Bryce Edwards: The demographic shift in local government elections

Bryce Edwards: The demographic shift in local government elections

The results of the local government elections appear to show that New Zealanders are generally supportive of a more diverse range of representatives, having voted in greater numbers for candidates from traditionally under-represented groups.

The elections have therefore modernised our councils in a small but very significant way, helping address some long-standing imbalances in representation. Certainly, when it comes to gender and age, New Zealand’s local authorities have become more diverse over the weekend. In terms of ethnicity, it’s more complicated, and it will take longer to work out whether progress has occurred.

Talking to the NZ Herald’s Simon Collins, I termed the result “a diversity burst” and stated that a focus on diversity seems “to be the zeitgeist — people are wanting to see greater change in our local representatives.”  – see: Local council elections: ‘Diversity burst’ shatters council old boys’ club.

Collins reports: “Of the 63 local councils which have declared results so far, 25 per cent of the mayors are women — up from 19 per cent last time — and five of the 63 mayors are aged under 40.”

There is also a generally more ideologically progressive result across the country: “Certainly there is a more liberal direction, and by that I mean those candidates that stood on more progressive and environmental platforms seem to have done better than in the past”.

Voters have also been very willing to support new faces, with many incumbent politicians turfed out at this election. RNZ’s article, 44 percent turnout: voting numbers top two previous polls, states that this year’s “election results have injected a lot of new blood into local government”, with a much higher turnover of councillors than usual.

Local Government New Zealand spokesperson Mike Reid is quoted saying there’s “possibly more newer councillors than we’ve seen before; on average I guess probably about 30 to 35 percent councillors turnover.”

Wellington’s Labour Party mayor Justin Lester was a high-profile ousting – see Laura Walters’ Massive mayoral upset in the capital.

Some sort of youthquake 

The surge of youth representation is best reflected in the fact that there are now five mayors under the age of 40 (up from only two in 2016). Newshub lists them: “Campbell Barry (Hutt City); Nigel Bowen (Timaru); Sam Broughton (Selwyn); Aaron Hawkins (Dunedin); and Alex Walker (Central Hawke’s Bay)” – see Ella Prendergast and Dan Satherley’s NZ now has five Mayors under 40.

The above article quotes Local Government NZ’s Mike Reid explaining the increase: “Younger people are taking an interest in these elections in greater numbers than we’ve seen before, and often around themes like the environment… and wanting to see more local action on these issues.”

Elsewhere, Reid has also said that successful youth candidates actually tended to get higher votes than others: “One of the notable trends our analysis showed is that younger candidates were among the highest polling candidates in their wards”.

A 28 year old beat three-term Hutt City mayor Ray Wallace – see Georgina Campbell’s Hutt City elects Campbell Barry, NZ’s youngest mayor ever. This article explains other notable younger mayors from the past: “Joseph George Ward became mayor of Bluff in 1882 and Prime Minister in 1906. Former prime minister Norman Kirk was 30 when he became mayor of Kaiapoi in 1953, aged 30. Nick Leggett was 31 when he won the Porirua mayoralty in 2010.”

At the upper end of the “youth” bracket, Dunedin’s new mayor is 35-year-old Aaron Hawkins. For more about his win, see Joelle Dally’s Dunedin’s 35-year-old, hitch-hiking, Green Party mayor.

There have been some other significant elections of young people to councils, too. In Kāpiti, 18-year-old School Strike for Climate NZ co-ordinator Sophie Handford won a place on council – see Rosalie Willis’s 18-year-old wins seat on Kāpiti Coast District Council.

According to this, Handford sees her youth as her strength as a representative: “I’ll be the only person sitting around that table who knows what it’s like to be a teenager and a young person in this day and age… I think I’ll bring a forward-thinking approach to a lot of decisions, and a vision of what kind of Kāpiti we can create for the generations to come… We need to be represented diversely, and I’m excited that we are one step towards that now.”

Rotorua’s Fisher Wang, who has just turned 19 and works at McDonald’s, says his election shows “Anyone can be elected and we should see diversity as a strength” – see Zizi Sparks’ Fisher Wang elected as Rotorua Lakes Council’s youngest councilor.

Wang says: “It’s cool to see the community look past my age and see what I stand for and how I hope to contribute… One thing we’ve already done is bring more diversity into council. I want to bring a more youth and future-focused agenda.”

Some other notable high-profile new youth councillors include Tamatha Paul and Teri O’Neill, who were elected in Wellington, helping produce a “strong youthquake” according to Thomas Coughlan – see: Upsets, close calls and low turnout feature in the changing face of local body elections. He says, “around the country, councils are starting to look a bit more representative.”

Similarly, on Wellington’s region-wide council, there is said to have been a generational sea change, with young “fresh faces” elected – see Damian George’s Greater Wellington Regional Council hits refresh button with almost half of previous councillors gone.

According to new councillor, David Lee, “The public is actually demanding a refresh, and looking for much younger talent”, and he “said it was exciting to see so many new faces who didn’t qualify for a Super Gold Card”. Another new councillor, Ros Connelly, also said: “The regional council had a bit of a reputation of being a retirement village for ex-councillors. Now there are a number of people who see it as a place where they can affect change in its own right.”


Around the country, more women have been elected into office than before. Even the West Coast Regional Council, which was previously made up of only male politicians, now has two women on the seven-person board – see Paul Gorman and Matthew Littlewood’s New Canterbury regional council: younger, greener, gender balanced.

The same article reports that the newly-democratic Environment Canterbury (ECan) council now has a 50-50 gender balance: “the new council will have seven women and seven men, a much younger cohort of councillors”.

In the Nelson-Tasman region, a “women-quake” has been said to have jolted the two councils: “Both the Nelson-Tasman region’s councils have shifted from being male-dominated to having an almost perfect gender balance. The Nelson council this term will have seven women at its table – six councillors and the mayor. Tasman has doubled the number of female councillors it has from three to six” – see Skara Bohny’s New councillors excited to get to work on gender-balanced council.

Provincial New Zealand has had all sorts of advances in gender equality. For example, in the Hawke’s Bay, there are now three women mayors. In the Canterbury region, Jean Drage also reports: “The only woman mayor elected amongst this group of Canterbury based mayors is Marie Black in Hurunui district. This was a particularly significant election for a rural Canterbury council (and for local government itself) where the three mayoral candidates were all women” – see: No surprises with Christchurch mayoralty – but still some upsets.

In Hamilton, there have been some significant changes. Jo Lines-MacKenzie reports: “This year’s elections have seen voters shake up the status quo with a number of sitting councillors knocked out. Ousted are Garry Mallett, Siggy Henry, Leo Tooman, and James Casson and Andrew King. The change has brought a newfound diversity with preliminary votes revealing five women, plus mayor Paul Southgate elected” – see: Hamilton welcomes new councillors to the table.

Changes include the election of 28-year-old Sarah Thomson, who says: “There is a clear push for change from the voters and you can see a lot of new faces in there which historically hasn’t really happened. It’s a really exciting change of mood and direction from the people of the city.”

In New Zealand’s second biggest city, Tina Law reports, the council “just got a lot younger and a little more diverse. Three twenty-somethings have been elected onto the council and six women will sit around the table including re-elected mayor Lianne Dalziel. Last term there were five women and no councillors aged under 30” – see: Christchurch’s city council now has three twenty-somethings and slightly more women.

Debates about diversity

The increase in women and youth representatives appears to prove the theory of political scientists that the public is very willing to vote for candidates from under-represented groups, whether it be in terms of gender, ethnicity or age, but the absence of such candidates leads to under-representation.

As political scientist Janine Hayward of the University of Otago, says in terms of the Dunedin result: “Candidates were much more likely to be elected if they weren’t male: eight candidates who weren’t men stood in the DCC election and five women were elected… This sends a very strong message to future candidates that a diversity of people can get elected in Dunedin if a diversity of candidates stand for election” – see Chris Morris’ Voter turnout mostly down in the South.

Much of the changes relate to what political scientists sometimes refer to as improvements in “descriptive representation” – in which elected politicians possess more of the physical descriptions of the wider public that they represent. Contrasting this, is the idea of “substantive representation” in which politicians represent their constituents ideologically, in terms of their policies and ideas.

But does the improvement in descriptive representation need to be accompanied by better substantive representation? This is generally the point made by leftwing blogger Steven Cowan who says the focus on more young and female politicians is only “important for those who subscribe to middle class identity politics but what it doesn’t represent is an overturning of business as usual” – see: Politics as usual.

Cowan doesn’t feel that representation has improved: “A cursory examination of the supposed ‘diversity burst’, reveals a drearily familiar politics located squarely on the Labour-National spectrum. No one got elected representing a new brand of politics. No one got elected on a platform of working class politics. No one got elected as a socialist. What has been interpreted as a ‘diversity burst’ is actually just a bit of a much-need blood transfusion for the status quo. Will the new crop of local body politician behave differently from their predecessors? No. Will the bureaucracies behind them continue to operate in exactly the same way? Yes.”

Finally, of course, the increase in diversity in 2019 has probably not been a big surprise to anyone. And prior to the election I forecast that youth representation would increase – see: Is a local government “youthquake” happening? and that other problems of under-representation were being addressed in the election campaign – see: Diversity problems and solutions in local government.