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The kids are all right – youth engagement is great for politics

Bryce Edwards, a political commentator, recently said that Aotearoa has a problem with youth engagement, and getting more young people into politics won’t solve this issue. I have to respectfully disagree with Edwards on this point.

There is definitely a need to improve youth engagement in politics. But it seems to me that taking issue with a small but growing number of young political hopefuls is disingenuous at best.

We know that in democracies across the world, young people are excluded from decision-making processes due to their age, poorly represented at all levels of politics, rarely consulted on policy, and rarely encouraged to participate, or taught how to participate.

What the stats say

Today, 26.8% of the New Zealand voting population are aged 18-39, yet only 12.39% of MPs are under the age of 40. Of those MPs, only one — Todd Barclay, of the National Party ­— is in his 20s. Within a few years, half of the current MPs in their 30s will turn 40.

At the going rate, I don’t think we are in any danger of being overrun by young politicians any time soon.

The youngest cohort of voters in New Zealand are barely represented, and if new young MPs aren’t elected this year, it will get worse. These age groups are less likely to engage when they feel as though their issues and experiences aren’t represented. Of course, age doesn’t guarantee representation – but it’s a good start.

It’s not unusual for people under the age of 40 to be in parliaments in other countries. In fact, in some of the healthiest democracies they are very active. In Sweden 34% of MPs are under the age of 40. In the Netherlands it’s over 20%. In Germany, a much larger country, it’s nearly 18% – still much higher than New Zealand.

Young candidates and the Greens

Edward’s commentary seemed to imply that young candidates had been identified as a strategy by the Greens, purely on the basis of their youth. It’s true that we have seen an incredible number of young people put their names forward as candidates for the Green Party for the upcoming election in September. We’re thrilled that they see an opportunity to work with us to change the Government.

But this isn’t due to a master plan by some hierarchy in the Green Party. It has happened because a large number of talented young people have been inspired to get involved and stand for us. Their initiative and passion should be encouraged, not talked down.

While politics has become increasingly professionalised, I believe a key role of an MP is to be a representative of a constituency – and that younger people can bring skills and a long-term perspective that is vitally needed in government. And the current over-representation of managers and businesspeople in Parliament hardly brings diverse perspectives and experience.

Youth engagement and fresh perspectives

It’s true that having young MPs isn’t sufficient in itself to get young people engaged, but it’s not a bad place to start. So, how do we get young people involved in politics? We get political parties to have robust youth engagement methods. We teach young people how to participate in decision-making processes. We make civics education part of the core curriculum. We have candidates that represent them and their interests. We discuss the unique set of issues that are important to them, and we make it easy for them to enrol and vote — through initiatives such as RockEnrol.

Young MPs can bring a fresh perspective to the House, and revitalise our political debates. They don’t all stay in politics for life; many of them go on to do great things outside of Parliament. It is so important that we reinvigorate our democracy and ensure that we are planning for the future — bringing in younger candidates is one of the ways we can do this. Young people are our future, so we need to include their voices in our politics.