken, and desire to change it. We Baby Boomers did the same thing – we saw a world with too many recent wars, too much inequality, and we set about trying to change it. The Whitlam Government and its policies were instrumental in that change, in so many ways, but we were empowered by this government as never before by the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18, legislated in 1973.

At the time, Opposition Leader Billy Snedden said that, compared to previous generations, young Australians were “better informed, better able to judge, more confident in their judgements, more critical in their appraisals, and on more mature terms with society around them.”

46 years on, and with the engaged, passionate opinions articulated by you all in telling us What Matters, this quote again has a ring of truth for your generation. Perhaps the time has come again to revisit the question of the voting age.

For us adults, instead of feeling defensive when we are challenged about the way we have shaped our nation, we must listen.

But not just listen. We need to learn from what young people have to say. We need to not just allow young Australians to participate in our public conversation, but to respect their right to influence the direction of our nation.

And this is exactly what this writing competition gives us the opportunity to do.

It embodies the Whitlam Government’s and the Whitlam Institute’s emphasis on equality of voice.

That is to say that each of us, no matter our age and situation, have an equal right to shape Australia. Finalist Ruby Keast captures the essence of this idea, writing collectively about humanity and opines that everyone in the world “…matter(s) equally, because they are all contributing to the bigger picture.”

Which brings me to another common thread of your essays. In proposing solutions and ways forward, you all call for less individualism and more community.  “Humans are frail and complex, unable to keep emotions inside and need support,” writes Taskiya Gould. “Poverty is not knowing, it’s feeling that others don’t care,” writes Joseph Assaf.

To borrow a phrase from Gough, we are all diminished if we cannot listen to each other. And act. We need young people’s ideas and insights now more than ever.

What Matters? Awards Ceremony 2019 - Inspired by Gough Whitlam's commitment to involving young people in the shaping of Australia, this annual writing competition asks school students in years 5 to 12 to write a short essay on 'what matters' to them, their family, community, country and world.