Every Voice Counts!

Together our voices can be unstoppable

Student, MacKillop Catholic College, ACT

Sean Farrell

On Monday 18 and Tuesday 19 October, I had the pleasure of being invited to take part in the first ever national Every Voice Counts! Student Forum held in my city Canberra, the nation's capital. In order to participate in the Forum, students from across Australia were asked to answer what they believed to be the most important civics and citizenship issues that students should learn about in school, which was the focus of the Forum.

Unfortunately, I only had about two days to condense the four books and massive folder full of information about civics and citizenship, which I had managed to get from the SOSE staffroom and Mr Jones, into my informed understanding of civics and citizenship issues expressed in a mere 200 words. However, I must have made some impression as I was chosen to be one of the four ACT representatives at the Forum.

On Monday, I arrived at the Diplomat Hotel in Manuka - the magnificent hotel where we were staying - at around 10:00 am where I was greeted with a friendly smile from one of the supervising staff and shown to my room. Here I met my roommate, another ACT representative. We then went down into the main foyer where we met all the other representatives, whilst those poor souls from Tassie, VIC, SA and NSW who had got up at 5:00 am had a light breakfast.

To be honest, my first reaction was, 'How on earth am I going to fit in with these people?' Earlier this year I had attended the Science and Engineering Challenge, aka the 'Genius Games', and most of these people looked even brainier than the people who attended that! However, this thought was soon thrown onto the trash pile, as we all came to know one another much better at our first session at Old Parliament House (OPH).

We began our 'official' day at OPH with all of the formal introductions and then we played a quick game with some string, in which we each took a piece of string, found the person on the other end and then introduced them to the group. In this way, we got to know each other a bit better and found a great many things in common. The group was truly diverse - there were people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds and the size of our schools ranged from 40-1400 students! We then had a brief lunch before walking up to Parliament Hill for a tour of new Parliament House.

I found it a totally bizarre experience to see so many people go wild over seeing Parliament House, but then again, as a Canberran, I guess I'm just used to it. After we all got through security we began our tour, which was very informative and gave us an insight into how Parliament and the democratic process operate. We then had a mock debate, in which we each took roles on either the Government's or the Opposition's side, and outrageously argued the topic of lowering the voting age to 15. I am pleased to say that I was on the Government's side and thanks to a majority we won! Not that I'd want to see many 15-year-olds voting, but it was still exhilarating.

Next was the definite highlight of the entire two days: we were invited to Government House to meet the Governor-General and Mrs Jeffrey. The house was sublime, with many original paintings by artists among the likes of Tom Roberts, and the furniture was ornate. And the food! It felt like I was in an episode of the ABC's TV series Regency House Party. The Governor-General gave an inspiring speech about his role and view of Australia, and then we were given the opportunity to 'mingle' with him and his wife. We then had our photo taken and took a quick tour of the house, before heading to ScreenSound Australia and then back to the hotel for a magnificent feast and a great night.

The next morning at OPH we had the opportunity to get down and dirty talking about the types of issues important to students as citizens, as we split up in groups to brainstorm on a chosen issue. These included multiculturalism, the environment and the need to learn about Australian democratic processes and history. We then listened to some very inspiring speeches by political commentator Dr J Uhr, lobbyist Dr P Sinclair, former ACT Senator Mrs M Reid and a young indigenous ANU student named Tim Goodwin. At lunch we had the chance to talk with some of these people about our ideas as well as ourselves.

In the next session we were able to devise strategies to 'make our voice count', and we were given the opportunity to present our ideas to ACT Senator Gary Humphries and to hear his comments. Finally, at the end of a long day of serious talking, it was time to say goodbye to all of our new friends, as well as the supervising staff and organisers who made the whole event possible. After much email swapping and many goodbyes, it was the reluctant ACT people who left first in our taxis, while the others left by bus.

I believe that from this experience I gained a whole new insight into Australia's political life and operation, as well as many new lifelong friends. Yet, most importantly, I was left with this message that now I pass to you: your voice does count, but together, our voice can be unstoppable!

Students feel they want to have their opinions heard

Student, Muslim Ladies College of Australia, WA

Sejla PervizI was born in Croatia, and have a Bosnian background. I go to an all ladies, Muslim school. It is only a couple of years old, and consists of about 70 students. My interests go across a variety of subjects, mainly medicine, politics, law, and economics (commerce).

I decided to apply for the Every Voice Counts! Student Forum, because I saw it as a starting opportunity for me. I wanted to experience what a student Forum was like. As my first student Forum, it was an amazing experience. It was also my first trip anywhere since I came to Australia when I was five, so that too added to making the experience even greater. The best part of the Forum to me would have to be meeting the Governor-General, its not the norm for me to meet someone that is so often heard about, and to have been the second student to shake hands with him, I was ecstatic. In general, the experience was overall the best part. I would do it again any time.

The specific issues that my group discussed were gay marriage, abortion and equality. The main issue we discussed was abortion. We put our opinions forward, and it was a topic we all felt strongly about. It was the topic we chose to present to Senator Humphries. With the prominence of the topic in the media, I can't begin to wonder whether our group have had even the slightest involvement in it. It would be nice to know that our views were heard. When Senator Humphries came in, it was seen as an opportunity to be heard, and hopefully we were heard, all of us, and our views, that all count just as much as the other.

The panel that came in must have been one of the best events during the Forum. To me, I feel that Tim Goodwin was the best speaker, and it was to him that I paid the most attention. The mock debate at parliament was interesting, and it gave us all a minor feeling of what parliamentary debates were like. The visit to the Governor-General was quite grand, the art work was amazing, and the jewellery cupboard was a good laugh, but once again an amazing piece of art work. To have stood next to the table that Prince Harry dined at with the Governor-General, felt rather special too.

Before I went to the Forum, so many things were unclear about the goings on of Parliament, government. But after the Forum, I left knowing I had learnt a great deal. Also, I left knowing that things like this do matter, and give us the opportunity to be heard. These activities are useful for students because they give an insight to the processes, and they also build interest in government. Students feel like they want to have their opinions heard, they feel like it does matter what they think, and that they can do something about it.

The Forum was a great experience, and I would recommend it to anyone applying to it. I never thought I would get in, but I did, and I will never look back with regret. The fact that I went to this Forum opened up quite a few doors of opportunity for me, and for that I am very thankful, and grateful.

Thank you to everyone who made the experience one that I won't forget. The students were great, and the teachers who accompanied us made sure we were all comfortable and fine, and it took the worry away.

The Forum was a blast, and an experience I surely won't forget.

It is possible to make a difference and change the world

Student, North Sydney Girls High School, NSW

Vaishali Dave

I come from Sydney, which I thought was the hub of all things that were worth doing. But as I was informed by the people I met on Every Voice Counts!, Sydney was known as 'Smog City'. I come from an Indian family and have adopted many of their traditional and often conservative values. I attend North Sydney Girls High School, a highly regarded academic school of about 900 girls who also excel in many other areas of curriculum such as music and sport. At my school, I have found myself discussing political issues and concerns of national and global importance on a day-to-day basis. The girls who go here are very aware of their world and I love listening to them talk about their ideas and views.

The most amazing experience I had at the Forum was meeting the Governor-General, for whom my respect and opinion increased enormously after talking to him and finding how much of an intelligent and approachable person he is. The tour of Government House was incredible - seeing such rooms which welcomed dignitaries and people that have the power to change the world was such a huge event for me.

Another just as important highlight was getting to know people from all over Australia who felt passionate about something, even though our views sometimes were very different.

The other activities we did, such as talking to the panel of such dedicated and awe-inspiring people, touring Government House and visiting the Australian Screen and Sound Archives, were really great experiences as well. All these activities were so helpful in understanding the parliamentary processes and how we as just a single person can influence and encourage change when it's needed in our community and country. This is important knowledge for any Australian as it helps to carry on the principle of democracy and ensure that it continues as a practical, not just theoretical, concept.

During one of the group sessions, where we discussed important aspects of Australian lifestyle or society that we felt needed addressing, our group came up with social justice, community, civil rights and the concept of multiculturalism. Social justice, we meant the better treatment of asylum seekers and a more improved system of detention. In terms of community and civil rights, we believe that communities should make the effort to bond more closely, as it is looking likely that the Internet age will stop us relating to each other unless it is online. We also think that every single person should be aware of and actively involved in their community and know their civil rights and responsibilities. The issue of multiculturalism was one that sparked debate between us. We argued over whether the current benefits provided to Indigenous Australians was enough or if we were going about it the wrong way; and also if multiculturalism was a concept that Australians liked to believe they felt for or if it was just a veneer that no one really felt passionate about anymore. This debate really opened my eyes to another viewpoint in the matter and helped me to see things from different perspectives.

I felt that going to Canberra and meeting with students with different lifestyles and beliefs was something that also helped me to see things in a different light and learn more about me and my place in society. I realised, after encountering the hope and pride these intelligent young people had in our world, how cynical I had become; believing that humanity was doomed because no one cared and that I could not make a difference. They, along with a brilliant panel helped me to see that it is possible to make a difference and change the world, maybe starting small but gathering support because there are people out there that believe in change and want to help make it happen and that I am not alone.