Luke Wijohn Calls for a Green New Day
Illustration: Zofia Chamienia

Democracy was founded on the idea of a government that reflects the people it represents. Unfortunately, in action, the New Zealand Parliament (like many across the globe) has never truly done so. At least one aspiring politician is trying to change this, however, and he has some interesting ideas.

Meet Luke Wijohn, 18-year-old MP candidate and political activist, who hopes to help shift this power balance. If successful he will be the youngest MP in the upcoming Parliament, and he aims to bring young thinking into kiwi politics.

Wijohn is quick to point out to me that the average age of our current parliamentarians is more than a decade older than New Zealand as a whole. [1] And yet, they are charged with understanding and making happen a future which the young will inherit. Wijohn argues that excluding young people from the political process significantly undermines the effectiveness of the country’s Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP).

At the age of 15, Wijohn started volunteering for the Green Party. And so began his political career. While at high school, Wijohn was a Youth MP, founded the Auckland School Strike for Climate, and became involved in the ‘Make it 16’ campaign to lower the voting age. He has since headed a number of significant protests (he describes jumping in front of cars, singing in Parliament, and sitting in native trees to protect them from developers), all while maintaining an active role in mainstream politics as a member of the Green Party.

In discussing his entry into the political world, Wijohn recalls a realisation that there was “a huge void between the people leading our nation, and the people of our nation”. Indeed, even within the more liberal circles of the Green Party, “the only person within ten years of [him] was Chloe Swarbrick”, who at 26 is the youngest sitting Member of Parliament in the country.

When I ask why it is that youth involvement is so low in mainstream politics, Wijohn replies that “So much of politics is done in pubs,”. He quickly catches himself, adding: “that’s an extreme example”. But what he picks up on is a widely held understanding of politics as a tightly knit club, into which outsiders, and particularly young people, struggle to gain access.

“None of your peers are there. It’s an awkward space to be in”.

This long-standing approach, valuing experience over representation has forged a political coin with two distinct sides: that of activism, and that of involvement. Politics then becomes a constant battle between the distanced wisdom of the system and the rage of rebellion that resists it. 

This widening political dichotomy is reflected in voting statistics globally. While younger people are numerically over-represented in protest movements, they also make up the lowest proportion of voters.

Wijohn hopes to begin to bridge this divide.

“The only way to increase voter turnout is to incentivise people to care enough”, he argues. “The best way to do that is through education and letting people know they have a voice that will be listened to. Knowing how our system works and how we can hold our leaders accountable will help people feel that we can change.”

He proposes lowering the voting age and initiating compulsory civic education. This would enable teenagers to vote, in an informed way, through school. Wijohn argues that using schools to remove barriers between youth and mainstream politics would not only present a solution to the political disengagement of young adults, it would likely also result in a long-term boost in voter turnout across all age groups. [1]

Wijohn’s solution to political disengagement exhibits the unique ability of young people to connect to the experiences and understand the needs of their generation. However, perhaps more significantly it reveals the importance of closing the gap between youth and the government, to strengthen the nation’s democracy.

“Many of us don’t understand how our democracy works and what our votes do. Civic education is key to making sure our democracy has the mandate of all the people.”

Because of this, Wijohn states, “It’s a big focus of mine to be getting young people out voting”.

However, despite his personal connection to youth issues, Wijohn expresses no desire for tokenism. His keenness to discuss strategies for fighting poverty and climate change, and campaigning for Māori rights reveal a desire to be more than just a symbol of youth.

“Ideally, I would be part of a Green caucus, hopefully in coalition with Labour, with Jacinda [Ardern] as prime minister. We’d be pushing for stronger action on climate change and on poverty: those are my two biggest focuses.”

Wijohn’s views are intelligent, well-articulated, and consistently backed by evidence, which is more than we’ve learned to expect from many of today’s politicians. However, the relish with which he goes on to describe “wav[ing] the Tino Rangatiratanga flag above Judith Collins’ head” during a spontaneous Ihumātao protest, and subsequently being “banned from parliamentary buildings”, reminds me of the impatient hankering for change that motivates many young protesters. 

Wijohn, then, stands as testament to the notion that political involvement and activism can go hand-in-hand; that one can protest the actions of the establishment, and also work to change it from within. Central to his ideas is a belief that the anger with which young people march does not preclude them from rationality or maturity. Rather, the activism of youth represents the strength of their desire for change, and their willingness to take whatever measures necessary in order for the needs of their country to be met. Surely this kind of passion for positive action should be a quality we seek out in our representatives, not one we avoid, and certainly not one necessarily coupled with political incompetence.

However, what is perhaps most memorable about this politician is neither his age nor the strength of his arguments. Rather, it is a unique refusal to equivocate, and a belief in the primacy of democracy over partisan power that makes Wijohn an interesting candidate. He speaks with open disgust of the tendency of political parties to ignore issues, refuse to comment on controversial topics, fail to support voters in areas that might lose them power, and inch closer and closer to the centre, in the hopes of prevaricating their way into office.

 For Wijohn, the goal is not that everyone in the country vote for him or for his party (though he strongly encourages both). Instead, he seeks a government under which everyone is represented, considered, and respected.

“I think that only then, when everyone’s voices are heard – when Maori and Pacifika, when our lower income earners, when our rainbow and disabled communities – when everyone is voting, that is when we will get action for all. That is when we will have a government that can defeat poverty, and fight climate change, and a nation that looks out for everyone. That is when we can truly call ourselves a democracy.” 

Perhaps, then, the value of young people is not just in their understanding of their own needs and the long-term needs of the planet. Perhaps it’s in their very lack of political experience that their unjaded idealism and untainted sincerity is found. And perhaps it’s these qualities, more than any others, that can strengthen our democracy and restore faith in our leaders.

[1] Gerber, A., Green, D., & Shachar, R. (2003). Voting May Be Habit-Forming: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment. American Journal of Political Science, 47(3), 540-550. doi:10.2307/3186114