Bryce Edwards: Is a local government “youthquake” happening?

Bryce Edwards: Is a local government “youthquake” happening?

Could the most interesting aspect of the current local government elections turn out to be generational change? At the moment, there is a surge of media and activist focus on younger candidates standing for office. It suddenly seems to be “cool” again to want to be a local body politician.

Some are calling the apparent surge of youth candidates “the Swarbrick effect”, after the surprisingly successful 2016 Auckland mayoralty campaign by now-Green MP Chloe Swarbrick when she was only 22. Others are calling it a “youthquake”, and pointing to the global Zeitgeist of young people getting involved in political activism, standing for office, and rallying against climate change.

Yesterday’s Political Roundup column looked at expected voter participation in this year’s elections – see: Will more than a third vote in the local government elections? Part of the problem in the past has been a very low voter turnout for youth. But perhaps that might change if young would-be voters see a number of dynamic young people standing for office and drawing attention to issues that interest them more.

There are an unprecedented number of young candidates standing for office this year – the best available count of candidates under the age of 40 puts the number at 86. Many of these are young women, as covered last week in a four-minute item by Whena Owen for TVNZ’s Q+A – see: Wellington council candidate part of global movement of young women ‘standing up and stepping up’.

Amongst various young candidates interviewed, 21-year-old Victoria Rhodes-Carlin, who’s running for the Wellington Regional Council, explains what has inspired her to stand: “Pania Newton and Greta Thunberg are both inspirations for me. And other women such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US. There’s a movement of young women across the world standing up and stepping into leadership positions.”

To get a sense of the growing movement of youth candidates, and the fact that many of them are consciously working together as a generation, see Todd Niall and Brittany Keogh’s article about a new closed social media page titled “Young People taking over Local Government 2019” – see: Young candidates’ secret Facebook page as they unite for local elections.

Here’s the main part: “A secret Facebook page is part of a nationwide move by young candidates for their generation to be heard in October’s local body elections. From mayoral to local board campaigns, the mostly 20-somethings are determined to gain a democratic foothold and inspire one of the least-likely groups of voters to tune-in. Unusually in politics, their pitch to voters is less about ‘Why me’ and more about ‘Why my generation’, and the communities they represent.”

Driven by climate change and other generational issues

The above article quotes one candidate, Sophie Handford (18), saying “There is this whole kind of notion of a ‘youth quake’ and I’m definitely feeling that. It’s awesome to be a part of that.” Handford is one of the leaders organising the Strike 4 Climate marches, and she says she’s standing for the Kāpiti Coast District Council because “she struggled to find anyone she identified with or who seemed concerned about what she considered to be big issues facing her generation – climate change, youth homelessness, community resilience.”

Many other youth candidates are also citing climate change as their main motivation for becoming politicians. See for example today’s RNZ article, Younger diverse range of kiwis make bid at local elections. This item profiles three young women who are part of a “new generation of politically active people who want change.”

One 21-year-old profiled, Rabeea Anayatullah, who is standing for Porirua City Council says: “Young people are leading at the moment on things like climate change. All the rallies you see at parliament – there’s always young people backing [them]… I think we are already leading today, but having young people at that decision-making level is so crucial because it is our future.”

It’s becoming apparent that the various climate change actions and other current activist concerns are now also driving youth into more official forms of politics such as local government. Victoria University of Wellington academic, Amanda Thomas is quoted in this regard, saying “Out of [the school strike for climate change] we’ve seen a bunch of young people who’ve put themselves forward to run for councils” – see Nicholas Boyack’s A climate of change: Calls for diversity at the council table in 2019.

According to this article, Thomas “said activism was a growing gateway for young people to realise their political power. She said events like the student strike for climate movement and protesting development at Ihumātao helped young people who were involved better understand of their ability to be politically powerful and affect change.” Furthermore, “Thomas said she expected more youth engagement with the local authorities in the coming years, especially on issues of decolonisation, housing, climate justice and social security issues.”

In terms of climate change, another Victoria University of Wellington academic, Jonathan Boston, suggests the surge of youth candidates is driven by “a growing disconnect between generations over climate change.” The article reports: “Boston said it is more important than ever that young people are elected to councils, which nation-wide have been slow to grasp the threat posed by climate change.  Young people are rightly concerned about their future and Boston urged councils to start listening to them or risk going head to head on the ballot.”

Similarly, Waikato University political scientist Patrick Barrett says a youthquake is exactly what is needed at the moment, and young people might be the answer to making this year’s election more interesting and relevant to people, driving up voter turnout and ensuring that important big issues are dealt with – see: Council polling day in cross hairs for young Hamilton voters.

Here’s his main point: “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 Greta 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.”

Barrett detects something new going on in terms of generational politics: “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.”

And he heralds the arrival of a new generation of leaders locally and globally: “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.”

The need for more youth candidates

Traditionally, elected politics is not the territory of youth. Although local government is becoming more diverse, this is happening only slowly, and young people continue to be severely underrepresented at council level.

For a must-read analysis of the current demographics of the various elected offices, see Charlie Mitchell’s article, The white, male, middle-aged face of local government. In this he shows how in 2001 only 2.2 per cent of elected figures were under the age of 40, and by 2016 it was 6 per cent.

Here are his main findings: “The median New Zealander, as of 2019, is around 38 years old. This means roughly half of New Zealanders are younger than 38, and roughly half are older than 38 (and some, of course, are 38). Taking into account the quarter of the population who can’t stand for council because they’re younger than 18, this would mean, all things being equal, around 215 councillors should be aged between 18 and 38… As of 2019, the number of councillors nationwide who are either 37 years old or younger is approximately 32, nearly seven times fewer than would be expected given their share of the population.”

Mitchell suggests that to make the councils proportionally balanced by age, about 180 seats would have to be won by the under-40s at this election. And he says that there does seem to be a move in the right direction, with more candidates standing: “with the rapidly warming climate, low housing affordability, and gender and racial inequality emerging as key issues for young people, political momentum may be with the young. Already this year, an unprecedented number of young candidates have put their names forward.”

Of course, many councils already make attempts to consult younger citizens who aren’t represented at the council chambers. But is that enough? Do the various “youth councils” and other mechanisms amount to real consultation or are they just tokenistic box-ticking? This is well discussed in Brittany Keogh’s Young people sick of being ‘at the kiddie table’ in local government.

The chair of Local Government New Zealand’s youth elected member committee, Aaron Hawkins (34), is reported making some good points about this, believing “youth councils tended to attract ‘high achieving prefects’ who didn’t represent all young people in a community, so councils should also consult with youth who were less political inclined to make sure their voices were heard.” And he concludes that “I think doing it in a tokenistic way can be worse than doing nothing at all.”

The new generation of candidates profiled

Currently the media appears to be making a significant effort to profile younger candidates for office in this year’s election. Below are some of the more interesting examples.

Four young Wellington region candidates are profiled by Kate Green in her article, Young candidates step up for Wellington council roles. It is pointed out that in the Wellington ward of the Greater Wellington Regional Council, four of the five incumbents are over the age of 70. And in Porirua, where 40 per cent of the population is under the age of 30, there are no elected politicians of that age.

In Auckland, 21-year-old Jannaha Henry is standing for mayor, and is profiled by Todd Niall – see: Auckland mayoral race: 21-year-old to run.

In Wellington, the current president of the Victoria University Students Association is standing for council saying she’s standing because of the “huge gap between the people that are supposed to be representing us and what we think and care about” – see Emme McKay’s Wellington council candidate ready to start a ‘youthquake’ in capital.

In Dunedin, Ryan Jones (22) is standing for a second term for a community board, and says “This election I’ll be pushing for more young people to stand in the city council and community board elections. Hopefully, we’ll see a higher turnout as a result of that” – see Juliet Speedy’s Increased number of young candidates looking to stand in 2019 local body elections.

In the Hutt Valley, the two mayors have been there for a long time, but are both being challenged by “young turks” – see Matthew Tso’s Battle of the generations in Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt mayoral races.

One of the youngest candidates this year is Rohan O’Neill-Stevens (19), who says “I think the tide is turning” on generational and diversity politics – see Skara Bohny’s A Nelson teen is running for council after watching along for two years.

Māori TV has a profile of Maungakiekie-Tāmaki councillor Nerissa Henry (31) and Bay of Plenty councillor Arapeta Tahan (38), who says “It is a big deal for youth to be on our councils so they can change the thinking and the culture of these boards” – see Talisa Kupenga’s Local govt reps want more rangatahi on councils.

But how will the various new generation candidate fare if they make it into office? Nicola Martin is an enthusiast for the current “youthquake”, but she worries that it’s not going to work out: “I wonder how good the fit is going to be when they are faced with the reality of the cumbersome nature of local government politics” – see: Surviving local government reality.

Looking at some of the new candidates for change, such as Louise Hutt (26) running for the Hamilton mayoralty, Martin says: “People like her want change, they have big ideas and they want to see action. So, I’ve also been wondering, if they get elected, how long it will take for the aftershocks to hit. How long before their millennial enthusiasm is reduced to rubble by the lethargic speed of the local government democratic process?”

Finally, for the younger options in your own area, see this online spreadsheet that has been put together by many of the young candidates standing for office – see: Young + Young Adjacent Candidates – Local Body – 2019.