Since political parties have existed, so too have their enthusiastic young leaders. In exclusive interviews with The Spinoff, eight MPs take us down memory lane on how they got their start in politics.
Watch Youth Wings, The Spinoff’s new six-part documentary series that goes behind the O Week stalls to get to know some of the youngest and most passionate members of New Zealand’s main political parties.
Simon Bridges – Young Nats, 1990s
Former National Party leader Simon Bridges was 16 when he joined the Young Nats. “Oh, it’s a while ago,” he says when asked what made him decide to join. “I think I saw some signs being put up at the Countdown where I worked.”
Bridges quickly moved up the ranks from the Te Atatu branch to become chair of the Northern Young Nats where he “had a couple of tilts at being president and lost spectacularly both times”.
“It was such a big deal at the time – I got badges done up [with] ‘Vote Simon for President’ and even handed out brochures … I still lost.”
For Bridges, being a member of the Young Nats was “the best and worst of times … My marks suffered at university and I wasted so much time and energy on a lot of fruitless debates and battles.”
On the other hand, Bridges says, “I wouldn’t have won Tauranga against Winston Peters if I hadn’t wasted all that time learning what to do, and not to do.”
During his time, the Young Nats even received defamation letters as well as “a massive scolding from [former National prime minister] Jim Bolger. He didn’t like that we said the ‘wheels are falling off his campaign’ in our newsletter”.
Winston Peters – Young Nats, 1970s
Deputy prime minister and leader of the NZ First party Winston Peters joined the Young Nats while at the University of Auckland. “Like every other young person finding my way through life … I thought I’d go and have a look,” he says.
While he remembers “countless discussions that didn’t go anywhere”, he found being part of the Young Nats a rewarding experience as he “could seriously connect with politicians. They would talk to you, and come along to your meetings”.
However, not all of his fellow members were as dedicated to the cause as he was, recalling that there were “too many Young Nats looking for a husband or wife. Only a minority were more interested in policy back in those days”.
The university campus was also a lively space for the Young Nats who enjoyed “a healthy opposition” with Princes Street Labour. “There were some quite volatile debates in the Quad. And you could have your say without being heckled out of existence.”
While Peters felt welcomed and supported during his time in his former party’s youth wing, he says he’s concerned about the negative effects of social media on the young politicians of today. “You couldn’t get away with the level of faceless and nameless bullying back then.”
James Shaw – Young Greens, 1990s
As a 12 year old, Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed James Shaw had “no real awareness beyond my dungeon master’s screen on the state of the world”. But the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 would spark the future Green Party co-leader to spend his teenage years learning about “environmentalism, colonialism in the Pacific and the nuclear debate”.
Shaw first encountered the Greens at a debate at Wellington High School, and his first taste of electoral politics was as a volunteer for Stephen Rainbow’s campaign for Wellington Central in 1990.
In 1992, aged 19, Shaw ran for Wellington’s Western Ward in the local body elections and apparently missed out by 300 votes (“OK, fact check me, it’s a long time ago, maybe it was 3,000?”). He does, however, recall the local paper captioning a photo of him with “could be good in a few years”.
There was also the time he put up a motion to start a youth wing at one of the Green’s conferences. “Everyone looked at me, and said, ‘well you’re it’.”
Did volunteering with the Greens as a teenager prepare him for life as an MP? Only a little, Shaw says. “It’s like knowing you’re going to get hit by a truck and the experience of getting hit by a truck. You know it’ll hurt, and then you become an MP. And woah, it does really hurt.”
Phil Goff – Young Labour, 1970s
The mayor of Auckland and leader of the Labour Party from 2008-2011, Phil Goff was very excited to share photos of his luscious locks from the 1970s when he got his start in party politics.
Goff came from a family of working class Labour Party supporters and joined Young Labour when he was 15. He remembers couch surfing at his brother’s place while he finished school, who was flatting at the time with future prime minister Mike Moore.
Young Labour was “brash, brazen and naive” in the 70s, and so was Goff, who remembers being “confident about everything I did back then, more than I am today”. He says while Young Labour members were passionate and loud, ”you could hold your views strongly but you didn’t need to personalise it. Like rugby, you wanted to thrash them to win, but not to hurt them.” He also fondly remembers Murray McCully from the Young Nats, recalling that the two would “square off [on campus]”.
Goff sees the role of youth wings as pushing the boundaries of what’s politically possible. “You aren’t hindered by wondering what would be most popular for the party in the elections. The prerogative of being young is to say it anyway, and hold a vision of changing the world.”
Kiri Allan – Young Labour, 2000s
From rural small town Paengoroa, Labour MP Kiri Allan doesn’t remember a lot of discussions of politics around the dinner table. However, she became politicised when she “came out as takatāpui” around the age of 15. “I reached out to Rainbow Youth, we’d go to maraes, and talk to other young Māori.”
From there, she became interested in social and environmental justice issues in her late teens. By university, Allan remembers “sitting in politics 101 or something” and the lecturer saying “if you wanted to understand politics then you needed to get involved in a political party”.
So at Victoria University O-week, she went to check out the Greens but “at the time they were quite hippie-ish and eating vegan food, so not for me”. While she had lots of friends in the Greens, she realised she aligned more closely with Labour’s focus on “social justice in a real practical way, and that there were kids from workers’ backgrounds”.
She remembers while on campus “a vocal group of Act kids … wearing their t-shirts at the front of lectures [where] we’d get into some gnarly yarns, especially when we were learning about Treaty rights and human rights”.
When Allan would eventually go on to intern at then-prime minister Helen Clark’s office, she says she didn’t have any professional clothes so was wearing “a maroon Farmers shirt my mum brought, my second-hand black Puma sneakers, dreadlocks in my hair, with a swipe card around my neck”.
David Seymour – Young Act, 2000s
Act Party leader David Seymour was apolitical until his 20s, preferring to work on his sports car and play rugby. He says when he first heard about Michael Cullen becoming deputy prime minister, he initially thought it was a story about rugby player Christian Cullen. He quickly lost interest.
It wasn’t until he was studying philosophy at the University of Auckland that Seymour started wondering how politicians “could possibly know enough to plan the economy or achieve the things they promised”. He says he was also intrigued by the challenge of working within the political system while also advocating for individual freedom.
Seymour found the answers to his questions with the Act Party’s classical liberal philosophy and, like other youth wing members, learned about “organisation, policy, campaign techniques and communication”.
Digital media has changed the game for youth wings, Seymour says. He fondly remembers Yahoo! Groups and message boards. “There was no such thing as online video … the web was mostly text.” Young Act would distribute paper flyers and give speeches in lecture theatres.
Seymour says today’s young aspiring politicians face a “more complex world with much greater pressure and anxiety” than he did. “In my day – I must be getting old – it was a great place. The arguments were about philosophy, whether a person was libertarian enough to be in the gang.”
Fletcher Tabuteau – Young NZ First, 1990s
When NZ First MP Fletcher Tabuteau was studying at Waiariki Institute of Technology, Young NZ First didn’t yet exist. But that didn’t stop 18-year-old Tabuteau, who found himself drawn to NZ First’s pragmatism: “The actual solution rather than what’s good for the right or left hand.”
Tabuteau’s time as a teenager with NZ First supported the importance of talking about ideas, he says. “That’s what a good democracy needs more of. Politics shouldn’t be about politics. It’s about good ideas or even bad ideas.”
He’s particularly heartened by the amount of youth involvement in politics today. Reflecting on his own experience, he encourages young people to not look at becoming a politician straight away. “Be political and advocate, but go away and get some life skills,” he says.
For Tabuteau, taking this trip down memory lane “brings back memories of feeling really special to be invited into the room as a young guy [and saying] hello to Winston. These amazing men who you looked up to, and now you work with them!”
Chlöe Swarbrick – No youth wing, 2010s
Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick ran for Auckland City Council at 22 years old and eventually became one of the youngest people ever to enter parliament. Despite this, Swarbrick says she was never interested in joining a youth wing. Having initially planned to become a journalist, she worked part-time as a presenter on student radio station 95bFM during her time at the University of Auckland.
Though she was already politically engaged, Swarbrick says she has no regrets about not joining the Young Greens. “I couldn’t have done that with the level of integrity, sat in good conscience across from MPs and interviewed them for bFM, if I was associated with political parties.”
As someone at the younger end of the millennial generation, Swarbrick sees her time at university in a different way to those politicians who came of age during the 80s era of Springbok tour protests and Te Tiriti advocacy.
The University of Auckland campus was “not a particularly political space”, she says. “I was there from 2012 to 2015, when there was a lot of depoliticising of private and public spaces.”
Asked whether politics is a safe and welcoming space for young people, she points to the “grotesque way we treat politicians, we rip them apart … as if they aren’t human.”
There’s an “immense amount of pressure put on young people to be perfect,” she says. “There isn’t room to make mistakes. And because of social media, anything can be recorded, and can blow up overnight.”
But she’s also proud of the rangatahi of Aotearoa who are behind the Black Live Matter protests and the School Strikes for Climate. “They’re fed up with this hyper-capitalist model. There’s nothing left to lose. They’re 17 or 18 and running for parliament.”
The Spinoff’s documentary series Youth Wings, which follows some of the youngest and most passionate members of New Zealand’s main political parties, is now available to watch in full. Youth Wings was made with support from NZ On Air.
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