Beyond the divide


Disenchantment with traditional politics is not a new phenomenon among young people. Creating a new forum that sweeps away the left-right divide is.

Thom Woodroofe

Thom Woodroofe arrived at Monash in 2008 hungry for new experiences. The global arts student's lecturer had told him he had started a course that would lead to a career as a diplomat, spy or journalist, but for the moment the 18-year-old was looking to engage in what he felt passionate about - foreign affairs and politics.

He checked out the Liberal and Labor clubs, the Greens and other clubs. That was when he decided to start his own.

Thom's conviction that young people are not well served by pigeonholing ideas as left, right or centre found a sympathetic audience. It led to the creation of a new independent "think tank" called Left Right, staffed by young volunteers, an internship in the office of US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and his selection as 2009 Young Victorian of the Year.

And all before he turned 20.

In less than 12 months 48 'staff ' have been appointed to the think tank and are based in four states. The 12-strong national team, based in Victoria, is predominately made up of Monash students. All are volunteers.

"None of them are paid. Most non-profits are based on taking all comers. We've adopted a very corporate approach, we've thought the efficiency dividend would be higher if we had fixed positions, a rigid structure, core responsibilities and that has proved effective, we've got a very professional staff, very focused on achieving their targets," Thom said.

The organisation's motto is "Hard Heads, Soft Hearts and Young Minds" and the vision is for a society that seeks out and embraces the ideas of young people. Dedicating seats in Federal Parliament to Indigenous representatives is one fresh idea the group has put up for discussion.

Thom says the fact that young people are not joining political parties or trade unions reflects poorly on those institutions rather than young people.

Educated at Daylesford Secondary College, Thom embraced Air Force cadets as his 'community' and as a 18-year-old was chair of the national Air Force cadet reference group. He then turned down a Defence Academy scholarship and the opportunity to become a pilot to do the Global Arts degree at Monash because he had the idea for the 'non-partisan' think tank bouncing around in his head.

He thinks he's onto something, and so does the Foundation for Young Australians, a philanthropic organisation that has provided core funding. Law firm Mallesons has provided $10,000 of legal work and the Youth Council office space for meetings. Staff are speaking at coming conferences on alternative energy and US foreign policy. A paper on climate change will also be issued by the group ahead of the UN conference in Copenhagen in November.

"It's about a constant desire to stimulate discussion, not a regurgitation of the party line, there'll be overlooked concepts within an issue, or an entirely new idea."