Young Politicos: what makes them?

Clockwise from top left: Nathalie Blakely, Michael Tennant, Sam MacDonald, and Keir Leslie
Clockwise from top left: Nathalie Blakely, Michael Tennant, Sam MacDonald, and Keir Leslie
In an election that will probably be decided by superannuitants and baby boomers, young people are still getting involved and joining political parties. Michael Cropp reports.

Sam MacDonald, 23, is your prototypical Young Nat – a young professional, an accountant and deadly serious.

We meet at a café near his work where he orders a bottle of water to my flat white.

MacDonald grew up in Greymouth. Toward the end of the last Labour government, when there was a move to limit logging, the community feared jobs would be lost.

MacDonald says, in careful but confident sound bites, this spurred him to get involved with the Young Nats to fight against the changes.

“You can’t sit on the sidelines and complain if you’re not prepared to do anything about it.”

In fact, it changed his view of politics completely.

“When the Greens shut down our logging, I basically decided at that point if they can take jobs off people I should really contribute.”

MacDonald is now the Young Nationals’ president for the Canterbury-Westland region.

Like a lot of young people in politics, he is driven by personal circumstance.

Michael Tennant, 26, lets his face show some of his history. The knocks he has experienced, and the hard work endured.

He’s cautious with his words.

Tennant quit school when he was 14 and “spent the next four and a half years working menial jobs for little pay’’.

“By the time I got to 19, I realised education was highly important for my future.”

Having no academic skills, he started with the basics – a part-time correspondence course in business. He is completing a Bachelors degree in Geography at the University of Canterbury.

In the years leading to his decision to return to school, Tennant says he “met a lot of people who’d spent most of their working life in these places and they were mostly locked in by things like mortgages and having to provide for their families’’.

“A lot of them had goals or aspirations that they felt they could no longer achieve.”

Tennant is now the Aoraki Greens campaign co-ordinator. He thinks Green party policy provides people with a pathway out of these jobs.

Youth wings add value

Lindsey MacDonald, a lecturer in political science at the University of Canterbury, says the youth wings of parties are a great example of New Zealand’s open democracy.

“I think it’s marvellous this generation is actually picking up the cudgels and getting politically active.”

Keir Leslie, 23, flew in from Ireland nearly a decade ago and is now the Young Labour co-ordinator for the top of the South Island.

“People join all political parties because they have idealistic aims… [they] get involved because of a sense of idealism, wanting to make a difference,” Leslie says.

We met in his shared office at the university, his desk piled low with books from different eras, an empty pot of coffee on the room’s eponymous table. He almost seems embarrassed when he explains that although he is doing his masters in Art History, it is only possible because his parents can support him.

Running his hands through his stubble, he tells me most politicians, young or otherwise, have pretty good intentions.

“I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning and goes, ‘oh, you know, I’m a cartoon villain, I’m going to join the Young Nats or whatever’ – even if they do come across like that sometimes.”

As well as policy and a sense of idealism, some people join because their parents are members, or because it fits with their field of study.

Some just want to be with their friends and have a good time.

Leslie coyly avoids answering whether he was initially the latter but he suggests that some members will always join for the ‘`party’’ part of the party.

He mentions the former Young Labour members who now work in the leader’s office in Parliament.

Political involvement typically low

However, the numbers show few people get involved in political parties.

It is a vague measure, but on Facebook the Young Nationals’ Facebook page has nearly 15,000 likes, Young Labour 6233, Young Greens 3382.

The total population of 18 – 29 year olds in New Zealand is 742,040.

Nathalie Blakely, president of the University of Canterbury’s political science society, is closely watching this election. She follows nearly every party’s policy announcements, and is careful about who she will vote for.

Blakely says it is great that some people stand up for their beliefs and join the youth branch of a party, but it is not without its difficulties.

“There are people in the parties who have to follow the party line and compromise on their personal politics,” she says.

Blakely has clearly thought about this issue before.

“I think a lot of young people are put off by that, because they feel like they do have to compromise on their ‘this is part of who I am, and I’m growing, this is what I’m thinking and seeing’.

“And then for the party you have to put that aside, right? And party policy is first. You do have to make sure that your personal beliefs are under the blanket. In the parties they’re able to discuss and lobby, but when they’re out in the public they have to follow the party line.”

So do these self-professed ‘political nerds’ have any long-term political goals?

Surprisingly, none of them really want to become MPs, at least in the short term.

Sam MacDonald says he wants to go out and get some “real world experience”.

How much experience he needs, nobody knows.