Kevin Rudd challenged Tony Abbott to a debate on health at the National Press Club today, the invitation was accepted and no fewer than 11 journalists decided to join in.

The ABC’s Chris Uhlmann is the moderator. Fair enough, every debate needs an umpire. But there will be a panel of 10 members of the parliamentary press gallery. Clearly many journalists want to be part of the action and merely report it.

The debate will focus on Rudd Labor’s perceived strength. Not so long ago this was regarded as climate change. Now it’s health. Few would doubt, in the wake of the collapse of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, health remains the big social issue of the day – as assessed by politicians and journalists. But is it the most significant?

Australia’s health system has many problems. Yet it functions reasonably well – compared with other OECD nations. There will always be inefficiencies in the hospital system – the task of Labor and the Coalition is to bring about as much reform as possible.

The most significant contemporary social problem which can be remedied without any great cost to the budget bottom line is youth unemployment. The argument over the government’s economic stimulus package, in response to the global financial crisis, turns on whether it was too big or just about right. But the essential criticism of Labor’s employment-creating program is it has not adequately tackled youth unemployment.

Data in the Bureau of Statistics’ latest Australian Social Trends report, released last week, broadly confirms what was already known. The industrial relations reforms, introduced by the Keating Labor government in the early 1990s and continued by the Howard Coalition government after 1996, provided a flexibility conducive to maintaining employment.

Employers retained their workforces by reducing hours. Some full-time employees worked fewer hours, other full-time workers became part-time. All up, women did better than men. Yet both men and women did much better than in the economic downturn of the early 1980s and early 1990s where unemployment rose to 10.3 per cent and 10.7 per cent respectively. Unemployment currently stands at a remarkably low 5.3 per cent.

That’s the good news. The bad news is very bad indeed. The full onset of the economic downturn of the last couple of years has been borne by young, poorly educated Australians of low socio-economic backgrounds. The statistics reveal 19 per cent of people aged 15 to 24 are not fully engaged in society, which means they are unemployed, or not in the labour force, or working part-time without being enrolled in study. It equates to 561,000 young Australians.

The breakdown comes as no surprise. It includes indigenous and other young people living in areas which experience the most socio-economic disadvantage. It consists of young people who left school without completing year 12 and who have not done any further study since then. In short, the poor and the poorly educated.

The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, have all claimed Labor’s economic stimulus has helped to maintain employment during the financial crisis. There is some truth in this.

However, if Labor is willing to accept praise for Australia’s relatively low unemployment, it should accept some responsibility for the impact of the economic downturn falling disproportionately on those least able to help themselves.

On the PM program last Wednesday, Gillard said there “is absolutely no evidence” of a link between low rates of youth participation in the workforce and Labor’s industrial relations policies. In recent times such senior Labor figures as Mark Arbib and Jason Clare have spoken about youth unemployment rates of close to 50 per cent in their electorate without accepting any responsibility for this.

Certainly Gillard has performed very well with respect to education. But her performance as industrial relations minister is not without blemish. Last April, the OECD released a report titled Jobs for Youth: Australia. It said “the gradual decentralisation of wage-selling arrangements since the early 1990s, with the introduction of individual contracts … is likely to have increased the labour market competitiveness of low-skilled youth”. It specifically warned the government not to price low-skilled youth out of entry-level jobs.

Regrettably, the reintroduction of unfair dismissal legislation covering small business has done precisely this. The assertion such provisions are not a disincentive to employers hiring young school leavers is invariably made by politicians, journalists, public servants and union officials who have never run a small business.

This disincentive will increase if the Fair Work Australia minimum wages panel decides on a significant increase in hourly rates of pay covering young workers when it hands down its findings some time before the end of the financial year.

Youth unemployment tends to afflict those with a lifetime replete with underemployment or welfare payments. It affects not just human happiness but also, in time, the health system due to the relationship between relative poverty and poor health.

This should warrant at least one question to the Prime Minister today from any one of the journalistic 10 on the National Press Club panel.