“I want young people to think of the Y as theirs through which they can achieve their ambitions” – Leigh Johns
With an impressive resume (Medal of Order of Australia, Chair of the Australian Ballet School, Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, Chief Counsel at the Fair Work Ombudsman and now the Fair Work Commissioner in NSW), Leigh credits his “lifechanging” decade of involvement with the Y’s Youth Parliament program for setting his career on course.
The Y’s Youth Parliament is an empowerment and advocacy program that provides a platform for young people to have their voices heard through legislative debate and decision making.
Leigh’s journey with the program began in 1987, when as a teenager he represented Bendigo with three peers at the inaugural Victorian Youth Parliament. He was the first ever Victorian Youth Premier, later Victorian Youth Governor and over 10 years of volunteering with the Y he helped establish the program in Tasmania and contributed to the first National Youth Parliament in Canberra as Youth Governor General.
“For a little working-class kid from Bendigo, I got amazing opportunities through the Y, but the most important thing really for me is that it taught me skills that I haven’t been taught anywhere else.”
“Teamwork, leadership, public speaking and how to influence people… it was the skills I learned as a Taskforce member which really set me up for life.
“They don’t teach you those things in university, they teach you how to be a good lawyer, how to read a law book, but it’s those skills that I learned through my interaction with the Y that really helped my career,” he said.
In Leigh’s first year as a Youth Parliamentarian, the young people of 1987 debated euthanasia, capital punishment, lowering the voting-age and legalising abortion, some 30 years before legislation was changed on the same issues in state parliaments around Australia.
“We were ahead of the times, there’s no doubt about that.”
“What’s really great about Youth Parliament is that it encourages you to speak very openly about the things that are important to young people at the time. We have to make sure we listen to those voices.”
As a young gay man, Youth Parliament was also a key place Leigh could be unapologetically himself.
“Some of the first people I came out to were some of those people who were my friends on the Y Taskforce and all of them without exception were wonderfully accepting. They judged you by your character and what you contributed to the Y. That was the leveler, we were all contributing to the Y and contributing to youth empowerment, so sexuality and the like didn’t matter.”
Striving for greater visibility has continued to motivate the Commissioner.
“After university I went into the law, a very conservative profession. And back then I felt concerned that my sexuality would be an impediment to my career. It’s been increasingly important for me to be out. It’s important for other young gay kids in country Victoria to see you can make it and to see themselves represented in the law, in leadership and in executive roles.”
As a Board Member, Leigh played a critical role in weathering the financial storm triggered by COVID-19 that saw Y NSW recreation centres closed for three months and many youth programs, including Youth Parliament, placed on pause for public safety.
He says that now, the Y’s mission of believing in the power of inspired young people is more relevant than ever.
“When young people are feeling disconnected with the world, when they are feeling anxious in a world, where things are looking pretty grim… there is an enormous role for the Y to play in connecting young people, in listening to young people and making them feel valued. Whether we do that in a recreation centre, in after school care, at Youth Parliament, an Uplift Program, a Streetgym, that’s got to be our work.”
“I’ve seen firsthand how positive an impact a Y experience can have on a young person’s life, so I want everyone to have that opportunity. I want us to be even more relevant to young people than we are now and for young people to think of the Y as theirs through which they can achieve their ambitions.”