Sunday, 8 November 2009 5:43 AM

Youth Parliament - Is it an opportunity worth a million dollars?

Dear Editor,

Please allow me space to contribute briefly on the above issue, in light of its recent launching at our National Parliament, and in response to the critics who have written in opposition to the initiative. However, first of all I would like to applaud the Speaker, Clerks and the hardworking staff of Parliament for successfully hosting the Youth Parliament Program and the Parliament Open Day all in a single week. These are both very huge undertakings and to have them all in one go is indeed commendable achievement. You deserve all praise and commendation.

Having said that, I do understand that there are people out there who do not subscribe to this line of thinking hence their open criticisms of the Parliamentary Youth Program. And while I do appreciate that everybody has a right and freedom of speech to voice out their views on issues, personally I was overly flabbergasted by some of the writers' blatant and ferocious attacks on program, making it to seem as if it was a total waste of money and resources and that nothing good will ever come from it. Some even stated that this is the first ever youth parliament they have heard of to have youths sitting in the seats of elected MP's on the floor of Parliament to openly debate political issues. Others went to the extent of questioning the 'cognitive ability' of the participants, labelling them as 'kids' and asserting that their level of understanding is still inadequate to fully grasp and digest issues of policy, governance and politics. But in all the arguments in opposition to the Youth Parliament Program it was obvious that the main line of argument was that the program was a 'nuisance', 'insane', 'irrelevant' and a waste of money that could have been used for better things such as economic development activities and for the provision basic essential services.

To me I think these are very superficial arguments that somehow have painted a very negative picture on the Youth Parliament Program. These criticisms have made it to seem as if that because of the Youth Parliament Program, all other sectors of the economy have been deprived of something valuable, whether it be money or an opportunity to learn and that we should not engage in new initiatives but to stick to our conventional ways of doing things, that 'old usual stuff' since 1978. Obviously personally I think these critics do not have a vision for our youths as future leaders, and they have failed to acknowledge and realise the important role and responsibility that Parliament has as an Institution to reach out to its people.

The concept of Youth Parliament is common throughout the Commonwealth countries where youths are regarded as important cornerstone of society. In Solomon Islands youths make up the majority of our population, hence proving to be a very important part of our society. For this reason active youth participation and engagement is crucial for nation building. Our youths, therefore, must be allowed to actively engage and participate on issues of policy, governance and political debate at an early stage in life. Youths are like clay in the system. To come out with a desired end product of value, the potter has to mould the clay accordingly. And when youths are properly trained and moulded to become better citizens, they are like sparks that need no ignition. As the late US Senator, Robert Kennedy stated: "This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease."

Hence, in Solomon Islands, if they are continuously ignored and suppressed, our youths are like a time bomb waiting to be ignited. One does not have to go back long into history to see how susceptible but precarious our youths are if they are engaged to achieve bitter ends. The concept of Youth Parliament therefore is to give young people the opportunity to have their views heard by key decision-makers and the general public and also to help them to fully realise their own potentials and hence their very important role in the society. It is a very effective way of raising the self-esteem of youths and empowering their participation in the democratic process. In relation to policy and governance the concept will help young people to understand and actively participate in parliamentary processes; to learn how to influence governmental decision-making as active citizens and to highlight the importance of helping young people to understand how decisions are made and how young people can be involved in influencing their worlds. Through the participation of the 50 Youth Parliamentary Representatives all our youths throughout the country can realise that they are being recognised as an important part of nation-building in Solomon Islands.

But there is even more to the Youth Parliament than that. It is an opportunity to learn a little more than many people know, about the distribution and the exercise of power. A vast number of people in Solomon Islands know little or nothing at all about how power is distributed and how our governance system operates. Many of the problems we face today in governance and politics are mainly due to our lack of - or mis-understanding of how the system works. For a better future, it is essential that we have a young generation now that better understands their political system and fully realises their place in the society so that they can participate and engage fully in it. It is important that our young people gains a deepening understanding of parliamentary democracy so that they do not hold misconstrued conceptions of it. By gaining such as a knowledge they can be able to uphold and advance its practices when it's their turn to lead the country, whether as politicians or as community leaders. After all, real power belongs to the people and as prescribed by the Constitution. But how can people responsibly exercise this power if they are ill-informed or are unaware of issues surrounding them? One may argue that that can be learned at school through the normal Secondary School Syllabus. But the reality is that there is no better place and way of learning about the system and how it works than being at Parliament itself and engaging in programs such as the Youth Parliament.

Furthermore, Solomon Islands is a member of the United Nations Organisation and therefore is a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. As a nation Solomon Islands is required to honour the commitments it has made in signing the Convention. Articles 12 and 13 of the Convention emphasises on the need to uphold the right of young people to have a say - to have the opportunity to express their views - on matters that affect them, and the convening of a Youth Parliament is a means of realising an important dimension of those Articles of the Convention.

Financially, the above factors are all very important and immeasurable achievements that no money can buy. The critics have argued that consideration should be given to our ailing economy and the fact that we are the poorest country in the Pacific, and therefore in the world. Some argued that instead of using the money for Youth Parliament it should be channelled through the normal processes to encourage youth participation in rural economic development. However, I think this kind of analyses lacks forward thinking. How can you possibly develop a nation of peoples that lack proper and adequate knowledge on government and policy? Off course we are poor, thus educating our young people about politics and how they can fully engage in governance and policy debate is one way of alleviating poverty. We must understand that poverty alleviation and economic development is not only about tangible or 'hard' infrastructure. It is also about 'soft' infrastructure which concerns sound policies and empowering our mental capabilities to make rational decisions. We can spend all the money we have to encourage the youth to utilize their coconut plantation, cocoa plantations, fisheries, carpentry, sewing but how could you guarantee them a good future if they are ill-informed about issues that are affecting them? And not all of them will be farmers, or fishermen, carpenters or tailors. Some of them will be required to be leaders in their communities, in their provinces or states, or even at the national and international levels, and having proper understanding of governance and policies issues will be crucial.

As I have mentioned earlier, the concept of Youth Parliament is widely practiced throughout the world. Fiji had a very successful Youth Parliament Program until the army took over the government. They even have an Alumnus according to which the program is run. In Tonga, its Youth Parliament Program was started in 2003 after a national survey indicated that the many people were not turning out to vote at elections times. The Youth Parliament therefore was designed to run as an outreach program "to enable all the youths of Tonga to be more involved and take positive actions in decision making and development of the Nation". The process was run exactly as the system of the National Parliament of Tonga where youths are engaged in debates on matters affecting them. The result of the program was overwhelming as it raised the profile of youths and parliament and contributed to more awareness of the governance system of Tonga. Hence, voter turnout increased as people become more informed of the importance of political participation.

In Zealand, Youth Parliament has been held every three to four years since 1994. For the Program, young people from around New Zealand are chosen by their local MP to be a Youth MP. During Youth Parliament Youth MPs have the opportunity to debate a mock Bill, engage in general debate, sit on Select Committees and ask parliamentary questions of Cabinet Ministers. The New Zealand Youth Parliament Program is made to be as real as possible. Government personnel and procedures are maintained throughout the whole program.

Similar programs are also run throughout all the Parliaments of the States of Australia, in Pakisatan, India, Scotland and even England, from whom our Westminster system was adopted. In all these practical cases, the results have been universal being that it is a very important opportunity to inculcate in youths with the values and spirit of democracy, the importance of dialogue, tolerance for others views, an understanding of the concept of Parliament and its role in democratic decision-making and oversight.

Apart from having youth parliaments in individual jurisdictions, Youth Parliaments are also held at regional levels. For instance the third Pan-Commonwealth Youth Parliament took place in Brisbane, Queensland from 19-23 April 2005 and over 70 delegates nominated by Legislatures across the Commonwealth took part in the event. Sixty per cent of delegates were from developing countries. In convening the event the Speaker of the Acting Speaker of the Queensland Parliament, Hon. Jim Fouras MP, who was the Speaker of the Youth Parliament Program stated that: "The event will facilitate young people from all around the world being able to learn about and engage in the democratic process. I hope that it will also create an awareness of issues affecting youth around the world".

There is also the European Youth Parliament (EYP) Program which was founded in 1987. The EYP encourages independent thinking and socio-political initiative in young people and facilitates the learning of crucial social and professional skills. Since its inauguration, many tens of thousands of young people have taken part in regional, national and international sessions, formed friendships and made international contacts across and beyond frontiers. It has thus made a vital contribution towards the uniting of Europe. Today the EYP is one of the largest European platforms for political debate, intercultural encounters, political educational work and the exchange of ideas among young people in Europe.

Looking at the above issues and factors, I strongly believe that the Solomon Islands Youth Parliament is far from being a 'nuisance', 'insane', or 'irrelevant'. It is a commonly practiced concept that is new to Solomon Island but one that can be very beneficial to our youths and Solomon Islands as a whole. I therefore 'rubbish' all the criticisms that have been made against it.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this letter/article are those of Derick Manu'ari and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solomon Times Online.

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