Political Porn With Hamish

by / 28/05/12

A Follow Up On youth Wings

There are, of course, good things about parliamentary youth wings.

They encourage young persons to engage with the political process. They provide a range of voices on issues affecting youth. And they do achieve policy wins from time-to-time.

The crux of my issue with them is that seven months ago, they were out on the street, on the hustings, doing manual labour jobs that others in their parties didn’t want to do. Yet, a range of politicians will be voting to raise the drinking age and only ACT on Campus has taken a stand.

There is more to youth politics than merely the drinking age, but it’s a big issue. It’s this issue and the lack of a principled
stand from the other youth wings that leads me to wonder what motivates people to sign up, and whether youth wings are vehicles to serve political parties, promote engagement with democracy or are the political equivalent of an internship.

It’s true, many in the youth wings do want to become involved in politics. They’re an internship for political parties. Not in that they’re necessarily a training ground to become an MP, but in that they provide a clear pathway for a job in Parliament.

A significant number of youth wing members work in Parliament, across parties. Some are staff for specific MPs whilst others are part of party research units. This is not a Wellington-unique situation either; many work in the electoral offices for MPs around the country.

As such, the theory is that the youth wings don’t want to take a stand on Keep It 18 because doing so would be a CLM with their party—a career limiting move.

Following last week’s column, I received comment from a range of people. Voluntary Student Membership, or VSM as it’s commonly abbreviated to, was a commonly cited example of policy wins that youth wings do achieve. Ignoring VSM’s failure to prohibit

student associations and the universities from entering into funding agreements (meaning you still need to pay through your student levy whether you’re a member or not), VSM as a policy win brings me to another issue with youth wings; they’re overwhelmingly populated by university students.

Due to this very fact, this brings a systematic bias as to what views youth wings bring and advocate for. Universities are a natural place for politically interested students to attend, but can youth wings try and do more to grow their base to other tertiary instuitions and young people in full-time employment? I think so.

VSM is also a very easy piece of legislation for the government to support to placate youth wings; it’s an issue the wider public have little concern for, so has only very minor implication for parties in terms of support.

So what do youth wings achieve? They’re not a vehicle to change the world, but they’re a networking tool. They provide a pathway into meeting and working with MPs, discussing politics with likeminded people and learning valuable skills. Parties do hold training sessions for young people to impart their expertise, many of which are transferable.

You do need to work in the hierarchy to achieve policy wins though. Being part of a political party sometimes means you need to take the palatable with the awful, it is about compromise. I can’t think of a better example than Australian Labor MP Penny Wong’s former opposition to gay marriage; she outlined on an episode of ABC’s Q and A that her opposition was due to the party position. The policy wins of the youth wings do seem to fall more in the category of tokenism, rather than any other.

There once was a time where the Young Nats used to be agitators, standing up for young people’s views and challenging the government. These days, they’re a slick, PR-minded organisation, parroting the party line. One thing they’re not though—an organisation prepared to state something in conflict with their senior colleagues.

HAMISH IS GENERALLY WRONG. TELL HIM WHY ON TWITTER: @MISHVIEWS 

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Comments (1)

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  1. Max Hardy says:

    Hi Hamish. You ask some valid questions, but your attempt to answer them is flawed. I just want to correct some things.

    1. Youth wings have taken a stance on Keep it 18
    The implication that youth wings haven’t taken a stance on Keep it 18 is farcical – “Keep it 18″ IS the youth wings. All of the youth wings are actively supporting the campaign (that they formed) and one can assume this includes systematically talking to individual MPs. Whether this is successful is yet to be seen – but of course there may be a large number of reasons for that. The idea that supporting the campaign would not be supported because it would be seen as a “career limiting move” is categorically incorrect.

    2. You misunderstand the reasons why youth-wings exists
    The extraordinarily cynical view that the effectiveness of youth wings should be measured on their ability to achieve narrow policy wins on “youth” issues is missing the point. There are number of reasons why a young person may join a political party and hence the “youth wing” of that party.

    Some of these reasons are:
    (a) you believe in what that political party represents or what it is proposing to do and you wish to do your bit in furthering that cause (as a young person this is more likely to be because you support social democracy as about the purchase age). Campaigning for a better New Zealand is not done for a quid pro quo, but out of a sense of service and a belief that what you are doing is for good.
    (b) you wish to be a part of forming (or changing) the positions and policies of that political party. It is wrong to imply that this is limited to narrow youth issues. Young Labour’s policy priorities for example include full legal equality for same-sex couples (marriage and adoption); legislative targets for eliminating child poverty and important reforms towards ending sexual violence. It is valid to ask how effective these groups are at influencing – but an answer requires deeper analysis. In my experience youth wings are remarkably effective when organised. Of course as a young person you can be interested and influence a broad number of issues.
    (c) you want to make friends or grow relationships. What you call “networking”.

    3. Two minor points:
    (a) “parliamentary youth wings” is a misnomer. Young sectors / wings are a part of the (non-parliamentary) political party.
    (b) Your criticism of the Young Nats – that the VSM legislation failed to end students’ associations – is very misplaced. They were reasonably clear that this was not the objective of the legislation or advocacy on it.