With the general election just over two months away, whose are the fresh faces in politics? In the third of a series of profiles of the major parties’ new candidates under 35, The Wireless producer Elle Hunt talks to Jack McDonald, the Greens’ candidate for Te Tai Hauauru.
Though Jack McDonald is just 21, this is his second election campaign. In 2011, he was the Greens’ first-ever candidate in the Maori seat of Te Tai Hauauru. At the time, he was 18 – only just able to vote himself.
“I look back at it quite bemused that I had the confidence to stand at that age,” he says. “It feels a lot more natural now.”
We’re seated at a picnic table outside Tapu Te Ranga Marae, a 40 metre-high, 11-storey building made of recycled materials, nestled amongst native bush in the hillsides above Wellington’s southern suburbs. It’s the venue of the three-day Young Greens winter conference, at which McDonald is due to speak about the realities of being a candidate later this afternoon.
Inside the marae, a handful of young people, many of whom are wearing batik and tie-dye clothing, are gathered before a whiteboard to discuss the Treaty of Waitangi. There are cartons of soy milk in the communal kitchen and, by the door, a pair of heavy boots with a conspicuous fabric tag: “100% VEGETARIAN”.
It’s striking to be confronted with an image that, in the past decade, the Greens have consciously strived to cast off. As recently as 2005, the party was derided in centre-right circles as a group of unreliable “dope-smoking hippies”, lacking the know-how and singleness of vision necessary to steer the country through the global financial crisis.
But under the leadership of Dr Russel Norman and Metiria Turei, the party has rebranded as a professional political machine, attracting a broader, more mainstream constituency, which led to its best-ever result at the 2011 election.
Which is why it comes as something of a surprise to find this (admittedly small) group of Young Greens clad in all the natural fibre a centre-right climate change denier could hope for.
By contrast, McDonald is all professionalism in a suit, tie and traditional pendant.
A descendent of Taranaki and Te Ati Awa iwi, he says his political consciousness was born of his Maori identity. Most of his ancestors’ land was confiscated in the 19th century wars; he also has historical ties to the Parihaka movement. “I’d always had politics in the back of my mind; even just learning about my genealogy and my historical roots is extremely politically loaded.”
He’s lived in Paekakariki, a small town on the Kapiti Coast north-east of Wellington, his entire life. His mother, a teacher, and his librarian father were politically engaged and broadly left-wing, though not affiliated to any party.
“Some of the Young Greens” – he gestures towards the group inside the marae – “probably went on marches when they were under five. I wasn’t one of them, but we were always talking about political issues. I guess it was a natural part of life.”
He says he’s always been interested in politics. “The game” element of it, in particular, appealed to him as a child – he remembers getting up to watch the 2002 election when he was only 10 years old. (Even now, he regularly comments on blogs such as Kiwiblog, The Daily Blog and Red Alert, and writes one himself at Maui Street.)
Two years later, at the age of 12, he took part in his first protest, against Helen Clark’s government’s foreshore and seabed legislation. He describes it now as a “baptism of fire”, compounding what his parents saw as the “betrayal” of the Lange-era Government’s economic reforms in the mid-1980s.
“From that experience I guess I earned a distrust of the Labour Party, even though they had perhaps been traditionally the party that my family would support,” he says. “We weren’t the poorest or anything, but it was a struggle sometimes to put food on the table, and the Rogernomics experiment had a huge effect on my family in very real ways.”
He was supportive of the Maori Party – until it partnered with National.
So he more or less came to the Greens by a process of elimination? “Pretty much, yeah. It was a bit like that. I always thought that I might go into politics one day, but I was never quite sure which party.”
In 2009, McDonald became something of a youth spokeperson for the movement protesting the proposed Kapiti Expressway from MacKays to Peka Peka. After meeting Green MP Sue Kedgley at a public meeting on the issue, he was selected to be her MP in Youth Parliament.
That marked the beginning of his involvement with the Greens. “[The expressway] was going to damage ecological sites, cause significant social unrest and health problems, and it used confiscated, tangata whenua land. Across all of these issues, the Greens aligned with that,” he says. “I didn’t get actively engaged with politics because of the game. It was actually in response to the – it’s a heated word, but I’d say the destruction of our local community.”
McDonald didn’t get his way with the Kapiti Expressway, which is under construction. “But I learned a lot from that fight and it’s motivated me to keep going.”
After leaving Kapiti College, he started studying Political Science and Maori Studies at Victoria University. But after one year, he reduced his studies to part-time to work at Parliament part-time, as an on-call executive assistant. Eventually, he quit study altogether.
“I guess I’m a drop-out,” he says, and laughs. “I like to see it as I’m taking time off to get involved in the more practical side of politics. … In many ways I loved university but it wasn’t the right time in my life to be doing it personally.”
When he stood in Te Tai Hauauru in 2011, it was to raise the Greens’ party vote in the area: the seat has been held by Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia since 2005, and she was re-elected easily with just over 48 per cent of the vote. McDonald’s 11.5 per cent share was considered a respectable result, and the Greens increased their party vote in the area from 3 per cent in 2005, to 11 per cent.
This year, Turia is retiring, but McDonald’s strategy is the same: boosting the Greens’ share of the party vote. He’s set a “really ambitious” target of 20 per cent – by comparison, the party’s national target is 15 per cent. But he believes the Greens are poised to capitalise on dissatisfaction with the Maori Party’s relationship with National, and confusion over the Internet-Mana alliance.
“I think we have a great opportunity in the Maori seats this time; we have more Maori candidates than we’ve ever had before,” he says. “But building support in Maori communities is a long-term process. We know that we need to be in it for the long haul.”
At 20 on the Greens’ list, McDonald will only make it into the House if the party smashes its ambitious targets. But he’s certainly hopeful.
He says it’s crucial that young people – and young Maori in particular – play a part in the decision-making on what he sees as the three crises facing our generation: climate change, inequality, and home ownership. “Across all of these three issues, it’s fundamental that young people have a voice because the decisions that are made today are going to have an impact on our generation for decades to come.”
McDonald is optimistic about the future if, come September 20, he’s shut out of the House. He’s currently the chair of the Paekakariki Community Board – pretty much a full-time job, he says, even if it doesn’t pay like one – and he’d like to one day finish off his degree. As much as getting into Parliament is part of the plan, he’s playing the long game.
“I’m in no rush … I’m committed to politics for the long term, but there are a lot of ways to be active in politics outside of Parliament as well.”