Young Kiwis caught in a cycle of political neglect

September 1, 2017

Young Kiwis caught in a cycle of political neglect

Laura O’Connell Rapira (Te Āti Awa, Ngāpuhi and Te Rarawa). Photo: supplied

Laura O’Connell Rapira  was the kind of kid who starts a campaign against litter at her school.

She’s still not shy of getting involved in the causes that matter the most to her – she was a finalist for Young New Zealander of the Year, is a founding team member and campaigns director at ActionStation and is co-founder of RockEnrol.

Before the 2014 election, Laura (Te Āti Awa, Ngāpuhi and Te Rarawa) saw voter turnout among young people was looking pretty dismal so decided to do something about it, with RockEnrol helping to increase the youth vote by 3.4 per cent.

As a young Māori woman with Irish heritage, who has a female partner (and is a vegan), Laura acknowledges that being part of several marginalised groups gives her empathy for others in minority communities.

“I’m the type of person who will sit down with someone with slightly different views and try and talk it out and find common ground.”

“If we can’t find common ground, all good, we can go our separate ways, but I would rather walk in spaces and try to advocate from a place of mutual respect than to go straight to protest as the first tactic. I do think protest is important, but it’s not my preferred tactic.”

But she’s also campaigning within digital spaces because that’s where the people are.

“Effective activism and campaigning has always been about going where people are and people are online,” she says.

She notes that about 94 per cent New Zealanders have a Facebook account.

“Digital organising enables communities to organise at a speed and scale that has never, ever been a reality in previous generations, in activism, and I think that’s really powerful. I think we are only really at the beginning of unleashing that power and I’m really excited to see where it goes.”

This election she and the RockEnrol team are back at it, encouraging young people to enroll and vote.

Laura says that while there are myriad reasons why people, including young people, don’t vote, the most simple one is that politicians simply won’t prioritise their ideas, concerns or needs.

“As long as we have a representative democracy system, politicians are only going to represent those that turn out to vote in that system and that is why we need to be there.

“If you look at the young people that don’t vote, a lot of the time it’s people that come from marginalised communities. They come from low-income, low-education backgrounds or they’re of Māori or Pasifika descent.

“Those are the people who have been left behind by society and we’re asking them to participate in this strange democratic process that, as far as they can see, hasn’t done a lot to serve them.

“Then we wonder why they don’t participate when we haven’t given them the support, or the inspiration, or the confidence, community, and skills – all of that kind of stuff to do so.

“It’s not just ‘young people’ as this broad homogenous term. It’s specifically young people who have also been left behind by society.”

She says more young people voted in the last election than the election before it, so the number of voters is actually going up and will continue to climb as more young people start to believe in their political power and more media outlets, influencers and politicians speak directly to them, she says.

“You’re not going to vote for a thing if you don’t see yourself represented in it, if you’re young and brown and all you see is old white dudes, you’ll think, ‘That’s not for me’.

“We’ll never solve the problem of youth participation in politics unless we ask them what it is they want.”

She szys the Electoral Commission has made voting enrolment and easier than ever before.

Voters can even enroll and vote at the same time at any one of hundreds of advanced voting booths.

“It will literally take five to 10 minutes of your time to help shape the next three years and possibly beyond that depending on what decisions our elected representatives make.”

This is an edited version of a story that also appears on Express.

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