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Why we need to listen to young people


Tamatha Paul is a 22-year-old standing for Wellington City Council as an independent. Photo/Screenshot.

The future is the business of young people.

Out of the mouths of babes come words of wisdom, according to that old tome of assorted wisdoms, The Bible. Which isn’t to say that 16-year-olds are babies, just that, in some ways, we treat 16-year-olds as if they are and perhaps we shouldn’t.

My heart, which is old and not easily moved, actually swelled when, earlier this year, the schoolchildren of New Zealand took to the streets of our cities to tell the older, in-charge world to do something quickly about the ruined future we seem bent on bequeathing them.

I knew something was up when I banged into a couple of schoolgirls down at Cuba Mall, looking breathless and carrying a big handmade sign that read, “The Seas Are Rising – And So Are We”. They were on their way to the save-the-world demo and that night the youthful protest was all over the news; kids trying to save the world.

The older ones are, at 16, legally permitted to have sex, get a gun licence and drive a deadly car, but, strangely when you think about it, not old enough to vote. Most odd.

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With the kids of the country increasingly politicised by the state of the country, the state of the world, and the general hopelessness of older people, it seems increasingly wrong that they can’t have a direct say in who runs the country.

They can in Scotland, where 16-year-olds have been voting since 2013. Also in Iceland, Brazil, Malta, and Austria. Interestingly, at the other end of things, there have been sporadic attempts in various countries to introduce a maximum voting age, always defeated – doubtless by aging politicians.

There could be a fear, perhaps, that if a sea of 16-year-olds were loosed on the voting booths Harry Potter might become Prime Minister. But in the Ukraine where the voting age is 18, they recently voted in a professional comedian as their president.

In Scotland, 75 percent of 16 and 17-year-olds took the opportunity to make their first vote. Here, I imagine something similar could occur. And it needs to. Those votes are the fuel for generational change.

Politics is long overdue for a kick in its elderly arse. It’s too old, too risk-averse, too slow. So very very slow. Nothing changes. It’s all adjustments. The kid vote would surely give things the kick-start for change that they sorely need.

Though there are some signs that the revolution might have started – certainly here in Wellington recently. First, there was talk of a “youthquake” shaking local body politics in the capital with Tamatha Paul, the articulate and impressive 22-year-old president of the Victoria Students’ Association, standing for Wellington City Council as an independent.

“I’m sick of all that party bullshit,” she’s quoted as saying by way of explanation for her independence. There are five other under-25s standing in various local body elections.

And then there were headlines when a 17-year-old high school student called Steph Edlin stood up at a well-attended city forum to ask why Wellingtonians should have faith in city councillors getting it right this time with their transport plans.

Which made one old – though I’m not sure how old – councillor feel so threatened he told her he’d been running transport matters since before she was “even a twinkle” and, therefore, I suppose, she should just shut up and trust her elders and betters.

But the councillor in question, Chris Calvi-Freeman, swiftly found himself on the wrong end of his own pointy stick when Steph came back at him, telling him he was being condescending and was, in fact, one of the reasons young people didn’t feel they could participate in politics.

The elderly councillor promptly tried to backtrack, insisting he hadn’t meant to “disempower” fearless Steph, but she wasn’t having any of that. In an interview afterwards, the St Catherine’s College head girl said, “It’s a bit crap to talk down to me when I’m trying to engage in politics.”

She said she wasn’t put off politics by the behaviour, but didn’t think it was the right message to put out to young people about democracy. “It sends a message that our opinions are not as valid as white baby boomers.”

When really, right now, the opinions of young people seem increasingly valid. The future is the business of young people. It’s a terrible thing to admit, but when I hear predictions that the world has maybe 30 years left before the end is actually nigh, I add 30 to my age and relax a little.

I know I shouldn’t. And I certainly wouldn’t if I was 17.

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