The president of the Vic Uni students association is leading a ‘youthquake’ as five leaders under 25 try to follow Chlöe Swarbrick into the halls of power, writes Peter McKenzie.
It wasn’t a conventional campaign launch. Someone’s laptop cycled through a Spotify playlist of grungy music. The oldest person present looked to be in their late 20s (at a stretch). Somebody had bought a few crates of Tui for the event with their allowance for course-related costs. They didn’t last long. Biggie, the candidate’s tiny bulldog, loped around slobbering over the attendees.
An hour after the event was due to start, people were called to sit down. Sitting on the carpeted floor, or perched on plush sofas, they watched as the candidate strode to centre stage: Tamatha Paul, the 22-year old President of the Victoria University of Wellington Students Association (VUWSA), and the newest candidate for Wellington City Council.
Nervously clutching her phone, Paul began to speak. She noted the urgency of the issues youth face: climate change, inequality and mental health. Having pointed out the lethargic approach of older councillors, she declared that it was time to turf them out. And she explained why she was running as an independent: “I’m sick of that party bullshit”.
Chlöe Swarbrick cheered loudly from the back of the room. It was surprising and predictable in equal measure. Surprising because Swarbrick, a Green MP, is part of that “party bullshit”. But predictable because as much as anything else, it was Swarbrick’s failed campaign for the Auckland mayoralty and subsequent election to parliament at the astonishingly young age of 23 that’s driven the tremendous surge of young New Zealanders getting involved in local body politics.
Swarbrick is quick to push back on the idea that she’s special.
“I’m just a random person who fell down the rabbit hole of protesting in a way that ended up with me having a job. I refute the fact that I am in any way special.”
However, others disagree. “If it wasn’t for having such a competent 22-year old step into parliament, do a mean job of it, and actually be two to three times better than some of the people who have been there for age… If it wasn’t for her, I bet you that there’d be a whole lot more haters at the moment,” said Paul.
The wave of young candidates Swarbrick has in part inspired can be seen all around the country. But it’s most obvious in Wellington, which is unsurprising given its hyper-political nature. In addition to Paul, there are five other Wellingtonians under 25 running in local body races: Teri O’Neill is running for Wellington City Council’s Eastern Ward, Joshua Trlin and Rabeea Inayatullah are running for Porirua City Council’s Northern Ward, Sophie Handford is running for a seat on the Kapiti Coast District Council, and Victoria Rhodes-Carlin is hoping to ride a wave of anti-incumbent fervour to a seat on the Greater Wellington Regional Council.
Their campaigns will be difficult, but Swarbrick doesn’t think young candidates should care. “Well, yeah it is [difficult]. But what do we have to lose? At the end of the day, local government and even central government is overrun by disproportionately older people who own capital in the form of properties, and it is therefore not representative of the majority of New Zealanders.” To Swarbrick, something clearly needs to change.
Indeed, local and central government are often systems which actively repel engagement by young people. A few days after her campaign launch, Paul sat in the VUWSA offices – a sprawling warren packed with blackboards and posters, old food and unwashed mugs. Sipping on instant coffee and peeling a mandarin, she explained that engaging with local government “has always been frustrating.” She would “go to all these neighbourhood communities and know that the university… and also the councillors for [Lambton] Ward weren’t doing anything about it.” Instead, she felt that the city’s decision-makers found it easier to “scapegoat students”, an approach she thought was pathetic. That failure by WCC to engage with the concerns of students and young people convinced Paul that older politicians couldn’t be relied upon to address youth-centric issues.
It was a belief echoed by Teri O’Neill, the young Labour candidate for WCC’s Eastern Ward. O’Neill has years of local body experience as a member of WCC’s Youth Council – the group of young Wellingtonians nominally meant to provide youth feedback to their councillor counterparts. Sitting in the Hub at Victoria University’s Kelburn campus after having just dodged out of a Climate Challenge conference, she wryly grinned as she talked of how after submitting lengthy feedback on the WCC’s Long-Term Plan, the first question she received from a councillor was: “Do you even pay rates?”.
After years of trying, she finally concluded that “they’d never really take climate change as seriously as you’d want them to… If you want something done well, do it yourself.”
In light of the observed dismissiveness of councillors towards young people, it’s entirely predictable that young people have, until now, remained disengaged. Swarbrick laughed ruefully as she observed that “in my personal experience, young people are far from apathetic. They just feel disenfranchised and distrustful of a system that has never sought to represent them or come out with anything that would benefit their lives.”
The staggering exclusion of youth in local government could, perhaps, be tolerated if the issues which young people faced weren’t so urgent. Unfortunately, they are. “Young people recognise that if something isn’t done now, then we’re kind of screwed.”
Swarbrick’s view was one others repeatedly echoed. Paul pointed to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent warning that the world has just 12 years to implement drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“Young people have gotten to a point where we realise that we don’t have time on our side anymore… It’s like, fuck, we actually need to do this now, we don’t have time. The people who are making these decisions now do not have urgency in mind.”
That urgency isn’t limited to environmental issues, although that’s certainly a defining challenge for all the young candidates running. They’re also championing other issues which are having a huge impact on young people, such as widening economic inequality, social isolation, and perhaps most prominently, mental health. In 2018 there were over 21 suicides for every 100,000 people in the 20-24 age bracket, virtually guaranteeing that every young person knows someone affected by suicide. That’s reflective of the intense rates of psychological distress, anxiety and depression experienced by younger New Zealanders.
Having been spurred to action by these generational imperatives, it helps that these young candidates are able to look to examples of political success by other young people. Putting aside Swarbrick’s political story, the ongoing success of recent youth movements has also been incredibly impactful. Consider #SchoolStrikes4Climate which has twice rallied tens of thousands of high school and university students across the country (and whose strikes are scheduled to continue and grow in intensity over time).
“The people currently speaking up are young people,” emphasised O’Neill. “We’ve seen 10,000 high school and university students mobilise around the School Strikes march.”
Another example is Generation Zero, the climate change advocacy organisation which drafted the initial version of and lobbied for the Zero Carbon Bill, which James Shaw, the Minister for Climate Change, recently submitted to Parliament for consideration and approval.
Swarbrick repeatedly emphasised the potential impact of these political successes. “If people were to truly recognise the power that exists among numbers and communities, then our political landscape would look entirely different. And I feel that those sentiments are the sparks which are starting to fly at a local government level.”
Keeping in mind this pattern of reawakened youthful passion for and success in the political arena, the challenge of running for office doesn’t seem quite so daunting.
That’s not to say that those challenges aren’t significant. The student and youth response to the candidacies of Paul, O’Neill and other young council aspirants has been positive, but hardly overwhelming. And in a local body environment where students make up small minorities of voters, these young candidates will have to win over older voters whose scepticism will be more severe.
In particular, all these young candidates will face scrutiny over their experience and qualifications relative to older, more conventionally prepared candidates. Swarbrick pointed out that “it seems that there is a general consensus out there in the public that somehow, simply by virtue of living a certain number of years, you collect life experience juju.”
It’s a challenge which young candidates are ready for. Perched at a cafe table, exhausted after finishing work at his central city office job, Josh Trlin (the candidate for Porirua City Council’s Northern Ward) chuckles.
“Yup, maybe I don’t have some of the experience other candidates do. But I do have the experience of growing up as part of this generation facing a particular set of challenges which other generations haven’t. We’ve got the looming threat of climate change, massive amounts of student loan debt, the housing crisis, mental health problems. I don’t have the same experience, but I do have different experience.”
Paul made a similar point. “I want to see people who can stand there and say ‘Yes, I have struggled with mental health issues before. Yes, I rent my house. Yes, I catch the bus every day. Yes, I have anxiety attacks over the state of the environment. I want someone that is legitimate, that isn’t this smooth-edged person, that is exactly the same as all of us.”
But she also takes a more aggressive line. Part of her speech at her campaign launch (and as part of the subsequent pitch she’s making to voters) was that older political figures can be less competent. “Some of the people that I interact with in some of these positions are just clueless. Absolutely clueless. I look around at all my mates and think, damn, some of you are smarter than the people in these positions, and that’s wrong, you know.”
Paul’s aggressive approach mirrored Swarbrick’s who explained that “people who, and I mean no disrespect, but people who have lived 30 or 40 years longer than I have spent the majority of that time doing the same thing, day in and day out. They’re not necessarily exposed to novel or new ideas or ways of thinking… I don’t have lived experience in the sense of how things have always been done, but I think that’s a good thing, because the way things that always have been done has delivered us this mess.”
Getting these messages out and finding the resources to run a successful campaign poses another challenge. “A lot of the standard advice that you’ll get is tailored to people that are older and have access to more resources,” said Trlin. “I’ve talked to candidates who have been around for a while and you hear things like ‘It’s important to reach out and ask for $100 or $200 from this many people,’ and I’m like, I don’t have a single person who I’d feel comfortable asking for $200 from. Except for like, maybe my parents. Even then I’d be uncomfortable.”
Swarbrick is a firm believer that youth are particularly well placed to overcome that resource disparity. “We just have to do what our generation is very good at doing, which is proving ourselves time and again, and also showcase that far from being apathetic, younger people are some of the most crafty, wily, creative and connective people that you’ll ever come across. We have to make something from nothing.”
As reassuring as that vision of self-sufficiency sounds, Trlin and O’Neill have taken extra steps to address that resource disparity by aligning themselves with the Labour Party to tap into its organising machine. O’Neill noted that one of the great things about being on the Labour ticket is “that I have direct links to the mayor and others”, which helps with rustling up volunteers, drafting policies and getting financial support.
Others, like Paul and Inayatullah, have heeded Swarbrick’s message and chosen to run as independents. Paul hopes that “there’s a real sense of authenticity and of being genuine behind being an independent candidate… the reason I never affiliated with youth political groups is because people see those colours and it just reminds them of all the times they’ve been let down or ignored.”
Of course, it also helps that all of these candidates have existing political experience and networks. As the President of VUWSA, Paul has spent countless hours meeting and building relationships with MPs, councillors and activists. O’Neill worked as a lobbyist for Hawker Britton, which specialises in peddling influence with Labour/left-wing governments. Inayatullah is a former President of the Victoria University Politics Society. Trlin is a lawyer at Russell McVeagh and a long-time Labour activist. The privileged experiences of these candidates give them unique insight into the reality and requirements of political campaigning.
It would be easy to conclude that the surge in young candidates will stop here; limited to young people who are already in a privileged position and who have lengthy political experience. But the evidence points to a strong domino effect: where one young candidate runs, ten others take notice.
That could be seen even among the young candidates running in the Wellington region. “I thought I was going to be the only [young candidate],” commented O’Neill, who was the first to announce her candidacy. But her announcement directly inspired at least one other candidate.
“One of the big ones was when Teri said she was running,” said Trlin, “and I thought, ‘That’s so cool, I wish someone was doing that out in Porirua,’ and then realised, maybe I should put up my hand.”
With a general election looming in 2020, it seems like a sign of things to come. As our interview wound to a close, Paul downed the remainder of her coffee and declared that “it’s going to be exactly the same for the general election next year, even bigger I reckon. We’re going to have so many young people standing. And I think it really shows that it’s an urgency thing… people feel passionate, they feel uncertain that the current representatives are going to voice those concerns, and so they’re just like, ‘Fuck it, we’ll just do it ourselves’.”
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.