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Thank you for the invitation to join you tonight.
At the outset, let me congratulate JCI on 81 years of operation in Australia and note that over your 81 years, Australian JCI alumni have an impressive record of public service.
Some of your alumni include Sir Philip Lynch, a former Liberal Commonwealth Treasurer, Sir Charles Court, former Liberal Premier of Western Australia and Bill Hayden, a former leader of the Labor Party and Governor-General.
This leads me to believe that some of Australia’s future leaders are in this room tonight. Not just parliamentarians or public office holders, but also potential leaders in industry, academia and civil society.
When talking about young people, too often we can focus on negatives, more often still reacting to media portrayals and incidents.
But tonight, I would like to focus on some real positives.
According to the 2014 Global Youth Wellbeing Index, young Australians are top of the table.
This index looks at a range of indicators including economic opportunity, health, technology, education, civil participation as well as safety and security.
Of the 30 countries investigated, Australian young people were judged the world’s most fortunate.
Let’s just take a moment to let that sink in.
It is an extraordinary achievement that according to this independent analysis, Australian young people are better off than all others.
It shouldn’t be a surprise as we were all brought up to believe Australia is the lucky country, even if the author of that phrase intended it more as an insult than compliment.
But sometimes we can easily forget.
You, the guests in this room, will live longer, have better jobs, be healthier, have greater access to technology and have greater opportunity to participate in decision-making than other young people around the world.
This does not mean there isn’t room for improvement. There are always challenges to address.
But it is important that we recognise what a terrific place Australia is for children to grow into adults. The opportunities that are provided here are unmatched globally.
According to a separate report on youth wellbeing, young Australians rank fourth in the OECD when it comes to joining a charitable or humanitarian group.
This correlates closely with my own experience in this role meeting young people across Australia.
As JCI members, you have all committed yourselves to public service in your own time.
Our country is full of young people, like many of you, who go about their service without seeking fanfare, accolade or compensation.
They are on the frontline with their fire hoses during bushfire season, they keep people safe at our beaches, they umpire football and netball matches and they tend injury in St John’s Ambulance tents. Other young people spend hours each week learning leadership skills and building character through Scouts and Girl Guides. And this lists only a few organisations of the scores that young Australians volunteer in.
I am also impressed by the thousands of young people who develop policy, debate issues and contribute to our democracy through the youth wings of our political parties. You might expect me to say that, but I think it is a very important contribution to strengthen our democracy. And they do it not just through our youth political wings, but also through various issue groups and other organisations, some who I profoundly disagree with and some who I do agree with. However they all strengthen our civic society.
During my younger days, my direct involvement and membership of the Liberal Party gave me a voice and honed my own ability to develop opinions on important issues.
Since being elected just over a year ago, the Australian Government has chosen to take a new route towards empowering young people.
In the past, governments trumpeted the number of fora or roundtables their ministers had held with young Australians.
These fora may have provided lovely headlines and happy photos for politicians. But all too often, they were exclusive groupings, not necessarily representative of Australia’s four-million-plus young people.
Between study, a part-time job, participating in recreational activities and undertaking volunteer work, many young people simply didn’t have the time to nominate and attend these fora. To others who were looking for a job or an opportunity to study, they were largely irrelevant to their experiences.
This Government takes a different approach.
First, I want young people to have the opportunity to pursue their own objectives.
Government should not be telling young people what they can do. It should be providing tools for young people to make their own choices.
Whether it is becoming the first in their family to graduate from university, securing an apprenticeship or earning enough money to go on an overseas trip, young people all have their own goals.
To help young Australians achieve these goals, the Government is improving our schools. Over the next four years, Commonwealth funding to government schools will go up by 53 per cent and Commonwealth funding to non-government schools will go up by 29 per cent.
As well as ensuring schools are adequately funded, we are also putting Students First by making sure each classroom is led by a terrific teacher, giving principals the power to make their own decisions, and encouraging parents to get involved in school life.
Doing this will ensure all Australian school students learn the foundation skills needed to succeed later in life.
For young people who have finished school, this Government is seeking to introduce significant higher education reforms.
I have heard the fear campaign that claims these reforms will result in $100,000 university degrees. But like most fear campaigns, it uses nonsense in an attempt to scare the public.
Universities will only be able to charge what the market can bear. For example, the University of Western Australia has stated undergraduate degree fees will be capped at $16,000 per year.
The other thing the scare campaigners won’t tell you is that no Australian student pays a cent for their university education until they are earning at least $50,000 per year.
But most importantly of all, these reforms will also allow more students than ever before to study at university or college. For the first time, students studying for diplomas or associate degrees will have access to the HECS-HELP system.
This will be particularly beneficial to students from low socio-economic backgrounds, migrant groups and regional Australia.
Without good schooling and job-ready training, young Australians will struggle to find work. This is of particular concern to communities around the country that are grappling with youth unemployment challenges.
While launching Generation Success, a youth employment initiative spearheaded by some of Australia’s biggest businesses, Prime Minister Abbott rightly pointed out that governments do not create jobs.
Employment happens when an individual employer gives an individual person a job, the Prime Minister said.
That is why this Government is creating the conditions needed for business to thrive, because only a growing business employs workers.
All young people should have the chance to work, or to learn the skills they need to get a job in their field of choice and that is what drives this Government.
This is not a Government that pays lip service to young people, seeks superficial political photo-ops or to create the illusion of consultation through manufacturing contrived fora. It is a Government that is putting young Australians at the centre of what we do each and every day.
All of you have given your time and energy to a variety of causes that will hopefully benefit the lives of young Australians in a tangible way.
I note that the objective of JCI is to improve local communities through active citizenship. No one – especially not the Government – knows your community better than you.
The projects you undertake, the experience and passion you bring will change the lives of other young Australians, and are of immensely more value than another programme led by politicians or bureaucrats.
To the award nominees, guests and friends of JCI, I encourage you to return to your community and continue to do your bit to help improve the specific challenges you find.
We all need to do our bit to ensure Australia remains the best place in the world to be a young person.