Old white man or old white man? Those are the options in the upcoming local body elections, according to Newsroom surveys that show a disproportionate representation of certain demographics

Luke Jones says it doesn’t take people long to guess that his major is political science.

At 19 years of age he’s vying for a place in Christchurch City Council representing Riccarton, and he talks about his campaign and the perils of low voter turnout with obvious passion.

As one of seven candidates running for the Riccarton seat, he’s had to be careful and deliberate in how he campaigns in order to capture as many people as he can.

More men running for council in every age bracket (n=600)

With the University of the Canterbury in the area, this has meant talking to young people and trying to stoke their enthusiasm for voting in the local body election.

However, he says there’s a certain section of the vote he’s never likely to net, firstly due to some of his more progressive policies, and secondly because if elected, he’ll be the youngest Christchurch councillor in more than 40 years.

He says he’s seen the stereotype of youth being tied to incompetence translated in both polls and his personal experience during the campaign.

“People are fair enough to question the capability of a younger candidate, however they do seem to see competency as connected to that,” he said.

It’s one of the many insidious pitfalls that skew who gets involved in local politics away from what the population of this country actually looks like.

Although local government has come to more closely represent New Zealand demographics through the years, there remains a remarkable disconnect between the current pool of candidates and the greater population.

That’s according to survey results collected by Newsroom, in which just under 600 candidates responded. The survey paints the picture of an overwhelmingly middle-aged, Pākehā and male set of options for voters.

The average age of respondents was 51, although the range stretched all the way from 19 up to 89. The median age of the country is 38.

Luke Jones said better communication and a more meaningful relationship between the Christchurch electoral office and the university would raise voter turnout. Photo: Facebook

Almost two-thirds of respondents were male, even though the male to female ratio in society is close to 50-50.

The ethnic profile of candidates is swayed with just under two-thirds being New Zealand European/Pākehā - however, this more closely reflects the population, wherein 70 percent of people identify as such.

But that doesn’t mean other ethnicities are fairly represented. Chinese candidates represent just 1 percent of the group, while the ethnicity makes up around 5 percent of the population.

Similarly, around 5 percent of candidates were of Pasifika origin, lower than the 8.1 percent in the general population.

Meanwhile, the country’s 15 percent Asian population produced just over 5 percent of respondents.

Another 19-year-old with their hand up for local council is Tremayne Thompson. He’s running for council for Waerenga-Whitikahu in Waikato, and says he’s seen people getting involved to try and turn the tide of the political decisions being made solely by the older, Pākehā and male cohort.

“Most of council up to this point - and in fact politics in general - has been the older Pākehā and predominately male demographic and with that we haven't really seen the enthusiasm or energy to get things changed that are really bothering people,” he says. “That’s why I've seen a lot of people who are getting involved.”

Thompson reports experiences of ageism in his own campaign, saying he had been copied into an email from a current councillor checking the validity of his own stated experience serving on an RSA board.

“They cant wrap their heads around the fact that a 19-year-old could have the experience,” he says. "It puts a lot of young people off politics, this idea that age equals experience, which it doesn’t.”

Thompson says he’s already got legitimate experience from serving on a range of boards, and indeed his resume is well-furnished. He’s the president of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, director of the Zionist Federation of New Zealand, RNZRSA national executive officer, board member for Waiuku Theatre Group and Te Kauwhata A&P Association, as well as political candidate, actor and law student.

Jones agrees that age and experience are unfairly conflated, saying “People are fair enough to question the capability of a younger candidate, however they do seem to see competency as connected to that”.

Moko Tepania has at times found the opposite to be true, however. The 32-year-old current councillor running to be the mayor of the Far North said he has been “blown away” by the amount of support he has received across the 40 communities of the Far North, from the old and young alike.

However, he says there is still a long way to go in terms of making the council table reflect the community it represents.

“There are historic reasons why we haven't seen as much diversity in council spaces; the pay and also people not seeing themselves reflected,” he says. “But we are seeing great movement in this space.”

He points to data from Local Government New Zealand, which found the share of local government representatives under the age of 40 had jumped from 7 percent to 14 percent between the 2016 and 2019 elections.

There are other figures suggesting a move towards more accurate representation in the LGNZ report, such as the last election seeing the highest proportion of women elected to local government in history.

However, this number was 40 percent - still a way off the demographic patterns of the population’s gender.

Paekākāriki-Raumati ward councillor Sophie Handford says without addressing this inaccurate representation, local politics will perpetuate “business as usual”.

“The people who are comfortable with the status quo will continue to be comfortable and we won't see the transformational change that's required from organisations like councils,” 21-year old Handford said.

Both Tepania and Handford say greater civics education could help get more young people engaged in politics, and talk about lowering the voter age.

Tepania’s background is in teaching, and he said getting 16-year-olds to vote before they left home and ended up voting in an electorate they may know nothing about creates more engaged citizens.

“If your first voting experience is a positive one, you're likely to vote for the rest of your life and for a lot of people, when they are 18 they are less likely to be where they grew up,” he says.

Handford says renumeration and access were also stumbling blocks for accurate representations on council.

“It’s a pretty time-intensive role and when we look at renumeration it's pretty shocking - that does kind of automatically discount people from feeling like they are able to run,” she says. She says there is no easy fix but one first step could be ensuring KiwiSaver contributions on councillors’ income.

The review for the future of local government ran a survey gathering almost 5000 responses, the majority from people between 10 and 35.

The results showed most people want to be more involved in politics, and while 44.8 percent of participants rated their current involvement below average, 63.5 percent wanted to be very or extremely involved.

Those over the age of 36 rated their involvement higher than those aged 35 and under.

At other times, moves towards a more accurate representation of society in our choice of candidates have been received violently.

Paul Young and Morgan Xiao, the sole two Chinese candidates running for council from the nearly 50 percent Asian Howick ward, both report hoarding vandalism where their faces have been cut from signs, while nearby councillors of other ethnicities were left untouched.

The Chinese candidates of Auckland had a meeting with police and the Human Rights Commission earlier this month, where it was discovered there had been attacks on seven candidates.

“My personal opinion is, the New Zealand Chinese community is seriously underrepresented in the discussion of public affairs, no matter in Parliament, councils or on media,” Xiao says. “According to the population ratio, New Zealand should have five Chinese MPs and two Chinese Auckland councillors, but we only have only one each. And discrimination is one of the reasons.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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