By Kody Cook, Journalist, Council Magazine

The decisions made by local governments affect the lives of all Australians. Despite this, young Aussies are commonly under-represented in their councils, typically taking on an advisory role, if any at all. That’s why the Young Mayors Program is giving young people across Australia the platform they need to make real, lasting decisions for their communities, and future. Council Magazine had the opportunity to speak with the Young Mayors Program Director, Tahlia Azaria, about the benefits of having a fresh perspective in the chambers.

The Young Mayors Program is run by the Foundation for Young Australians – which backs young people to beat social injustice and create long-lasting change in their communities – and provides young people between 11 and 18 years with the opportunity, mentoring and resources to run campaigns and projects in their local areas.

The councillors then serve for a 12-24 month term, cooperating with their local government to run events, fund projects and drive positive change. Across the world, thousands of youth have taken part in the program, electing young councillors to create policies and decisions that better reflect the needs and concerns of the future generations.

After its success overseas, the program will be delivered in Australia in partnership with the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Centre for Cities, and is supported by the Victorian Government Department of Families, Fairness and Housing through the Engage program.

The program will be piloting in Australia across six local councils over the next few years. Elections for young councillors have already taken place in Mackay and Horsham, with elections in Wollongong to take place in September, followed by Cairns in October. The remaining two councils to pilot the program are still to be selected.

The Young Mayors Program Director, Tahlia Azaria, said that the program is trying to shift the way that local government engages with young people from advisors to decision-makers.

How does the program work?

The program supports young people to nominate themselves to run for election to their local youth council. It then provides them with the resources and support to run their campaigns, before going to election in each local government area, where people under the age of 17 can come out to vote for the people that they would like to represent them on the youth council.

“Once that youth council is elected, they will nominate their own mayor and deputies, and they will set off on their term in office,” Ms Azaria said. Because the young councillors are democratically elected by their peers, they are required to regularly consult with their constituents to make sure a diversity of views are heard.

The Young Mayors Program centres young people in decision-making, so they are not only sharing their views, but delivering their priorities through running campaigns, projects and events. “They put together a priority agenda based on what they’ve heard from their constituents, other young people in the community, and what issues they’d like to address, and then with a $10,000 fund, they can bring those ideas to life.”

Young Mayors Program Director, Tahlia Azaria.

What are the key goals?

Ms Azaria explained that one of the program’s major goals is to help young people understand the functions and processes of their governments and councils. “Young people have told us – and they’ve told governments at every level – that they would like to learn more about democracy, so this process creates that experience for them.

“They will get to hold a ballot paper, understand what it means to research their representatives or the candidates, walk into a polling place, cast their vote, understand what preferential voting is (as an example), and elect young people to represent them. “It’s creating a pathway for these young people to experience democracy like that before they turn 18, so that once they do turn 18 they really understand what it means to exercise the right to vote.

“We hope it means that we will see a higher rate of young people in that 20 to 25 age bracket voting, because they already know what it means and how to do it before they are 18.” Ms Azaria said that another objective of the program is giving young people a platform to make meaningful decisions that affect their own communities and lives, and to help them gain experience in decision making roles.

“Our aim is for this program to give young people that opportunity to be making more decisions, and we’d really like to generally give young people the experience of local government, and to understand the role that local government plays and the difference between local, state, and federal government and how they, as young people, can influence the system to create a better region for their communities.”

Resources accessible to young councillors

Ms Azaria explained that the young councillors are allocated $10,000 in funding to help bring their ideas to life. “They also have a staff member who is dedicated to supporting them, to help guide them through all of the council’s processes and how they can influence change, and support them on things like how to develop a project brief and how to develop a budget.

“We have a whole range of tools and guidance for the youth councils to help them on their way. “We are really trying to shift the dial on young people being positioned as decision-makers rather than advisors.” Ms Azaria hopes the program may promote change within the councils themselves, making them more willing to support young people in making decisions.

“We’re really looking forward to seeing how councils will embrace that and, for example, welcome youth councils into quarterly briefings to provide recommendations on what they see needing to change and to be able to put some of their own funds towards making that change.”

The program’s lasting influences

Ms Azaria said the program will help all young people see what is possible for them, to see that they can make valuable contributions to their communities. “If you give them a platform they can lead to some really outstanding results, so I hope it will be inspiring for all young people.

I also hope it will give each of those individual young people who get to vote that chance to learn about democracy, and give the youth councillors themselves that opportunity to learn about civic engagement and serving the community.”

When asked about her thoughts on lowering the minimum age to vote in Australia, Ms Azaria said that the Foundation for Young Australians is backing the Make It 16 campaign, which is a group of young people who are advocating for lowering the minimum voting age to 16.

“Because if you’re able to drive a car, to work, to pay tax, and to serve in the defence force, you should be able to also vote for the government that runs all of those services, so yes, I do think that young people should be able to vote before they turn 18.”

Youth Council achievements to date

While its early days in Australia – with the first two youth councils having only just been elected – Young Mayors has already seen a great deal of success overseas, with youth councils undertaking a number of important projects in the UK.

In Oldham, a youth council ran an award winning road safety education campaign, hosting workshops, designing advertising, installing speed cameras, and even producing a play. Ms Azaria shared an example of one youth council from Bristol, which stood out to her.

“There was a particular council that had, in their local government area, breakfast clubs through schools for young people in the schooling system. “When it came to holiday time, those young people would go hungry, so the youth council then put together a proposal to extend the breakfast club into school holidays so that no young person would go hungry, no matter what day of the year it was.”

Ms Azaria explained that projects like this, that have been the catalyst for positive community changes, have led her to expect some innovative ideas from young people in Australia as well. “It’s very early for our pilots, so we’re not quite there yet. We’ve only just elected our first two councils, but already they’re talking about issues like road safety and safety at outdoor spaces like skate parks. “I guess time will tell.

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