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September 18, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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On the Fence

Katie Meadows, in conversation with Kate Baxter

In case you hadn’t noticed we’re in the midst of a general election that’s been kind of stressful so far, and it’s become pretty difficult to separate the personal from the political; reading through pages of policies from each party isn’t high on my list when I’m in a rage on Twitter about the loss of Metiria Turei and the storm of benefit bashing that has surrounded her departure. That’s where On the Fence comes in.

Initially created for the 2014 election and now in its second iteration, On the Fence aims to break down the values held by each party and compare them to your own, using accessible language and imagery to reach voters of all demographics, primarily the 18–24 bracket and those previously not engaged in the democratic process.

The online tool works pretty simply: with each question posed, the user moves a slider to balance two competing statements on an issue (i.e. immigration, to keep or sell assets, the relevance of the Treaty of Waitangi), allowing for more nuanced answers to what can be fairly complex issues. After collating your results, the site will show you the top three parties that most closely align with your values, and the whole thing takes less than five minutes. With each question answered, a cute infographic shows you the New Zealand your vote can help to create. On the Fence’s mascot Baz, a friendly sheep named after former research officer Thomas Le Bas, is happy to help you with any questions you have along the way through the site’s social media and email accounts.

Kate Baxter is a research officer who has returned to Wellington from Melbourne to launch the site for this year’s election. They came over to my house for a cup of a tea and a sit down to talk about the project, what it hopes to achieve, the importance of the youth vote, and which sheep is best.

 

Katie: How did you get involved with On the Fence?

Kate: On the Fence is made by the Design and Democracy Project, an initiative based out of Massey University, where I used to study — I got the job through one of my former lecturers. It was originally started as a student project in 2014 by Kieran Stowers.

 

What has been your favourite part of working on On the Fence so far?

Dressing up Baz has got to be my favourite part of the job; it is a nice bit of relief. I love Baz and all of his hats. Actually, my favourite part of this process has been seeing how much I can do that I’ve never done before — I’m doing a lot of tasks that I’ve never done before and that I’m unfamiliar with, which has been terrifying but also quite good for me.

 

What was the process like of getting answers from each party to make the site?

First we reached out to all the parties that fit our inclusion criteria, which includes all parties currently in parliament, and those polling at 0.5% at the time our invitations were sent out. The process has been interesting; some parties have been really great and are all for it and want to participate, but a few took a bit of convincing. But everyone we talked to was open to us explaining it, and once they understood all the methodology they were on board.

 

Have you been surprised with any of the party answers?

We’ve been getting a lot of comments on social media from users saying they are very surprised with their answers — a lot of people have been concerned there’s a bias going on. We’ve had a lot of people saying the site’s produced by the Greens, and a lot of people saying it’s made by National. On the results page you can scroll down and see all the parties’ answers question-by-question. It was important to us that we trusted the parties to represent themselves, but a lot of people raised concerns that the parties’ responses don’t reflect their policies.

 

What other kind of feedback have you been getting on the tool this year?

Some people have expressed worries that it is going to get people to make an uninformed vote. We designed On the Fence as an entry level tool, with its primary purpose being to get people who have never voted before in their lives to talk about politics, enrol, and vote. Research shows that if you vote once you become more active politically, and every election you’ll become more informed, so we want to get people started on that process. That’s our goal.

 

There have been some other emerging tools this election, e.g. Policy and Vote Compass. Do you think they are helpful, perhaps in ways other than On the Fence, or do you want to fight them?

No, I don’t want to fight them — some of my friends have made those tools! I think it’s great, all of the tools this year work together, even though they are run independently. The Spinoff’s Policy is more in depth and offers more information, while On the Fence has been user tested within our target audience of 18–24 year olds and it’s designed for usability because we want it to be easy and digestible, and easy enough that someone can do it on their way to university or work.

 

Why do you think so many people don’t vote?

A lot of people don’t vote because they don’t think that politics is targeted at them. It’s a myth that young people are apathetic and disengaged; they just approach everything very differently, and parties are only just beginning to speak to young people on issues that concern them. Before then we haven’t really felt acknowledged.

 

How important is it for youths and students to vote? How do we get them to stop watching Netflix shows about murders and Pokémon Go to the polls?

Under 30s make up the largest voting block in the country, and voting is one of the only chances you have to make some kind of change. Your vote does matter! People also need to keep in mind that it’s sometimes very difficult to get to polling stations, to actually take the time to get enrolment forms in, so if you have the capacity you need to help out your friends and offer rides to polling stations. There are sausages sometimes — just go vote!

 

Are the children really our future?

Hell yeah!

 

How are you coping with the election this year? I’m finding it a bit stressful and emotionally draining, and I’m wary of the “bubble effect” that caught me off guard last election.

I’m undecided this election. There’s been a lot of turmoil and I have even cried a few times at different points, but I feel more engaged with the election being involved with On the Fence. You have to be aware of that bubble effect because I think everyone’s talking about the election and then I have to stop and think, wait, is this just my friends? We’re stuck in a bubble of well-educated, privileged, bougie Wellingtonians with their burgers and their pickle toast — which is by the way my favourite thing to eat in Wellington, that is not a diss, that’s a Customs plug. I think you have to be aware of the echo chamber; I see all of my friends sharing things on social media about going out to vote, but they’re probably the people likely to go out to vote anyway. There are a lot of amazing organisations doing great stuff, like FFS Vote, Action Station, RockEnrol, and NZUSA.

 

Who or what in New Zealand politics keeps you feeling hopeful that everything isn’t going to be so shit?

The other people who have just been working solely on keeping people informed and getting people involved in this election! There’s a lot of great activism at the moment, and I feel like everything that’s going on this election is exciting.

 

What are your favourite sheep puns?

They don’t come naturally to me, I labour over them to be honest.

 

Who is your favourite sheep? Dead, alive, or fictional. I like the one that got cloned, like Gucci Mane, Dolly.

Probably Shrek? What other sheep are there?

 

[We talk about Lambchop, Shaun the Sheep from Wallace and Gromit, counting sheep, the lamb from “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, the lamb from the Bible that lay down with the lion, Sheep in the Big City, and all the sheep in Babe. Kate says we should move on.]

I only know Baz and Shrek. Out of the two of them, I’d have to say Baz.

 

Max Key 2020?

Nah.

 

Check the site out at onthefence.co.nz and don’t forget to flock (sheep pun) to your local voting stations from now until September 23!

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