Young NZ First steps up to be heard

A youth wing of New Zealand First has often seemed an oxymoron - but with a policy win and a permanent board position, the young branch appears to be on the rise, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

As news spread of Young New Zealand First’s policy win over drug testing at public events, the jokes flowed thick and fast.

“The youth wing of NZ First are those aged 50 to 65,” joked one online commentator, while another exclaimed: “The real story here is that they have a youth wing. New Zealand First. A youth wing. New Zealand First.”

The party’s young members are used to such gags at their expense - but their presence at the conference was no laughing matter, with plenty of signs their influence within the party is on the rise.

The policy remit asking for a “reevaluation of our approach to pill testing to be in favour of the principles of pragmatism and saving saveable lives” was a late addition to the agenda, after RNZ revealed the youth wing’s dissatisfaction in the lead-up to the conference.

But Winston Peters allowed it to move up the order, and on Sunday morning the young delegates in sharp suits had the chance to make their case.

“Our party values stand with supporting young Kiwis and common sense principles - this is why this is a no-brainer,” Young New Zealand chairman William Woodward, 21, said, pointing to a 95 percent reduction in hospitalisation rates across the UK and Australia as a result.

Dunedin member Robert Griffith, 20, spoke of his own experiences as he urged the party to help people like those he knew at university.

“It’s a very different issue when you’re living with peers who are taking drugs every day - I’ve seen my friends destroy their lives over it.”

“It shows that the party is actually serious by taking us seriously - we’re not just people who put out the chairs, now we’re people who are taken seriously when we come to the party with proposals and want to make our generation’s voice heard.”

But it was Rob Gore, 23, Woodward’s predecessor as youth wing chair, who offered the most potent argument as he pointed out the hypocrisy on display. 

"Here you are judging young people for taking MDMA, but we are a generation who watched our parents and our grandparents drink themselves into an early grave and yet we still haven't taken the steps to reduce alcohol abuse in our society we should have taken 30 years ago," he said.

"Do we create a system of shame and guilt that makes our young people turn away from turning to help, or do we create an environment where they can turn to help?”

The party’s MPs seemed split, as did the wider membership, but a show of hands later and the young members had achieved what Woodward described as “an absolutely huge win”.

“It shows just how democratic our party really is, that really we can bring a motion to the floor and it can get through and that we can actually affect policy meaningfully.”

But the mere decision to let the youth wing debate what is a polarising topic - in front of the media no less - was seen by Gore as a vote of confidence in their maturity and value.

“It shows that the party is actually serious by taking us seriously - we’re not just people who put out the chairs, now we’re people who are taken seriously when we come to the party with proposals and want to make our generation’s voice heard.”

Rob Gore says the young members of New Zealand First have had to work hard to win the respect of older supporters. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

That respect had been hard-won, he said, speaking about “stacking chairs and handing out raffle tickets to old people” when the youth wing formally launched in 2015.

“It’s been slow, it’s been a bit of an uphill battle because as a party we’ve always been perceived as elderly despite the fact that there’s never been any correlation in terms of statistics to prove that - there’s no age limit on being a patriot in this country.”

There are a strange mix of influences at play: Gore quoted Michael Joseph Savage’s “cradle to the grave” philosophy at one point, before describing the party as “nationalists - not the ugly kind you see, but nationalism from a place of compassion for all our people”.

“We’ve got nine patriots in Parliament and look what we’ve achieved. We’ve got 111 globalists, that’s what's holding it up.”

The pill testing reversal was not the only win for Young New Zealand First.

Gore won a spot on the party’s board, before a permanent spot was locked down with the success of a remit to grant the youth wing a new representative position.

'Give us a voice'

Supporting the motion, one young member spoke of the mockery he received at his university for supporting the party - mockery which he and others wanted to see gone.

“I have talked to Young New Zealand First members who have left the movement, who have said that they were tired of...just feeling ignored in this movement.

“This party wants to say that we are the future, that Young New Zealand First is the future - give us a voice in this party please.”

His wish was granted, although one comment from board member Julie Carr was a reminder that the youth wing still has more work to do.

“Young New Zealand First members are a separate membership category because they are inexperienced with political matters and need to be guided and mentored in their role,” Carr said in what seemed a patronising remark.

If the youth wing members resented that, they didn’t show it - nor is there any immediate desire to usurp the party's establishment and its 74-year-old leader.

“You can never rule Winston out, that guy could keep going into his 80s,” said Gore.

“Moses led the Israelites to the promised land at the age of 80, so if Winston really wanted to do it he probably could.”

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