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Parliament has some fresh faces, but the stats tell a different story

Monday 30th October 2017

Photo: Tom Kitchin/The Wireless

You could be forgiven for thinking Parliament’s become younger.

Jacinda Ardern, at age 37, is New Zealand’s second youngest prime minister. Simeon Brown, 26, won the Pakuranga electorate by 14,886 votes. Chlöe Swarbrick, 23, is the youngest MP in 42 years.

Plus, in this election cycle there’s been constant muttering of a “youthquake” - a buzzword commentators have been obsessed with following Jeremy Corybn’s success in June’s UK election and after youth enrolments soared here before the election.

But has this so-called “generational shift” actually changed the average age of MPs?

The answer is no.

The Wireless looked at the average age of MPs in each election year since the final first-past-the-post (FPP) election in 1993.

Over the past 24 years, the median age of an MP hasn’t swayed far from the half-a-century mark. The highest was in 2005, at 52. The lowest was in 1993, at 45.

The current Parliament has an average age of 49. In 2014, it was 47. 

Data sourced from the Parliamentary Library. 

MMP was introduced in 1996 to give smaller parties more representation - and to help Parliament become more diverse to better reflect the age, gender and ethnicities of the country.

Today, the median age of the New Zealand population is 38. The median age of an MP since 1993 is 49.

READ MORE: The age ranges of each new Parliament from 1993-2017

Young and old MPs have appeared, disappeared, and reappeared but nothing’s made the average change dramatically.

We didn’t see an MP below 25 under MMP until 2002, when Labour’s Darren Hughes entered parliament at 24. Also that year, NZ First’s Jim Peters, aged 65, became the first pensioner elected to Parliament under MMP.  

Laura O’Connell Rapira, co-founder of Rock Enrol, an organisation dedicated to informing youth about the political process, believes young MPs could help youth engage in politics.  

She says Chlöe Swarbrick is a great example. 

Laura O’Connell Rapira
Laura O’Connell Rapira

Photo: Supplied

“She has a gift for breaking down complex policy on social media. But she’s incredibly tokenised because of her age… it’s similar to any minority groups. We lead with a label we associate with them, rather than the person.”

O’Connell Rapira also reckons citizenship education - not just civic education - in schools is essential. That means she thinks students need to know more than just how government works; they need to know what being a citizen means.

She says allowing students to vote in school elections might be part of the solution.

“High schools can’t vote for prefects, they leave school and don’t know of the larger systems,” she says.

Young Nats president Stefan Sunde, 27, wasn’t surprised about the median age.

“It’s probably to be expected,” he says. “Eighty percent of [voters] voted for one of the two major parties. Parties are catering to the middle ground.”

“It’s always cool to have more young people and young voices represented in Parliament. A younger person can advocate for a certain policy an older person can’t advocate for in the same way men can’t advocate for women’s issues.”

Young Nats president Stefan Sunde.
Young Nats president Stefan Sunde.

Photo: Supplied

Sunde says National refreshes its caucus every election cycle to make sure young people are represented. He thinks that in the 2017 election cycle, MPs Simeon Brown and Chris Bishop did great jobs at engaging with youth.

But he doesn’t think young MPs are the be all and end all of youth engagement.

“What it takes for young people to be inspired by the direction they want the country to go in - any person can deliver that message.”

Young Labour president Matt van Wijk, 21, says he would like to see the age “come down a little bit.”

Young Labour president Matt van Wijk.
Young Labour president Matt van Wijk.

Photo: Supplied

“It’s really important we get youth views and voices represented,” he says.

“I think it’s good when we can see more of a generational change. Jacinda [Ardern] came into the leadership ‘youth-adjacent’.”

Dr Sylvia Nissen, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury’s Political Science and International Relations department, researches youth representation in parliament.

Nevertheless, Nissen says young MPs can make a difference because they help push youth issues up the political agenda.

Sylvia Nissen
Sylvia Nissen

Photo: Supplied

“Like Chlöe Swarbrick has done in New Zealand, or Mhairi Black in the UK,” she says.

She believes young people experience modern challenges “disproportionately” compared with other generations.  She mentions challenges such as unprecedented debt, insecure work or unemployment, low homeownership, and climate change.

She thinks political parties should recognise the value of having younger candidates because they understand these issues.

“Having younger politicians helps challenge perceptions of young people being apathetic or not politically competent. Research shows us they have articulate views on political issues but are disenchanted with the political process.”

Join the discussion »

“The ways that "average" are used can be misleading, and I am glad you have said you're using the median. Essentially, half the MPs are older and half younger. But, like the other things that get labelled "average", it's only half the story. The most obvious element is that, over the lifespan of a parliament, everyone gets older anyway.

I am not sure how much the median can tell us, but it is simple, once it's explained, and it doesn't get badly distorted by the extremes. Neither Jim Peters nor Chlöe Swarbrick is going to change much in the middle of the age range were they to leave. It wouldn't be a surprise if three or four MPs in the middle of the range were born in the same year, so one MP leaving, shifting the median one step up or down the list. wouldn't change the answer.

In the reality that provides the numbers, any really young MP is going to be somebody of obvious talent, either to win a seat directly or to get on a party list. But there are other things besides talent that come into play: sometimes it is not what you know but who you know. ” — Wolf Baginski

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Tom grew up in the South Island, but thinks the North has its charm too. When not frantically writing, he enjoys music, a nice beer or two and avoiding cliches like the plague.
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