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Why there should be nowhere ‘Beyond the Beehive’

Tuesday 12th September 2017

Politics shouldn’t be a dirty or strange word for young people.

 

Antonio, from the 'Beyond the Beehive' series.
Antonio, from the 'Beyond the Beehive' series.

Photo: John Lake


Almost four weeks ago, myself and videographer John Lake headed south from Cape Reinga without much of a plan except to speak to rangatahi in regions that aren’t often heard from during an election campaign. We called our online video series Beyond the Beehive.

We drove a banged-up campervan - a little more banged-up after I reversed into a 4WD in suburban Auckland - from Cape Reinga to Bluff. We stopped in places like Kaitaia, Thames, Kawerau, Palmerston North, Westport, Timaru and Invercargill.

We asked questions like, "What’s life in Thames like?" or, "What issues is Kawerau facing?" rather than the more direct, "Who are you voting for?" Many were happy to chat, but not to be filmed. Almost everyone had something to say.

But in our experience, speaking to dozens of rangatahi every day for a month, many may be disengaged from their concept of politics, but not from issues their whānau, their friends, their community and the country is facing.

Someone who stood out was 18-year-old Antonio in Gisborne.

Antonio was brilliant on camera and passionate. He is part of an environmental group known as the Water Defenders.

“If you walk around there you’ll see a few homeless people … there’s not much there for them at the moment,” he told us.

“In Gisborne, it’s hard - not many jobs going. I was lucky to get my job at Cotton On, but it’s hard for a lot of youth and they just get on the benefit and they stay there. Most of their lives they stay on the ‘benny’. I have a lot of friends who do that.”

A few minutes later, further up Gladstone Road, we met a young woman who was equally concerned about the prevalence of drugs, homelessness and underage drinking.

When we asked both whether they cared much about politics, or believed politicians can effect change, we were told, “I don’t really look into politics” and “I don’t understand politics”.

We saw that disconnect everywhere.

Tesh, a young mother in Palmerston North.
Tesh, a young mother in Palmerston North.

Image: John Lake

SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN

In Invercargill, we visited the Southern Institute of Technology. National Party leader Bill English had been in town the day before wooing voters, so we asked rangatahi what their perception of the local boy was, and what issues they cared about heading into the election.

The first dozen people we approached all responded with variations on the same response: “I’m not interested in politics”.

We met Greg, a first-time voter in eastern Christchurch. The 18-year-old was well aware of the importance of voting, and said mental health issues mattered most to him. “We had a concert a few days ago and asked people if they knew anyone who had passed away from suicide through anxiety or depression and everyone knew someone,” he told us.

“If they can see it, then it’s evident throughout the whole region.”

We asked Greg if voting was as important to his whānau and friends as it is to him. He said it wasn’t to most, but some do vote - for local Labour candidate Ruth Dyson - she’s the only politician they ever see at church and community events.

Another conversation that stands out was with a friendly teenager in Tauranga. “I’m actually not going to vote because I’ve never really done it before … I haven’t really got into it and watched politics a lot,” he said.

We chatted for a few minutes and without prompting he told me, “It is something I should have an interest in as it’s for our country and can change things”.

When the camera stopped rolling, he asked me who I was going to vote for, and I told him. He asked why, and I told him. We walked away truly believing he would vote.

The impromptu conversation in downtown Tauranga summed up a significant theme of our series - rangatahi do care and want to have something, or someone, to believe in.

We visited Porirua and spoke to two young youth workers at the city’s YMCA, Ben and Soraya.

Soraya, a youth worker in Porirua.
Soraya, a youth worker in Porirua.

Photo: John Lake

“Talking from experience, at face value [politics] just seems like a lot of old people talking, so it’s not really interesting to younger people,” Ben said.

We asked young people if there are any politicians they respect and look up to. We were greeted with plenty of blank stares and furrowed brows.

As our trip wore on, Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern came up more and more in conversation. In Ōtara, a young woman told us, “I think we need a female taking the reins.” In Timaru, we were told, “I think she’s really empowering”.

STARTING YOUNG

We met the Green Party’s Ikaroa-Rāwhiti candidate, Elizabeth Kerekere, in Gisborne. Elizabeth has worked with youth and has been an advocate for takatāpui (Māori LGBTIQ) for decades.

She told us young people tend to be engaged to the extent those around them are.

“Often, young people take a lead from their whānau - I have cousins my age who still vote based on what their parents told them to vote growing up,” she said.

“But moreso young people are influenced by their peers and what they read on social media, they’re not listening to debates … and if your family and the people you’re around don’t care about the election, then the likelihood is you’re not going to.”

In eastern Christchurch, we met youth advocate Zion Tauamiti. “I didn’t really learn about politics until I was about 30, or 28, 29, and how you can actually be a part of it and a part of change just by voting,” he said.

Zion, like many people we spoke to, said engagement should have started at school.

Zion Tauamiti
Zion Tauamiti

Photo: John Lake

Civics education is strong in our main centres, but in rural regions, we were told learning about the importance of voting and participation can be extremely limited, if non-existent.

Politics shouldn’t be a dirty or strange word for young people.

Youth disengagement is a massive problem. In 2014, only about three quarters of 18-24-year-olds enrolled. One-third of those rangatahi didn’t vote.

Democracy is damaged when people don’t enrol and vote.

There has been no shortage of articles about youth disengagement, or campaigns to get young people voting. For Future’s Sake (FFS), a campaign by Te Puni Kōkiri, has for instance been doing great work spreading the word across the country.

Over the past four weeks, we were filled with more hope than we expected, but there’s still a long way to go.

We called our series Beyond the Beehive, but really, there should be no such place.

You can watch every episode of Beyond the Beehive here.



Join the discussion »

“I agree that is part of the problem of disengagement. If most youth learn that national voting is the be all and end all of democracy, that feels so abstract and irrelevant.
Civics education should start at the grass roots level. Involvement with community advocacy and lobby groups, local body politics, learning what the local council does. This could all be done from an early age. Actually letting kids have a meaningful say in how schools are run may be useful.
Although accusations of partisanship and indoctrination will probably follow.” — Chris Wharton


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Max is a journalist who has worked for The Star, Bleacher Report and RNZ News.
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