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POLITICS DAILY: The need for age diversity in Parliament

The attempted return of several older politicians to Parliament in 2017 has sparked some debate about the merits of young, middle-aged, or older MPs for democracy.

Thu, 09 Feb 2017

The attempted return of several older politicians to Parliament in 2017 has sparked some debate about the merits of young, middle-aged, or older MPs for democracy. Surely we need them all.

The controversial return to electoral politics of so-called political “re-treads” such as Willie Jackson, Shane Jones and Laila Harre is causing some to ask whether the New Zealand Parliament would be better off with fresh young faces instead. But, contrary to popular belief, New Zealand parliaments have got significantly younger in recent decades. 

The need for diversity of politicians in Parliament

I was asked to comment on the age issue on TVNZ’s Breakfast yesterday, and I argued in favour of greater age diversity in politics. I think it’s a problem for any particular demographic to dominate the House of Representatives – see: Is the Green Party's fresh-faced youth policy the best way forward?

It is healthy to have a Parliament with a diversity of age and experience and for that reason – putting aside the politics of the individuals involved – we should not dismiss the value of former MPs coming back into Parliament at a later time in life. 

Labour is lacking MPs with experience in government and if they win power in September will only have two Cabinet ministers with experience in government – Annette King and David Parker. So they’d benefit hugely from having a highly effective former Cabinet minister like Laila Harre.

Labour it is not lacking in Maori MPs, but, with the possible exception of Kelvin Davis, none have the effectiveness and ability of Willie Jackson. And if you think about the New Zealand First caucus, not many experienced or high-profile names come to mind – beyond Winston Peters. Hence, Shane Jones would be a huge boost to the party.

In fact, instead of worrying about so-called “re-treads”, perhaps we should be more concerned about the “bald tires” that never seem to get taken off the road – those MPs who stay in Parliament for decades. 

Obviously Parliament would suffer if there were too many former MPs returning. But that simply doesn’t happen. The reason people like Jackson, Harre and Jones are being considered by these parties is because they’re good communicators, thinkers, and activists. 

The Parliament is becoming younger

Undoubtedly our Parliament is becoming much younger. The average age of the elected MPs at the last election was 50. In New Zealand – and elsewhere in the western world – politics has been the preserve of older people. Typically, at least until the 1980s, people entered parliamentary politics in their 50s or even 60s. They did so after careers in other areas, whether farming, teaching, unions or whatever.

The modern tendency is for people to go into politics at a much earlier age. People are quite commonly coming into Parliament in their 30s, and in September this year there will likely be a number of MPs in their 20s. 

So the recent high profile return of experienced ex-parliamentarians such as Willie Jackson, Laila Harre, and Shane Jones stands out so much because it goes against the current trend.

Of course the current Parliament is over-represented in terms of certain age groups. Not surprisingly, the 50-59-year-old MPs dominate Parliament. But what’s a bit more interesting is that there’s also now an over-representation of those MPs in the 30-49-year bracket. And conversely, there’s an underrepresentation in the 60+ category. Given the predicted steady aging of the population it will actually be the 60+ age group that is likely to be the most underrepresented group in the future. And there’s still quite a way to go in the 18-29 bracket. 

Winston Peters is the outlier in age – he was 69 when elected in 2014, and at the other end of the spectrum, Todd Barclay is the youngest MP.

Recruiting more youth candidates

The Greens are at the forefront of the shift to a younger demographic of MPs, as they try “to present a younger, more professional face to the electorate” – see Sam Sachdeva’s Greens take the lead as parties prepare candidates for 2017 election

The latest interesting Green candidacy is the 35-year-old Golriz Ghahraman, who is originally from Iran – see Isaac Davison’s Could Auckland barrister Golriz Ghahraman be New Zealand's first refugee MP?

And in fact Ghahraman has written this week about the “politics of representation”, arguing that “Identity and democracy are inseparable”, hence we “need minority representation, otherwise the very system that gave us the vote will swallow us whole in a majority rule system of democracy” – see: On identity and democracy: I can’t shed my skin.

Ghahraman is, however, the exception rather than the rule. Most young MPs come from a fairly narrow and conventional background. Getting elected as an MP either requires a high personal profile or working your way through political party structures. Most young MPs haven’t (understandably) had the opportunity to build a high profile career so most work their way up the party hierarchy, often going straight from tertiary education into paid political roles then on to the party list or a safe seat. While they may represent youth, they also largely members of the political class with little direct experience of working outside the political and parliamentary bubble.  

Engaging youth

It is not clear whether the shift towards a younger parliament is going to help re-engage younger votes. There is a significant problem at the moment with youth participation in politics – something like 40% of young people are no longer voting. But it’s a mistake to simply assume that more youthful politicians will solve that. Youth participation has actually declined steadily over the period that politicians have got a lot younger on average. In the end, to resolve the problem of falling youth engagement, politicians have to make themselves more relevant and their policies more attractive and meaningful to the young.

The issue of youth being disengaged from electoral politics is a much bigger issue than can be “fixed” by having more young people stand. There are massive problems in politics and democracy at the moment that can’t be addressed in detail in this column. But as a useful indication of the problem, see Max Rashbrooke’s blog post, Are the youth of today disenchanted with democracy?

It seems that the current political class – MPs and their many staffers – don’t have any real answers to engaging youth, beyond the relatively easy option of selecting younger people to stand. This is a top-down, elite approach to the issue. It’s attractive to the parties because it doesn’t really require them to re-connect with youth or make their policies and platforms more engaging and meaningful – it’s much easier just to bring in some young talent, and the problem is seen to be fixed.

We should keep in mind the example of the phenomena of Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. These two “old men” have been incredibly successful in winning over the support of young people during their campaigns for leadership, especially engaging and mobilising young voters to become politically active in parties and campaigns. They demonstrate that the age of the politician isn’t necessarily a determinant of how enthusiastic young people are about politics. 

Finally, with all this debate about MP ages, maybe we’re heading for a generational showdown – see Shamubeel Eaqub’s The coming war of age

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POLITICS DAILY: The need for age diversity in Parliament