Young, Asian or Pasifika? Local govt's representation conundrum

Source: 1News

Unless you're male, middle-aged and Pākehā, it's more likely than not that your 'typical' politician making decisions on housing and transport on your behalf probably doesn't look like you.

Auckland Council billboard near Dominion Road couraging people to stand as a candidate in the 2022 local elections.

But Logan Soole (Ngāti Kahu, Te Rarawa), one of New Zealand's youngest local government politicians, said that was changing - slowly. Representatives were getting younger and more diverse - potentially more so after October's elections. The deadline for people to put themselves forward as candidates would close at midday on August 12.

The 22-year-old Franklin Local Board member - who was first elected in 2019 at the age of 19 and is seeking re-election - was among the growing group of representatives under 40 in city, district, and regional councils.

Between 2016 to 2019, the proportion of representatives between 18 and 40 years old jumped from about 6% to 13%.

If you subscribed to the school of thought that said a 'representative' democracy should be 'representative' of the people it said it acted for, how well is New Zealand doing?

In the face of the ongoing impacts of climate change, transport and housing pressures, rising rates, and debates about the future of three waters, not very.

Younger people were also less likely to run for positions in the first place.

The data isn't complete. Demographic information was collected through a voluntary survey by Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), a group representing councils around the country. The availability of data was also inconsistent, with Auckland among some of the councils that surveyed candidates.

Soole told 1News that a lack of understanding of local government, time and resources, were all potential barriers to younger people standing for council.

"The other thing is... when you don't see yourself reflected in whatever it is you want to do, it can be really hard to see yourself in those positions."

Soole said there were times early on in his tenure that he would avoid mentioning his age. That changed as he found himself stepping up to become a Covid-19 vaccinator and getting to grips with the job and its public-facing nature.

Now, he said he was proud of his age.

Franklin Local Board member Logan Soole.

"It definitely hasn't been bad or terrible. But, there were definitely a few times with my age - in terms of working within the organisation [of Auckland Council] and even out in the community - with people a little bit writing you off… or not wanting to give their time, or maybe speaking to other people as opposed to me, which is fine and it's how it goes.

"People see a young person, and especially when they're older, it's not what they've seen or they might think is right for local government."

Soole said he was also lucky that his fellow local board members didn't treat him any differently because of his age. In turn, he valued the experience and depth of knowledge his older counterparts offered.

Soole was also part of the 14% of local body politicians of Māori descent. The percentage of Māori representatives in local government increased at every election since 2004, from 4% back then to just under 14% in 2019.

However, it remained inconsistent with the country's population.

Why bother with representation?

Environment Canterbury councillor Lan Pham said while it was positive that there were now more women (40.5%) and Māori in local government, there were "still some glaring gaps".

"For example elected members of Asian (like myself) or Pacific Island descent are pretty rare and statistically significantly under-represented, despite being an increasing part of Aotearoa’s amazing multi-culturalism," she said.

"It’s well-documented that more diverse representation results in better decision-making that is more informed, leads to better outcomes, and more accurately reflects the needs, wants and desires of our communities."

Before entering politics aged 30 in 2016, Pham specialised in freshwater ecology.

ECan Councillor Lan Pham.

While completing a master's in the subject, she said she "started learning about how bizarre and outdated some of our laws and policies are and experienced some of our political leaders in action - not in a good way".

She formed a charitable trust to help freshwater ecosystems and animals in 2013. By the time the 2016 election rolled around, Pham realised she had nothing to lose.

"[I had a] general attitude of 'well if not me, then who?'

"I always try remind people that an elected role is like the best-paid job in activism that you never knew existed. There are so many incredible community leaders out there, sloggin' their guts out and giving up their own time to do it.

"Running for council or community board is one way to do that while also getting paid - sure it’s not going to make anyone rich, but it can provide an income base.

"I wish more students, part-time workers and young parents would consider elected roles because they are often incredibly flexible," Pham said.

Bad behaviour threatens progress - LGNZ

LGNZ President Stuart Crosby celebrated the recent rise in the number of Māori, women and younger people around decision-making tables. But, he was concerned about the realities they faced.

A survey of 105 representatives across the country found nearly 50% reported experiencing racism or gender discrimination in their role. Meanwhile, 43% said they experienced other harassment, prejudice, threats or derogatory behaviours.

"We need our councils to reflect the diversity in our communities and this type of behaviour puts the progress we’ve begun to make at risk," Crosby said in July.

LGNZ and councils were putting in place measures to try and encourage participation, including inclusive campaigning guidelines, a new mentorship programme for newly-elected Māori representatives, and additional development opportunities for younger politicians. Pham co-chaired LGNZ's Young Elected Members Committee, a collective that aimed to get youth involved in council processes.

Logan Soole said he'd noticed that sort of behaviour had worsened in recent years, especially during the pandemic. At one public meeting he attended while visiting another local board area, he said council representatives were sworn at and threatened.

"I don't know anyone who would have sat in the back of that room and gone 'dang. I want to become a local board member next term' - especially someone who's young."

Soole said mentoring - like he received in 2019 - could also help more diverse people feel more confident in running during elections.

He said a lack of awareness around elections was contributing to some people's frustration. That was why he believed education was part of the answer.

"A lot of the people that complain, you have a conversation with them and a lot of them didn't vote. Or, they don't know when an election is coming or they don't understand they have a democratic right to choose the people who are within these positions."

Low voter turnout - especially among Asians and people aged 18 to 24 - also had an impact on who got elected.

While similar research was lacking for local government elections, a 2017 University of Auckland study found ethnicity, age, gender and income were among the significant predictors of voting preference.

Another US study found that when voters lacked information about candidates - which tended to be the case in New Zealand's local elections - voters were more inclined to use race, ethnicity and gender as cues about who to support. This helped female candidates but penalised candidates of colour. The study found giving voters more information "virtually erases the effects of candidate demographics on voter behaviour".

Pham said it was easy to be put off by negative behaviour, and that the benefits of being a local representative could be overlooked.

"Why would anyone put themselves out there? And I think the answer would be different for different people. But, to me, it comes down to the fact that the decisions made at the local level really matter.

"They actually impact us in a real, everyday way. And the only way we can actually make these systems and processes work for all of us - instead of a few of us - is to get involved."