Australia should establish a national service program to engage young people left unemployed by the coronavirus crisis, experts say.
Australia should establish a national service program to engage young people left unemployed by the coronavirus crisis, experts say.

Bold call for new ‘national service’

Australia should establish a "funded national service" program to engage young people left unemployed by the coronavirus crisis and stop them falling through the cracks, experts say.

With the official jobless rate - not even counting effectively unemployed JobKeeper recipients - forecast to reach double digits in the June quarter, young workers in sectors such as hospitality and retail, for example, have been particularly hard-hit.

In its Roadmap to Recovery report delivered to Health Minister Greg Hunt this week, more than 100 researchers from Australia's top universities outlined a series of recommendations to cushion the social, health and economic impacts.

"Due to the COVID-19 response in Australia, the young have been particularly displaced by the social distancing policies and many will find it hard to get a foothold in the economy," the Group of Eight report says.

"As social distancing begins to be relaxed, they will have an increased capacity to serve Australian communities, but potentially few options. Civic engagement, including both community and industry, has been a purposeful component of Australian policymaking for several decades."

The report proposes a national service - not through the military, but rather focused on environmental conservation in the vein of the Green Army, a signature policy of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott that ran from 2014 to 2018.

The Green Army program was targeted at 17- to 24-year-olds, who worked together in small teams on local conservation and heritage projects. According to the Federal Government, more than 11,000 young Australians took part and delivered more than 1000 projects.

 

More than 11,000 young people took part in the Green Army from 2014 to 2018.
More than 11,000 young people took part in the Green Army from 2014 to 2018.

 

The Group of Eight report suggests the title "Aussies All Together" for the new scheme, which could be "an inclusive program that provides opportunities for skills development and engagement in the aftermath of emergencies within Australia's borders".

"Participants will receive culturally appropriate training to support communities in order to improve health and wellbeing, (re) build infrastructure, provide peer tutoring, perform conservation and wildlife preservation," it says. "Such a program could offer meaning, purpose and social connectedness to those involved, and will contribute to Australia's long-term national health and education strategy."

The report points to research that shows young people are "influenced by 'top down' signals from policies and programs, and are motivated by grassroots or 'bottom up' programs to support communities", adding there is "considerable empirical evidence on the benefits of fostering youth volunteerism in Australia and New Zealand".

University of Queensland PhD candidate Bernadette Hyland-Wood, who authored the recommendation, said Australians "have a strong orientation towards community service and I would say this concept around civic engagement is alive and well".

How much the program might cost to run was "too hard to answer", but Ms Hyland-Wood suggested it could offered as an option "for people who are home" already receiving JobKeeper or JobSeeker payments.

"We have a lot of capacity now," she said. "We're paying them anyway. It's for people of all socio-economic groups, not just people who are out of a job - really everybody who would like to engage and not be home on a device."

 

A national service trainee at Puckapunyal in 1966.
A national service trainee at Puckapunyal in 1966.

 

BRING BACK THE DRAFT?

While the report does not suggest the actual military draft be brought back, one historian in the UK this week called for just that. The UK abandoned conscription in the 1960s, while Australia's national service scheme was finally abolished in 1972.

Professor Sir Hew Strachan, in a report commissioned by the Ministry of Defence, warned Britain's armed forces were facing an "existential crisis" and that the country still "luxuriates in a sense of its own continuity and self-identity".

Prof Strachan argued the draft should be brought back to boost the public's understanding of the military and defence, warning there was a "communication gap" that meant many still had a "mythologised memory of the Second World War" and did not appreciate how modern conflict is conducted.

In Australia, however, "the chances are a conscription scheme would not work", according to military historian Professor Peter Stanley from UNSW Canberra. "The first question is, what does the Defence Force think of being used as a sponge to mop up unemployed youth?" he said.

"I think the Defence Force is disinclined to be used for social engineering - they rather attract motivated, skilled people. The Defence Force hate it, unless you're fighting a mass war which we're not, because it gets turned into an organisation to keep training conscripts."

Prof Stanley added that Australia's history with national service schemes - there have been four going back to Federation - was "not great". "They have been divisive, unproductive and outright dangerous for the people who were in them," he said.

"I'm old enough to remember the jubilation when national service was abolished in 1972. It hasn't come back in 50 years and getting it to come back would entail a national conversation."

He added that "you would probably find young people were much more inclined to participate in a scheme that was directed towards conservation and the environment", much as the Group of Eight report suggests.

frank.chung@news.com.au

Originally published as Bold call for new 'national service'



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