THE SIREN CALL ‘Go West, young man’ has a long history in Australia, Canada and the United States. In 1865 Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, adapted the original version ‘Go West, young man, and grow up with the country’ to capture the hopes and imaginations of young Americans, including those returning from the Civil War, to take up farming and shake off the unemployment, despair, alcoholism, crime and poverty plaguing the eastern seaboard. On the 25 July 1926 Mr Mckinnon, a reportedly distinguished Victorian gentlemen, made the following observation.
Western Australia may have her temporary difficulties, but she has the source of great prosperity in her. She wants capital, and she wants men of resource and enterprise. She requires, too, that sympathy upon which self confidence is built up. We eastern folk can show our goodwill in no better way than by visiting and getting to know this State on which so much of Australia’s ultimate greatness depends. To young men of means and enterprise I should say with Horace Greeley, ‘Go west, young man’.
In more recent times multinational mining corporations and governments have issued the call to young Australians to ‘Go West’ to capitalise on the riches of the mining boom in Western Australia.
In the last five years the siren call has gone viral on social media, spawning a host of new websites, blogs and media reports. One Facebook commenter urged young people ‘Do yourself a favour, go west young man, go west!!!’ In 2012, the ABC News ran the story ‘Go west young man – or young woman for that matter’, reporting on the Reserve Bank’s prediction that half of all new jobs in Australia over the next few years would be in mining and related industries. On the ‘Go West, Young Man’ active forum a young entrepreneur explained his goal of buying up properties in Perth to increase his weekly rental income from $12,800 to $20,000, thereby creating a $1 million annual rental income.
In January 2011, journalist Matthew Clayfield dubbed Perth as Australia’s El Dorado. He observed the self-confidence of its people, who were ‘sophisticated, savvy and fully aware of how important their work is to the rest of the country’. This sense of self-worth was in striking contrast to ‘the rest of the country’s tendency to think of the state as little more than a source of revenue and to dismiss its residents as the very cashed-up bogans they are not’.
Sporting clubs cashed-in on the call with premier grade rugby league clubs urging young men ‘to reach across the desert and fan the flames’.[i] Touted as a win-win situation for WA rugby league, the move west would not only ‘give greater exposure and experience to our locally born rising stars to help fast-track their careers’, but young players from the east would also ‘get to come to an amazing city full of hot chicks, beautiful beaches and a great climate’. The benefits far outweighed the possible downsides of leaving family and friends: ‘No nagging mother on top of your morning hangover!’ ‘No more judgmental looks from father when you let that skank out the side gate in the morning!… Seriously, what could possibly be better if you are genuinely looking to create a future in rugby?’ While demonstrating a seriously flawed view of young women, the article is indicative of how the ‘wild west’ is still perceived as a ‘goldmine’ in a whole range of areas, including sport. Given the high levels of risky behaviour around alcohol and the impacts on young people’s sexual and mental health, the blogs and websites beg the question: is all this online banter simply harmless, lighthearted fun or is it sending a confusing, irresponsible message to young people that life’s to be lived in the fast lane with quick money and good times fuelled by alcohol and sex?
Some more considered comments were based on the experience of going west: young people talking of the problems of finding accommodation up north and the stresses of fly-in fly-out; a PerthNow news report that ‘Perth’s rental crisis is so severe that workers and families are pitching a tent because they cannot find a home or apartment’; And a woman confiding to no one in particular, ‘Just did the move from SA to WA two months ago with my husband and two kids. Know no one here, but I know that my house in SA will be paid off sooner than later, we will buy here also and set our kids up financially. Weather hot, but beaches are cool. And Bali is around $400 return away.’
A scroll through these blogs and Facebook builds a stark picture of a place to come to share in the spoils, to take from the land and the economy – without giving anything back. There is little encouragement or support from government or mining industries to ‘grow up’ and grow old in this country. For many it is a shallow, short-lived fling rather than a caring love affair with an exquisite, bountiful and ancient land and its people. When viewed from this perspective it is easy to empathise with the deep loss, grief and outrage that so many Aboriginal people feel when they see the degradation of their lands as El Dorado blooms.
AMID THE ARRAY of opportunities opened up by the mining boom, young people face issues that cannot be ignored if they are to have a promising and productive future. The unprecedented environmental and technological changes and the impacts of economic and political uncertainty are creating challenges that need urgent attention.
From 2006–11, WA’s population grew to 1.83 million – an increase of over four hundred thousand. Between 2001–11, the number of young people between twelve and twenty-five in WA grew by over a fifth to 78,778, and in 2012 the state was home to 488,422 young people between ten and twenty-four years.[ii] The rate of increase for Aboriginal youth is double that of other young people. The Mandurah-Dawesville suburban sprawl to the south of Perth has produced an unparalleled 56 per cent increase in young people and WA’s highest youth unemployment rate, making this one of the nation’s jobless youth hotspots.[iii] Extended unemployment for these young people during this formative period of their lives places them at risk of extended poverty and social exclusion.
Most young people live in the southern part of the state close to services, schooling and jobs – of these, three-quarters live in the Perth metropolitan area and a tenth in the south-west region.[iv] By contrast, two-thirds of Aboriginal children and young people live outside Perth, most often in areas with limited access to services and schooling.[v] There is also a significant number of young people living with ‘disability, long-term illness or pain that puts a burden on the family’.[vi] Continuing rapid youth-population growth into the future will see a tsunami of young Western Australian people facing even greater challenges in employment, education, health, mental health and social services, and in the housing sector and justice systems.
IN 2008, CO-AUTHOR Fiona Stanley produced the documentary Risking Our Kids in which she explored the issues facing young people. The documentary tracks the alarming measurable health effects facing children growing up in WA. These include increasing childhood rates of diabetes, respiratory disease, behavioural disorders and obesity. One in four children experiences mental-health problems. The research data presented suggests that for the first time in two hundred years the next generation of young people will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents due to the ‘physical and social toxicity of their environment’.
During the filming of the documentary, Fiona visited towns and Aboriginal communities in the Pilbara region to speak with young people. In Port Hedland she joined a community youth forum organised by co-author Roz Walker, a senior researcher at Telethon Kids Institute and lead researcher of the Staying on Track project conducted in collaboration with the Hedland Youth Stakeholder Action Group (HYSAG). Port Hedland had the reputation of being a dismal place for young people, many of whom allegedly become caught up in crime, vandalism, school absenteeism, bullying, underage drinking, smoking, substance abuse and long-term unemployment. Research showed that young people felt marginalised and disenfranchised within the community and a council survey found that at the time more than 80 per cent felt the community didn’t care about them. The town has a large transitory work force; few newcomers are keen to set down roots and have their children grow up in the town, heading off as soon as their children reach high-school age.
On the day of the meeting, Port Hedland’s Gratwick Hall was packed with local dignitaries and key youth stakeholders and, significantly, a strong presence of young people and parents. There was widespread agreement that things had to change. Together with HYSAG, participants forged a pledge to the future and a youth charter for community action for working with young people. The resounding message from Telethon Kids was the need to look after young people as they will be the future parents; supporting them is a first step in early childhood investment. Fiona and her film crew then travelled on to the town of Newman in the East Pilbara to meet with young people and representatives from the YMCA, schools, police and local council and community members, then out to Jigalong Aboriginal community to meet with young people and their families, plus health and education stakeholders involved in the Staying on Track project. On their travels they observed some of the key community-led preventative initiatives such as the Indigenous Hip Hop Project and the development of the Portbound Youth and Health Festival (which is still being run annually). The innovative work in the Pilbara has not gone unnoticed. Australia’s Youth Ambassador to the United Nations, Chris Varney, had also attended the Hedland Youth forum and invited young people to write comments in a ‘Dear Kevin’ scrapbook that he later presented to the United Nations.
Starting on Track, related research project led by Roz, had commenced in 2007 and already highlighted the vulnerability of 70–90 per cent of Aboriginal children in the Pilbara region, across a range of developmental domains in the Australian Early Development Index. She noted the alarming, community-wide misuse of alcohol as a strong contributor to the ‘physical and social toxicity’ of the environment. Excessive alcohol consumption was resulting in risky actions and unacceptable levels of violence and death.
Alcohol impacts significantly on the safety and wellbeing of children and young people – at the most extreme and earliest point, children who have been exposed to alcohol during pregnancy may suffer Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), which then subjects them to lifelong disadvantage. Exposure of young people to alcohol-related violence in the home and community, to parents addicted to alcohol or other drugs, and underage drinking were all key concerns that needed to be addressed and monitored.
While the records are scant there was also general community alarm about the drinking behaviours of young men and women in mining areas. Current evidence indicates that per capita alcohol intake in the Pilbara is the highest in Australia, resulting in higher alcohol-related deaths and mental-health issues than the rest of the WA. Excessive drinking by young men on fly-in fly-out rosters in isolated conditions away from their families is a certain contributor to depression. Recent news of nine suicides by those employed in WA mining camps is a serious warning signal.
RECENT RESEARCH COMMISSIONED by WA’s Commissioner of Children and Young People (CCYP) points to the resilience of youth in its optimistic summary of their sense of good health and personal wellbeing. Roz Walker and Tracy Reibel worked in collaboration with the Melbourne-based Social Research Group to consult with more than one thousand young people regarding their experiences accessing and using health services. The study included vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, including Aboriginal youth, culturally and linguistically diverse young people (CaLD), those who were socially and economically disadvantaged, persons with disabilities or experiencing mental-health problems and those living in regional areas or in contact with the justice system.[vii]
It is now recognised that the complex interplay between individual characteristics, behaviours and understandings of young people and the social, physical and economic environments in which they live and their access to health services directly influences their decisions and health and wellbeing. Young people tend to assess their health in holistic terms that encompass physical, mental, emotional and social dimensions and the Telethon Institute found that their responses were positive overall. A clear majority reported their health as excellent, very good or good.[viii]
Roz and her colleagues found that for most of the young people interviewed, their first port of call for advice on health issues and health services was their parents, then friends, siblings, teachers and school nurses or counsellors. This confirms the importance of arming parents with good information and support. Most reported positive experiences with health services, especially those staffed by professionals trained to work with young people, and most used the internet for health and wellbeing concerns. However, vulnerable and disadvantaged young people were less likely to feel positive about their experiences with health services overall, or to access the net.[ix]
On the plus side, other research conducted by CCYP concerning young people in regional and remote communities found most were happy and healthy and felt loved and protected by their families and inspired to lead positive, fulfilling lives. They were connected to their local community but regretted the lack of facilities and entertainment, options for work and study, and the resulting boredom and dissatisfaction. Some were worried about social problems and vulnerable living conditions, while others still had difficulty articulating clear goals and aspirations.[x]
AUSTRALIA IS RANKED at seventeen out of thirty countries by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on the physical health of children and young people.[xi] Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and rural and remote communities have significantly lower outcomes across many health measures.[xii] The Telethon Institute has noted alarming trends in certain health issues, the prevalence of some illnesses and conditions, and health disparities in this population. Young people are experiencing rising rates of diabetes and sexually transmissible infections, and high rates of mental disorders, obesity, risky alcohol consumption, drug and alcohol-related violence, homelessness and failure to meet nutritional guidelines.[xiii] And then there is suicide.
For people aged between fifteen and twenty-four years, incidents of suicide and self-harm are higher in WA than in most other Australian states and territories. In 2010, 27 per cent of all deaths in this age group were due to suicide, with 80 per cent being males and 20 per cent females.[xiv] WA’s suicide rate has increased markedly over the past decade, reaching 36 per cent above the national rate in 2012, with the worst affected areas being the Kimberley region where the rate of suicides soared to 182 times that of the general population in 2010.[xv] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people aged fifteen to nineteen years have higher suicide rates than for other Australians in the same age group: 5.9 times higher for females and 4.4 times higher for males.[xvi] With the exception of the Northern Territory, WA has the highest rates of Aboriginal suicide in Australia.
In the Kimberley there have been a number of suicide clusters, where some Aboriginal communities experienced suicide rates up to twenty times the state average. The impact of suicide clusters in these communities is often cumulative, far-reaching and long lasting and is augmented by the generational trauma of historical and contemporary forms of colonisation.[xvii] A range of social determinants may account for the high rates of Aboriginal suicide in the Kimberley and across WA where remote Aboriginal communities have more limited access to services, employment and economic capital than communities elsewhere.
In WA there are further clear disparities experienced by Aboriginal young people. These are in part the legacy of policies and practices of earlier colonial times, but they are also due to the continued failure of policies and programs, ad hoc short-term funding, racism and social exclusion, and poor access to services and amenities. An alarming example is the soaring rate of separation of Aboriginal children from their families, seen by many as the continuation of government practices of the Stolen Generations. In 2012, Aboriginal children and young people were 28.4 times more likely to be under community supervision than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Of the 780 under community-based supervision on any one day in 2012, 490 were Aboriginal. Aboriginal males are 4.1 times more likely to be under supervision than Aboriginal females. Over half of the community-based sentences are in the metropolitan area and around a tenth in regional areas. Just over a third of juvenile sentencing is for young people from remote areas, even though children and young people in remote areas represent only around 10 per cent of the state population of children and young people. Youth justice supervision is a key national indicator. Young people aged twelve to seventeen under youth justice supervision are a particularly disadvantaged and vulnerable group, many experience significant mental-health issues, poor educational outcomes, alcohol and drug abuse problems and backgrounds of child abuse and neglect.[xviii]
There are other disturbing signs that we need to do more for our kids in WA. For example, in 2012, the Kids Helpline provided counselling, information and support to WA children and young people through approximately 43,000 direct contacts and self-directed website help-seeking activities – a 25 per cent increase on 2011.
Ages of callers ranged from five years to eighteen and while only 3 per cent identified as Aboriginal, 24 per cent came from young people of CaLD backgrounds. The high proportion of callers from CaLD backgrounds is consistent with other research by the WA Commissioner of Children and Young People that confirms these young people experience bullying and discrimination and stereotyping related to their cultural, religious, linguistic or racial background.[xix]
WITH THE ESCALATING pace of change in the west it is vital to reappraise what makes Western Australia distinctive and the implications of this for our young people. We cannot overlook the disaffection that young people (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, others born here and those from other backgrounds) experience if they are not nurtured to ‘grow up’ in this country. Young people are part of our here and now, to be cherished and valued. Supporting them is a moral and social imperative. They are also an investment in the future: their health and wellbeing not only affects their immediate quality of life but the future health and wellbeing of WA families, communities and society.[xx]
It is also important to consider the impacts of mining and community attitudes within the broader context of the health and wellbeing disparities experienced by Aboriginal people mentioned earlier. There is a powerful relationship between a positive sense of social and emotional wellbeing and Aboriginal experience of being ‘connected to country’. Almost two decades ago in a presentation at the 1996 Canberra International Land Rights Conference, Mick Dodson, scholar, lawyer and Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner, said: ‘Everything about Aboriginal society is inextricably woven with, and connected to, land… You take that away and you take away our reason for existence. We have grown that land up. We are dancing, singing and painting for the land. We are celebrating the land. Removed from our lands, we are literally removed from ourselves.’
Research shows that key principles underpinning effective youth health and mental-health services involve: including young people in planning and decision-making processes to achieve better policies, services and outcomes; improving the health and wellbeing of specific population groups through improved access to culturally responsive services; adopting a holistic approach to health and wellbeing that includes physical, mental, emotional and social dimensions; and empowering young people and their families with information and education on how to be healthy, identify problems early and seek help when needed.[xxi] In turn, the key to empowerment involves strengthening the capacity of individuals and families to navigate the health, education, employment and social systems and to access relevant services by enhancing their capacity to make informed, appropriate life decisions.
Concerning the future for WA youth, Fiona Stanley speaks of:
…the phenomenon called modernity’s paradox – while standards of living continue to rise in Australia, statistics show health and wellbeing of all our children are declining or static. The new generation is likely to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. As a researcher in this area I’ll continue to provide more data and more evidence. But the principles and strategies for effective action are known and the evidence for what will work is available. In the current rhetoric it is the absence of responsibility, not the absence of evidence that impedes us now.
So it is heartening to note recent promising WA government initiatives to address key issues facing young people. In March 2014, the CCYP released a Position Statement on Youth Health, which identified opportunities to: strengthen the focus on young people in health policies and services; encourage youth-friendly practices by health professionals; empower young people and their families with education and information; and develop quality evidence to guide future work. The Commissioner’s position statement identified opportunities for improvement and reform in WA that support investing in young people’s health and wellbeing, with broader social and economic benefits to the community.
Horace Greeley’s urgent call, some a hundred and fifty years ago, to ‘Go West, young man, and grow up with the country’ is a timely reminder that we need to invest in and support our young people to ‘grow up’ within this country if we are truly to develop as a state and a nation. We are prompted to wonder when WA’s resource-rich mining areas, and the companies which exploit them, will value our young people and young families who ‘come west’ and, instead of fly-in fly-out dreams of riches, support them to put down roots and ‘grow up’ in this country. Perhaps the tide is changing. At the youth forum in Port Hedland one young father who had lived in Hedland all his life stood up before the townspeople and proclaimed passionately, ‘I want my kids to become third generation in this town.’
Both the Staying on Track and Starting on Track projects were supported with funding though the BHP Billiton Iron Ore Community Investment Partnership with Telethon Kids Institute.
[i] The Sports Sermon 2013, ‘Go West, Young Man!’. Viewed at http://sportssermon.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/go-west-young-man/.
[ii] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012a, ‘Australian Demographic Statistics, Jun 2012, cat. no. 3101.0’
[iii] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014, ‘6291.0.55.001 - Labour Force, Australia’.
[iv] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012, ‘Australian Demographic Statistics, Jun 2012, cat. no. 3101.0’.
[v] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2009, ‘Experimental Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, Jun 2006, cat. no. 3238.0.55.001’.
[vi] Tomlin S & Joyce S 2013, ‘The Health and Wellbeing of Children in Western Australia in 2012, Overview and Trends’, Department of Health, Western Australia, p 12.
[vii] Tomlin & Joyce, ‘The Health and Wellbeing of Children in Western Australia in 2012, Overview and Trends’, p 12.
[viii] Tomlin & Joyce, ‘The Health and Wellbeing of Children in Western Australia in 2012, Overview and Trends’, p 12.
[ix] Tomlin & Joyce, ‘The Health and Wellbeing of Children in Western Australia in 2012, Overview and Trends’, p 12.
[x] Commissioner for Children and Young People (CCYP) 2013, Speaking Out About Living in Regional and Remote WA, CCYP, Subiaco, Western Australia. Viewd at http://www.ccyp.wa.gov.au/files/Other%20resources/Speaking%20Out%20About%20Living%20in%20Regional%20and%20Remote%20WA.pdf.
[xi] Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) 2013, The Nest action agenda, ARACY, Braddon, ACT, p 12.
[xii] ARACY, The Nest action agenda, p 12.
[xiii] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2011, Young Australians: their health and wellbeing 2011, AIHW, Canberra, p 1.
[xiv] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012, ‘3303.0 – Causes of Death, Australia, 2010 (Underlying causes of death (Western Australia) Table 6.3’. Viewed at http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/[email protected]/DetailsPage/3303.02010?OpenDocument.
[xv] Georgatos G, 2014,‘More confirmation of what everyone knows – WA’s suicide prevention inadequate’, The Stringer, 8 May 2014, Fremantle, WA. Viewed at http://thestringer.com.au/more-confirmation-of-what-everyone-knows-was-suicide-prevention-inadequate-7433#.VJOZOkAzA.
[xvi] AIHW 2011, Young Australians: their health and wellbeing 2011.
[xvii] Dudgeon, P, Milroy, H & Walker, R (eds.) 2014, Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice, Australian Government, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Canberra, pp 93–112.
[xviii] Commissioner for Children and Young People 2014, Speaking Out About Youth Health, CCYP, Subiaco, Perth. Viewed at http://www.ccyp.wa.gov.au/files/Youth%20health/Speaking%20Out%20About%20Youth%20Health%20-%20Final%20-%20March%202014.pdf.
[xix] Commissioner for Children and Young People WA’s Metropolitan Advisory Group 2012, ‘Scholar Hut: Us and Our Community report’, Metropolitan Migrant Resource Centre, Perth. Viewed at http://www.ccyp.wa.gov.au/files/MMRC%20-%20Us%20and%20Our%20Community%20Report.pdf
[xx] AIHW 2011, Young Australians: their health and wellbeing 2011.
[xxi] Van Dyke, N, Maddern, C, Reibel, T & Walker, R 2014, ‘Young People’s Experiences with Health Services: Final Report’, Commissioner for Children and Young People WA, Subiaco, p 61.