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Laila Harre Address 3rd Pacific Rim Conference

June 26 2000 Speech Notes Laila Harre

Key note address to 3rd Pacific Rim Conference of the International Association of Adolescent Health
Monday June 26 2000
Lincoln University, Christchurch

I want to begin by thanking those here who have given generously of their time and wisdom to me since I took up the role of Minister of Youth Affairs six months ago.

I hope that my contribution today confirms the time was worth it, and that there is a real willingness within government to give greater coherence to the work we do with young people.

For the first time in many years we, as a country and a government, are starting to look realistically at the issues surrounding youth health and development.

Part of this process is acknowledging that recent government policy hasn't delivered.

Our young people, and the generation that precedes them, have good reason to feel short-changed. Ours is a country wealthy in resources, but which has over recent years allowed a narrow commercial focus to overwhelm communities, government agencies, professionals and young people themselves.

The results of New Zealand's inattention to people's needs can be seen in the catalogue of negative experiences and poor outcomes that have become the chorus that accompanies so many discussions about youth.

I'm sure you've all heard it many times – but for those of you from overseas who may have missed out, it goes a bit like this:

High rates of youth suicide, road death, teen pregnancy, unemployment, and increasing levels of binge drinking, substance abuse and youth offending.

And I'm constantly reminded by those working with the most "at-risk" young people that they expect things to get worse unless there is significant work done alongside the adolescents that were the babies of the 1991 mother of all budgets.

This budget severely cut the incomes of the poorest New Zealanders, an onslaught from which many families, especially Maori and Pacific families, have never recovered.

It's not a happy tale, so let me up the tempo a bit by focusing on something a bit more positive, like how this government plans to improve the health and development potential of young New Zealanders.

Or, as the theme of this conference so succinctly phrases it, their resiliency.

Our statute books are filled with laws that are put in place to protect people from harm, and in the case of young people this perceived harm is usually associated with risk-taking behaviour.

An example of this is restricting the age at which young people are allowed to consume alcohol as a measure of social control, a way to stop them getting into trouble.

It clearly hasn’t worked.

For too long the deficit approach has been the one most commonly adopted when it comes to designing policy in relation to young people.

In contrast, the concept of resiliency is one that focuses on the positives – the things that can be built up to protect young people from the pressures that surround them in society, rather than looking at the risks they face and trying to decrease those.

In fact, the dictionary definition of resiliency embodies the very qualities that are positively associated with being young – elasticity, buoyancy and the ability to recover easily after a setback.

So how does the government propose building up better protections around young people?

I'm pleased to be able announce today that over the next two years an additional $103,000 will be allocated to the Ministry of Youth to bring together a Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa.

This will provide a statement of the government's goals for young people, and set out how the government plans to work towards achieving these goals.

One of the big failings in the area of youth development has been a reluctance to clearly state what we want for our young people and how we want to achieve it.

We tend to focus on the stepping stones. I hope that with this strategy we can stand back, survey the river, clearly describe what's on the other side, why we want to cross it, and then use our collective knowledge to plan and build our way across.

The Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa will take a developmental and preventative approach to the issues facing young people, and it will set out a range of integrated responses.

As you may be aware, the government is in the process of developing a New Zealand Health Strategy. Although there isn’t a clear time frame for it yet, the government has also indicated that part of this will be a Youth Health Strategy. The Ministry of Youth Affairs will be contributing to this with policy advice on sexual health initiatives and links to the Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa.

My aim is to have a sufficiently credible strategy that can underpin funding decisions.

How do we know that this is the key to improving outcomes for our young people?

The reality is that we don’t. But right now there is nothing like this in place, and overseas experience gives us a pretty good indication that this is the way forward.

At the moment, each government portfolio has a different set of assumptions on who a young person is and the best way to interact with them. The result has been a very uncoordinated approach to the delivery of youth services.

Many excellent youth development programmes have disappeared once their pilot funding is up because education says it is a health initiative, health says it is a social services initiative, and social services says it is a crime prevention initiative.

We know that effective youth development programmes build resiliency in all of the main social environments – school, work, family and peer group - and it's unrealistic, if not naive, to expect a single agency to achieve this in isolation.

The Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa won't just co-ordinate youth policy across government. It will also bring long overdue recognition to the contribution the voluntary sector makes to healthy youth development.

The Ministry of Youth Affairs has had excellent success, albeit on a small scale, working with not-for-profits to administer community-based youth development programmes.

So what does this have to do with youth health and wellbeing?

Youth development initiatives like this promote health and wellbeing in two main ways. They foster the resiliency our developing adults need to deal with the bad scenes they may encounter, and by reducing the number of bad scenes they are forced to handle.

They work towards a society in which every citizen, including those who are young, are actively participating and feel their contribution is valued.

That's not saying that status should be a prerequisite to being heard. Many policy makers think that young people must develop, or become grown ups, before they have the ability to contribute in a political and democratic way.

This is a myth, and it's time for us, the grown ups, to take stock of the degree to which we actually exclude young people from the democratic process. The government hasn't consulted young people on many key issues that effect them significantly. For instance, one of the major issues for young people is the cost of tertiary education, and only now, more than a decade after user-pays tertiary education was introduced, is the government asking young people what they think via a select committee inquiry.

Another example is the debate over the legal status of cannabis. The argument in this case seems to centre on whether or not decriminalisation is good or bad for young people, and most of the arguments against it are based on the premise that young people are incapable of deciding what's best for them.

Compartmentalising cannabis use as a justice issue hasn't stopped one third of young people having a turn before they are 17 years old. Adopting a "we know best" attitude to law reform will fail young people who have a right to participate actively in decisions like this.

Last month I met with a group of teenage prison inmates who were taking part in a Youth Affairs Prison Corps programme. The overwhelming feeling of the group was that the most valuable lessons had been those that encouraged them to focus on the possible consequences of their actions and taught them that they have choices. At the same time as doing this it taught them self-esteem and gave them a sense of collective responsibility.

This was a process of empowerment. They were given the confidence to make their own decisions, and the information they needed to make those decisions.

This kind of empowerment shouldn't just take place in crisis situations. We should be putting systems in place for this to happen in all of the main social environments and in all our major social institutions – the family, school, community organisations, trade unions, religious institutions, political parties and at a local and central government level.

Many local authorities and community organisations are already embracing positive models of youth participation. The youth policy of the Christchurch City Council stands out as something other councils should be aiming towards.

Christchurch's 198 Youth Health Centre is another excellent example of young people playing an integral role in the development and delivery of services for youth. The centre's board must have three elected trustees who are under 25, and two youth advisers no older than 20. They also employ people under 25 as peer supporters.

Youth participation and youth development go hand in hand.

When young people are not given the pathways and resources to participate in positive ways they can, and do, create alternatives for themselves. Alternatives like offending, suicide and substance abuse, alternatives that reflect a low self worth and poor sense of connection with the wider community.

Looking around this room I see representatives of our people and of the pacific capable of creating the communities that can build resilience. Most importantly, I see young people determined to be part of the solution. Your conversations at this conference will not be ignored and I look forward to receiving and advocating your findings.


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