Do students hold the key to changing politics?

By Jamie-Lee Bracken

 The elections are coming up and every vote counts. If this year’s election is anything like the last, it looks like parties won’t be able to count on the youth vote. Or will they? It will come as no surprise that 18 to 24 year old millennials are often labelled apathetic, lazy and uncaring, especially when it comes to voting. According to the Electoral Commission, the 2014 election saw only 63 per cent of this age bracket actually enrolled to vote. Only 212,204 youth actually turned up to have their say on polling day.  But with the political world in disarray, it seems students are more engaged than ever. Campaigns such as the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations We Have Power, and a raft of younger politicians such as Jacinda Ardern and Chloe Swarbrick, who connect with voters through social media, are causing students to finally prick their heads up and take notice. Could students have the power to change the government this election? 

The Design + Democracy Project was formed at Massey University as a call to action, responding to declining voter turn out. This project created the popular online interactive tool On the Fence as a way for young and first time voters that were still undecided, to match their personal values with certain political parties. Project director, Karl Kane, says that its “irrefutable” that 18-24 year olds are the least engaged group, but it’s not fair or accurate to say that they are lazy and apathetic. Kane says, as pointed out by Radio New Zealand’s Noah Chomsky, more young people are engaged in politics today than they were in 1968. He says the main difference today is the way youth go about politics. “They might not march, but will campaign for years online for a cause,” he says. He believes that a big issue lies within our antiquated system that is hard to engage with. “Imported from England and designed centuries ago, our Parliament sees a red team compete with the blue team; Bloods and Crips, if you will. They are separated by a man with a mace, ffs! So we have a disconnect. But ironically we won’t be able to change the system until young people engage with it, in its current form. That is how our democracy works.” Kane says millennials are more collaborative, deliberative and issues-orientated and that this is the ethos needed in government. He says conversations about the collective future of youth are very worthwhile in getting students to advocate for their wider communities. “Every single effort made- from On The Fence to that conversation you had with your apathetic classmate- makes a real difference,” he says. Kane says that by students reaching out to their friends and whanau in trade and retail or anywhere they feel comfortable, then they will ensure every voter has their say. “Voting is a habit and cycles of mutual neglect form fast.” So can students make a difference? Kane says students do hold the power to make a difference and can change politics. “University students are most likely our future leaders,” he says.

Bachelor of Communications student at Massey University in Wellington, Izzy Davis, also agrees that students can make a change but says that starts with voting. She says she finds it annoying being labelled as the generation that doesn’t care and doesn’t vote. Having never previously taken notice of politics, she has only recently started to take more interest. “I started to realise how important it is to understand and get a say in,” she says. Davis puts the poor youth voter turn-out down to students not having a decent understanding or the want to go out and learn more like she has. Davis also thinks that many students think no matter who gets voted in, it doesn’t affect them and that’s why they don’t engage as much. “I think a lot of the time students just don’t take interest, they don’t now whats going on therefore they don’t educate themselves and follow along with politics, so in the end they just don’t vote.” What gets Davis most interested in politics is seeing what policies interest her and seeing what each party has to offer. She says that she would feel the most comfortable talking about this with a friend and people she knows, as sometimes things can get awkward if you disagree. Davis says that being lucky enough to have the right to vote and have a say and be heard should get students voting. “It’s important to vote so you can have a say in the future of New Zealand,” she says. Davis says students understanding politics will help get them to vote and hopes the On the Fence tool will help get youth turning out at the polling booths. “I think a lot of students are getting sick of the label that this generation doesn’t care and isn’t showing interest so a lot of people want to prove them wrong.”

Like Davis, New Zealand Union of Students’ Association (NZUSA) President, Jonathan Gee, believes youth have the power to create political change. “Politics should be working better for us and issues we care about which aren’t addressed. We are powerful and mobilised for change,” says Gee. Gee believes that the reason students don’t vote is because they’ve been left out of politics for far too long. “I question the narrative around apathy. I believe students do care, we just go about it in a different way.” Gee says that politics doesn’t speak to the lived reality of what young people face, he believes there’s a disconnect that isn’t being considered. He says its important to create meaningful solutions to issues students care about otherwise they will stay unresolved. In response to this, the NZUSA have created the “We Have Power” campaign, spearheaded by Gee.

After seeing campaigns overseas, the NZUSA have been inspired by these movements to build a grassroots campaign here in New Zealand, he says. “Its about getting students and young people heard in a public and political arena about the solutions of our time.” To do this, over 100 volunteers across the country will be at each university campus. They will organise events such as MP debates that will hopefully energise students at different campuses to get voting. “We are wanting to spread as far and wide as possible to get that communication and engagement,” he says. “We need to have meaningful conversations in terms of politics for a world better for our generation. “This first time campaign wants to give students the power to convince the government to improve the lives of students. “Once we do turn our and vote our voice will be heard.”

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