Candidate data shows the dominance of local body politics by people over 40 is set to continue. But this year’s oldest and youngest candidates tell Heidi Bendikson they have plenty to offer.
While the gains seen in 2019’s “youthquake” have not been lost, nearly half of this year’s candidates hover around the late boomer age range – between 50 and 69. Data from those candidates who identified their age on Policy.nz also show over 70% are aged between 40 and 69.
Local Government New Zealand (launched a campaign in May this year to encourage a more diverse range of candidates, including a greater range of age groups. However, data from candidates who have responded to Policy.nz’s questionnaire reveals only a minor decrease in the median age of candidates – 51 compared with 2019’s 53.
Currently, around half of candidates in contested elections have responded to Policy.nz’s questionnaire. And there are fewer under-20s this year. In 2019, nine 18-year-olds ran for local bodies, but this year there is only one – Alex Hewison, for the Linwood Community Board.
Hewison thinks New Zealand needs more civics education to get other young people involved in all levels of politics. “I’ve talked to lots of young people recently and a lot of them don’t even know what a community board is,” he says.
He became politically engaged after seeing the impact of the Christchurch earthquakes, despite being just seven years old when they struck. “I think growing up on the east side of Christchurch after the earthquakes is what really kept me engaged. We are sort of seeing some sides of town being fixed up almost straight away and then the east being what I would say is neglected.”
Eleven years on, he says they are still waiting for the basics.
While Hewison values the experience of older candidates, he emphasises the need for youth around the local board tables. “We need a community board that can reflect the community. That is why being a young candidate is good to me, because we need a diverse community board that delivers the best results. In 2019 we had more candidates named John than we did candidates born after 1980.”
Waikato University senior public policy lecturer Patrick Barrett says that international research shows that younger voters are less likely to be interested in participating in politics if they do not see people like themselves represented or standing for elections. However, the 2019 “youthquake” had minimal impact on youth voting with 18 to 24-year-olds twice as likely not to vote in local elections and only 65% of that age group enrolled to vote.
And it is not just younger people that need representation.
At 85, Teviot community board candidate Russell Read is not a baby boomer, but a member of the “silent generation”. He wants to assure voters that he is up for the job. Having run marathons and coming from what he calls “a long-life family”, he still has gas in the tank. “I’ve certainly got three years,” he says.
Read does not use email, but offers a wealth of experience having been a teacher, psychologist, deer farmer, orchardist and the chair of various boards. He has a bet going with the local publican on how much longer he will live for, but his limited years left do not stop him from considering the future. He is a grandfather and great-grandfather.
Traditionally it has been younger candidates who have championed climate change and environmental measures, but Read’s top policy priority this election is the environment, according to his policy.nz profile.
His path to conservationism was a pragmatic one – drawing from time spent in nature hunting, fishing and farming. “I think there is an increasing awareness of farmers to protect their land and act as conservators of the land. [Their attitudes] have changed a lot in the last 50 years,” he says before detailing his plans for more tree planting and cycle trails.
LGNZ chief executive Susan Freeman-Green says they want council and local board table to represent the diversity of the people they represent.
“The decisions councils take now have a huge hand in things like being ready for climate change, the arts and culture we can participate in, and what our towns and cities will look like in 30 years’ time. These are all things that people of all ages care a lot about.”
She acknowledges that, while they saw the number of elected representatives under 40 nearly double in 2019, “they could do much better.”
While it may seem predictable that those between 40 and 69 are more likely to have enough economic stability and flexibility to forgo full-time work in favour of the council office, Read doesn’t see that as an excuse. At least not at the local board level.
“It is a certain commitment. But not a lot of time. You can fit it into a job pretty easily.”