Commonwealth leaders united recently in Wellington, New Zealand, for the 22nd Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth (CSPOC). The host and Speaker of New Zealand’s Parliament, David Carter, opened the meeting under the theme of keeping Parliament and politics relevant in a digital age.
Commonwealth Youth New Zealand members were lucky enough to meet with CPA committee chair, Sir Alan Haselhurst, during his visit as a CSPOC conference observer and discuss the conference theme. Sir Alan has long been a proponent of nurturing youth involvement in the direction of the Commonwealth.
Our discussions had two tiers of thinking. The first point was that in order to educate youth about the Commonwealth’s role and purpose, organisations such as CYNZ, the RCS, the CPA, and, indeed, the Commonwealth Secretariat, must better articulate the values and ideals they stand for. All too often the Commonwealth tries to be all things to all people. Our discussion focussed on defining down and concentrating on what the Commonwealth does best – endorsing good governance and strong democratic practices; ensuring small states have an equal voice in international decision-making; and ensuring that educational and social institutions are available to all people regardless of their background or circumstances.
From this came the second discussion point. To better promote these values to young people they must be given as many opportunities as possible to have their opinions heard in decision-making processes. Civics education in the New Zealand education curriculum is average at best in scope and teaching – one learns of New Zealand’s governmental structure, how the electoral process works, and how a policy becomes law. The teaching is very brief and students do not usually give it any further thought until it comes time for them to exercise their right to vote. Civics education needs to be made fun and informative, but not forced – young people do not appreciate facetiousness or being patronised.
Young people always have ideas and opinions but they do not always know how to voice them. One initiative that RCS Wellington and CYNZ endorse annually is a National Student CHOGM, where students take on the role of head of government or foreign affairs minister of Commonwealth state. Here they are able to debate issues from climate change to monetary policy in an environment where they have an equal voice and are taken seriously. These are the kind of initiatives, led from the grassroots, which CYNZ and Sir Alan agreed need to occur more often to encourage young people across the Commonwealth to speak up and be heard.
My thanks go to the wonderful team at the British High Commission Wellington for organising such a frank and informative discussion. Thanks also must go to Sir Alan for taking time out of his busy schedule and for taking a genuine interest in what we had to say.