Some people think reports of a greater number of young people standing in the local authority elections represents a “youthquake” in local government. It would be a good thing if it did. Hamilton City had the lowest voter turnout of all New Zealand metropolitan centres in 2016, with only 33.6% of those eligible casting a vote. Young voters turn out at an even lower rate, raising serious questions about the representation of their interests.
Turning these figures around is important if the concerns of young Hamiltonians are to be taken seriously by local government. We know those who stand for local elections tend to be older, with 70 per cent of this group being over age 50. When it comes to politics, the “oldies” do rule. It means, though, that young people don’t see representatives who look like them, but unless young people get out to vote nothing will change.
The situation is, however, a little more complicated than apathy amongst youth. The narrative that young people are not interested in politics is not supported by research. Younger people may not vote, but many are clearly interested in a wide range of political issues. Those who study the political behaviour of young people find many are involved in non-traditional ways, other than voting, through boycotts, petitions, protests, volunteering, and involvement in advocacy groups or charities. Young non-voters, then, are not necessarily disengaged, apathetic and always on their cell phones. Many are politically engaged in ways other than voting.
Voting is still important, and as a community we can do better by demystifying what is involved and improving awareness of how easy it is. The fact is, young people are unlikely to see their issues discussed around the council table if they do not vote. If it is only older people who fill out the voting forms and post them off, it will be their interests that shape the future of the city.
How can we create a context where young people have the information, skills, opportunities, and sense of being included – of having some “skin in the game” – so they feel able participate in the life of their neighbourhoods, towns and cities by voting?
We can begin by addressing a lack of knowledge about the electoral system. We can do better in the area of civics in schools and tertiary education environments. Teaching civics effectively is more than just about passing on facts about Parliament or the council system. Effective civic education involves encouraging a rich civic culture, creating ways for volunteering, and promoting stronger community connections. Young people gain a sense of civic efficacy by being involved in their communities. So civics and political literacy should be a goal.
Signs of promise
New Zealand millennials such as Jacinda Ardern and Golriz Ghahraman, post-millennials like Chloe Swarbrick, and recently elected US House of Representatives members including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, represent a new and assertive generation of politicians. Similarly, it is young people who are leading the challenge to Brexit in Britain, in response to what they see as the betrayal of their futures by the ruling elite.
The School Strike 4 Climate represents a fresh expression of agency by post-millennials who likewise feel betrayed, in this instance by the lack of action on climate change by current political leaders. This year secondary school and university students, inspired by Geta Thunberg, have led a worldwide movement pressuring central governments and local authorities for stronger action.
It’s not only climate change that is motivating young activists in New Zealand. The unaffordability of housing is a critical issue facing 20 and 30 somethings, and for many, home ownership is no longer possible. Untaxed residential housing speculation plays a large role in driving up house prices, but the government back down on capital gains tax wasn’t in response to the demands of young people. It is young people, though, who will carry the cost of that in the future as speculation in residential housing continues without restraint. Other issues include concerns about healthcare, especially mental health, employment, and inequality. Today’s younger generation face the prospect of working longer, and retiring at an older age, with much less security.
Against the background of these issues we may be seeing a new degree of generational assertiveness, where younger people are claiming the right to have a say about policies that affect their futures. This surge of interest by millennials and post-millennials demanding to have their issues heard in New Zealand politics offers hope.
Getting Out to Vote in the 2019 Local Elections
Will this translate into more young people voting in the October elections? Voting is more likely when you feel you have a stake. One thing we can do is avoid referring to local elections as “pointless bore-fests”. They’re not pointless as they profoundly affect the public policy decisions that shape our local communities, and they’ll be much less of a bore-fest with younger candidates standing.
Young political candidates inspire younger voters, and are more likely to galvanise a response from young voters who feel more invested when they see their issues being expressed.
The push-back argument that young people do not have the necessary civic knowledge, life experience or maturity to be trusted in positions as elected representatives reflects a “deficit” model of youth, a view that young people tend to be impulsive and irrational and not able to take responsibility for their own lives, let alone others’. According to this view, we need candidates with more life experience, gained through careers where skills and leadership have had the opportunity to develop and grow. This is the implicit assumption that underpinned criticisms of Jacinda Ardern as being out of her depth – criticisms that have been much harder to sustain in the face of her extraordinary display of compassionate leadership in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack. The insidious narrative that, by comparison with older people, younger elected representatives lack the capability and competence for leadership should be seen for what it is – an argument to protect the status quo and one that should be challenged.
Young people are getting involved, but they need to channel their participation through voting as well. That’s why we ran a “Get Out to Vote” event at the University of Waikato on 13 August. The event aligned with a nationwide move to increase the level of participation by young voters and reverse low voter turnout rates.
Chloe Swarbrick, former Auckland mayoral candidate and now Green MP, headlined a panel of young leaders from our community in a discussion of some of the critical issues facing the city. Other key speakers included: Hannah Huggan from the School Strike 4 Climate, Kelli Pike from Politics in the Tron, and Nathan Rahui from the Waikato Student Union.
They each identifed issues that are a political priority for younger voters in the upcoming local government elections. Encouraging civic participation and intergenerational inclusion has much potential to curb the trend of youth non-voting. Doing so will bring the benefits of a more diverse set of perspectives reinvigorate our collective conversations about our community. Hamilton needs a “youthquake” and it might be just happening.
Political Science and Public Policy
The University of Waikato