Every election, officials and commentators wring their hands and lament the absence of young people at the polls and as political candidates, yet they continue to create barriers that deter youth involvement.
At their meeting last month, Hastings District Council did just this when they voted to consult on a new representation proposal that will increase the number of Hastings District councillors and result in Flaxmere being underrepresented by a huge margin of 14%.
As a young person and the chair of the Hastings Youth Council, I am concerned with the proposed changes that the Hastings District Council have put forward in their Representation review and encourage you, our community, to speak up against it.
Solving youth disengagement means putting more focus on getting better age representation at the council table, so that young voters can see themselves and their interests reflected in those who speak for the community. Contrary to these goals, Council’s representation proposal will make standing for local government even less viable for young people.
To understand why you need to first understand the barriers that face youth candidates. These include building a profile with voters, fundraising to run a campaign and the logistics and affordability to do the role, if elected. The first two of those barriers can be overcome, the last is more challenging.
The current structure of the Hastings District Council (14 councillors) makes it most suited to those who are independently wealthy or can subsidize their income by other means, such as running a business or (as is the case with 50% of our Council) receive superannuation. This issue will only be compounded if the proposal to further increase the number of Hastings councillors is adopted, due to the effect this will have on salary.
The amount councillors are paid is decided by the Remuneration Authority, an independent body that allocates a fixed amount of money that each Council can use to pay its mayor and councillors. For Hastings, this amount is $790,733, meaning the base pay of a Councillor is currently $43,332 per year (with the mayor earning over $150,000 per year).
Importantly, increasing the size of council doesn’t change the salary allocation, it simply means the pool of money is split amongst even more people – decreasing the amount each councillor is paid. This further entrenches the role of councillor as primarily accessible to those who are wealthy, have a flexible alternative job or are retired. Council apply to have the remuneration pool increased – but why would this be approved if on paper the role is now smaller as work is spread across more councillors?
Those under the age of 40 live in a very different world from their predecessors. Most of those in generations Y and Z will start their adult life with crippling student loans, a burden generally not faced by the generations before us. The promise of gainful employment through hard work and study is no longer a guarantee. With the over-priced and rare nature of rental houses, an average house price of $700,000 in Hastings and ever rising food and fuel costs – minimum wage does not suffice (presently $41,600 p/a). Anyone without an alternative source of income would struggle to live off their councillor salary alone – which is close to minimum wage.
While being a Hastings District councillor is considered a part time role, the ever-varying days and times at which council related events and meetings are held, almost exclusively during normal working hours, makes working another job on top of being on council generally unfeasible, unless you own the business. For young people, even more so.
It’s little wonder then that over 60% of the current Hastings District Council councillors are over the age of 60, while only 23% of Hastings residents are over 60. This is a huge representation imbalance, and I can only see it getting worse should the number of councillors increase, and the pay be decreased accordingly.
If anything, I support decreasing the number of councillors. Council was presented with an option to reduce the overall Council to just 12 councillors plus the mayor, but Council chose not to vote for this change.
During the meeting at which Council debated the options to consult on, an older councillor argued that reducing the number of seats on Council would disadvantage young people – giving us fewer chances to be elected. However, I do not agree. There is plenty of evidence nationally that demonstrates that when young people who have the necessary skills stand, they tend to get elected. The problem we have locally is those aged 40 and younger cannot afford to stand and those who have been on Council for a decade or longer seem unwilling to make room for fresh blood and ideas. The pay isn’t attractive to younger, skilled and experienced residents who would likely take big pay cuts should they choose to stand. It’s not good enough.
‘Option C’ which would have reduced the number of councillors was the only option presented to council that didn’t result in any communities being overrepresented or underrepresented (unlike the current proposal that leaves Flaxmere proportionally underrepresented). In my view, this option would increase councillor accountability to their constituents, facilitate more efficient decision making and encourage greater diversity on Council by enabling those who are not retired or wealthy to consider standing.
Should being a community representative be reserved for only the wealthy or retired? If you believe we need more diversity on our council, please submit against the current Hastings District Council representation proposal. To be clear, myself and the youth council applaud the introduction of Māori wards, which statutorily requires council to conduct a ‘representation Review’. However, I do not support the current proposal.
Council is taking submissions on www.myvoicemychoice.co.nz until 5pm October 1, and I highly encourage you to have your say on the proposed changes. It is important that the council gathers and listens to your views.
Keelan Heesterman is the Chairperson of the Hastings Youth Council – the views expressed are his own.