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Five candidates share their experiences of representing communities throughout Aotearoa (Image: Tina Tiller)
Five candidates share their experiences of representing communities throughout Aotearoa (Image: Tina Tiller)

Local Elections 2022August 26, 2022

What it’s really like representing your community as a young person

Five candidates share their experiences of representing communities throughout Aotearoa (Image: Tina Tiller)
Five candidates share their experiences of representing communities throughout Aotearoa (Image: Tina Tiller)

The 2019 local body elections saw a ‘youthquake’ of young elected officials. Three years on, some of those candidates share their experiences.

Your local elected official is most likely 40 and over. In fact, 90% of city, district and regional councillors and local board members were born before the early 1980s.

But something shifted in 2019 – a “youthquake” rippled through Aotearoa at the last local election. Preliminary figures showed the number of elected officials under 30 doubled to 30 after the ballot, and their under-40 counterparts increased by half, to 91.

Unfortunately, that youthful exuberance on the ballot didn’t translate to voter turnout. Generally, 18- to 24-year-olds are twice as likely not to vote in local elections. In fact, voter turnout at local elections is low across all age groups – typically 40% lower than in general elections – and this year there is even a lack of people standing as candidates.

These five young people, however, are putting their hats in the ring – four for a second term, and the fifth for the very first time. We asked how their age has informed and affected their work as local representatives.

Kāpiti Coast District councillor Sophie Handford (Photo: Facebook)

Sophie Handford (no affiliation)

Three years ago, Sophie Handford became one of New Zealand’s youngest councillors when she won a seat on the Kāpiti Coast District Council. Earlier in 2019, the former Kāpiti College head girl was the youth member of parliament for Mana, the electorate that former cabinet minister and Labour MP Kris Faafoi then held. Handford also hit headlines that year as the national coordinator of School Strike 4 Climate, helping mobilise tens of thousands of students and adults to protest climate change inaction.

But during the campaign to represent the Paekākāriki-Raumati ward, the 18-year-old remembers worrying her age would put off voters. Handford recalls “the odd person” dismissing her experience and perspective – interactions that “amplified” her own doubts that young people didn’t belong on local councils. “They almost want us to believe, as young people, that we don’t necessarily have a place around the table because that’s just how they’ve been,” she says. “That’s how they’ve thrived.”

Trying to overcome teen angst and have the self-confidence to represent ratepayers, business owners and other community members would be an intense experience for any 18-year-old, and Handford says it was challenging. But three years on, she hopes she’s made it easier for 18-year-olds to see themselves in her seat. “It can be tough, it can be a little bit rough at times,” she says. “We just have to support each other.”

Kritika Selach (independent)

“I’m young, but I’m not naïve,” says Kritika Selach, a first-time candidate running for Papakura Local Board. For the last four years, the 18-year-old has been working with the board as a member of Papakura Youth Council. But Selach wants a seat on the board itself – the same local board that boasts ex-All Black Keven Mealamu as a member.

Selach is already priming herself for pushback based on her age. “If someone were to tell me I’m too young, that wouldn’t mean I would back down,” she says. And she knows how she’ll respond to voters’ doubts, given she’s familiar with the ins-and-outs of local government processes. “I’m not going into the space not knowing anything.”

Born in Aotearoa to Punjabi parents who emigrated from India over two decades ago, Selach says she hasn’t received any racist abuse yet. But she’s conscious her ethnicity might be a focal point. Regardless, she’s buoyed by a desire to help, so she’s not at all deterred by what lies ahead of her. “I have to be solid about that because I can’t let these things affect my mindset.”

Rotorua Lakes councillor Fisher Wang (Photo: Facebook)

Fisher Wang (independent)

As much as the last three years have been rewarding, they’ve been tough for Fisher Wang – so much so that the youngest elected councillor to Rotorua Lakes Council contemplated not running again this year. Last month, it was reported the 21-year-old’s hesitancy to seek re-election was because of ageist and racist abuse he had encountered in his maiden term.

“No matter how thick your skin is, sometimes there will still be things that do get to you,” says Wang, whose parents emigrated to New Zealand from Taiwan. “And, unfortunately, sometimes it does get to you.” Simply trying to convince people of his solutions is tough enough. “But then [to] have people question your age or your ethnicity or things that do not matter, it’s a bit disheartening.”

Sadly, such vitriol is becoming a hallmark of local representatives’ experiences. A recent Local Government New Zealand survey backs up Wang’s experience – nearly half of elected officials reported being the target of harassment or derogatory behaviours in their roles, and almost a quarter have been unsure how to report those encounters. 

Wang describes the abuse he’s faced as having “gnawed away” at him. “I’m an optimistic person and I felt that I was losing a bit of that,” he says. He eventually decided to seek reelection, but he took his time, talking to his nearest and dearest and thinking back to why he stood in 2019. Young people living in Rotorua don’t see a bright future if they stay, nor do they see potential, Wang says. “That was one of the reasons why I wanted to stay.”

Wellington City councillor Tamatha Paul (Photo: Facebook)

Tamatha Paul (Greens)

From the jump, Wellington City councillor Tamatha Paul (Ngāti Awa, Waikato-Tainui) stamped out “snarky” comments from her colleagues about her lack of experience. Elected at 22 to represent the Pukehīnau-Lambton ward in 2019, the wahine Māori who grew up in Tokoroa was conscious of the optics of a young person accepting the cut and thrust of local politics – especially to other young people. Older councillors “throw your inexperience in your face to try and quieten you down – which I was never going to do anyway,” she says. “So it didn’t last very long, a couple of months, and then they got with the programme.”

Three years on, Paul is still “unapologetically” herself. She admits to being ruthless and uncompromising about her proposed solutions, and says she works hard to garner trust and support from across the political aisle, including from those she naturally disagrees with. In everything she does, Paul says she practises a “politics of aroha”, a kind of representation steeped in te ao Māori values of utu, whanaungatanga and manaakitanga that puts the homeless, council housing tenants and other marginalised people at its centre “because they’re never a factor in local government”. 

Her authenticity has ruffled feathers and made it easy for the media to pigeonhole her as an activist. But Paul reckons it’s more appropriate to perceive her as someone who challenges ideas, not people. “Even when I’m angry about an issue, upset about something or frustrated by how slowly something’s moving, it still comes from a place of aroha.”

Nelson City councillor Rohan O’Neill-Stevens (Photo: Facebook)

Rohan O’Neill-Stevens (no affiliation)

Nelson City councillor Rohan O’Neill-Stevens, 22, admits he didn’t think he’d get elected back in 2019, for it would’ve been “quite a step for Nelson to elect an unknown 19-year-old”. But elected they were, and three years later, they’ve chosen to run for the mayoralty.

O’Neill-Stevens will preside over a different council should they win: six of the current 13 members are leaving at the end of this term, with some complaining of a workplace beset by frustration and in-fighting. While O’Neill-Stevens is staying put, they say a lot of their first term has involved navigating a “quite toxic working culture”, and that same toxicity puts some Nelsonians off engaging in local politics. Asked how their age might shape the council they’d hope to lead, the mayoral hopeful says they’re not as “indoctrinated or enamoured” as others might be of treating politics as theatre. “It’s not theatre for the people who we’re making decisions about. It’s their lives.”

When O’Neill-Stevens ran for a council seat in 2019, they addressed their age by trying to avoid being pigeonholed into speaking about youth issues. Instead, they spoke about policy and solutions. This time around, they’re pushing a more nuanced understanding of age, encouraging voters to contemplate more tangible yardsticks, like experience and skillsets. It’s an understanding informed by older people expressing to O’Neill-Stevens they don’t want to feel written off because they are too old – a sentiment young people can empathise with. Those generations of Nelsonians tell the 22-year-old councillor that they won’t write them off as too young either. “Those barriers of age are probably hyped up a lot more than they actually can be in reality.”

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