This week Craccum speaks to Luke Wijohn, Green Party candidate for Mt Albert in the 2020 General election, about being 18, running for Parliament, and how he believes we can get youth political representation in Aotearoa.
You may have heard his voice on the radio or seen his face on the news, or you may have seen him at the front of September’s historic School Strike for Climate March in Auckland last year. Luke Wijohn, previously one of the organisers of the Auckland School Strike 4 Climate, has just turned 18 but is ready to launch his political campaign as the Green Party candidate for Mt Albert in 2020. Up against Jacinda Ardern, gunning for your party vote, I spoke to Luke about his journey into activism, politics and what we can do to encourage youth to vote at the upcoming September general election.
Luke’s work with climate activism began in March last year, with a recognised gap between scientific evidence and political action. Luke has always been socially conscious. Aged 12 at an Anti-TPPA rally, then activist (and now Green Party Co-Leader) Marama Davidson handed him a megaphone, sparking a passion for activism that has since only grown. He was inspired by the philosophy of Greta Thunburg and by the notion that many single persons can create a movement when they stand together. Luke and his mates planned to ditch school in Auckland to strike for climate action. Luke believes that New Zealand has always been a protest nation, remembering our previous progressive stances on welfare, nuclear free and women’s suffrage all of which stemmed from political protest and activism. But now, in the modern era, he is concerned this community action has been lost, something that the School Strike 4 Climate sought to bring back and awaken. In his own words, Luke asserts that young people are “not letting the world turn to shit without us doing something about it.”
The first strike on March 15, 2019 was quickly followed by another on May 24 and then a third on September 27. Luke remembers the media flack that occurred following the first strike, with commentators in the mainstream news media dismissing protesters and the climate action cause, but to Luke, this represents the spirit of protest. “There’s an idea held up that all protest of the past is justified and right as opposed to protest today and that’s because we’ve seen the gains that these protests made and we as a culture moved on and decided these actions were the right things.” Luke reflects back to the Nuclear Free movement, the 1984 Springboks Tour and other New Zealand political movements that at the time were extremely controversial. “We’ll get a lot of shit for doing the right thing but I’m sure history will see that it was the right thing to fight for.”
Already, evidence suggests that the School Strike for Climate is having a large impact on how New Zealanders view climate change. The last protest garnered 170,000 people across New Zealand and the strike itself has grown from being classified as a school student strike, to encompassing an intergenerational protest; teachers, university students, city councillors, businesses, grandparents and parents have all marched alongside youth to demand climate action. In July last year, 79% of New Zealanders said they felt Climate Change was important to them as an issue. This percentage was up 7% from 2018.
Whilst the fight for climate action is far from done, Luke is now pursuing climate action through other avenues. Whilst he has only just turned 18, Luke is now the Green Party candidate for the Mt Albert electorate, up against National candidate Melissa Lee and Labour candidate (and current Prime Minister of New Zealand) Jacinda Ardern. Luke and William Wood – who is standing for National in Palmerston North – are two of the youngest candidates for New Zealand Parliament. Luke assures me he’s not out to steal Jacinda’s seat, but his campaign – as many Green campaigns are – is for the Party vote. Luke wants to advocate for change from within the House of Representatives. By the time this interview is published, the Green Party list ranking will be released, giving Luke a strong indication of whether he is likely to make it to Parliament.
For Luke, being in the House represents the ability to work towards progressive action from within the system. He makes it clear to me that he is not a candidate who wants to start a political career for life, rather if his political career is short-lived yet represents the best interests of voters, then to him it is a success. Unlike William Wood, Luke doesn’t want to be Prime Minister.
Often, young candidates get disregarded. Mainstream media and voters can be seen to categorise candidates on their demographics. It does, however, help that with this election, parties from both sides of the political spectrum are putting up young candidates. This makes it harder to attack a specific party for choosing a young candidate. “Ultimately when you take partisan politics out of it then you’re just left with weirdos who hate young people and want to ban Lime scooters.”
Luke wants to be more than just a ‘young’ candidate anyway. “Youth are incredibly political now and, especially with the School Strike for Climate, we’ve seen an awakening of that. If young people can get voted in and show they have a meaningful point to make then surely that demonstrates a functional and representative democracy.” He speaks on lived experience, not just as a young person but as an organiser and as a passionate person from a generation with “the most to lose when it comes to the climate crisis.” The average age of New Zealand parliamentarians is approximately 50 years old. Luke believes that the current parliament is composed of a lot of career politicians and that there is a failure to represent all New Zealanders. “It comes down to the question of whether we want our House of Representatives to actually be representative. We can make stronger decisions with more perspectives.”
Youth voter turnout in Aotearoa New Zealand is traditionally low. At the 2017 election, only 69.3% of voters aged 18-24 cast their vote. This number only encompasses those who are actually enrolled to vote, meaning that the actual number of youth voting is actually lower. The ‘youthquake’ that the media spoke about with Jacinda Ardern coming to lead Labour before the 2017 election didn’t result in a significant increase in voter turnout. Luke speaks of the common political science knowledge that voting behaviour is formed as a habit. Evidence says if you vote once, then you are more likely to continue to vote throughout your life. “Your first vote therefore is your most important vote.”
Luke believes that, outside of auto-enrolling citizens, there is a need for everyone to cast their first vote whilst in school. “Here’s the dream: A generation of kids wakes up on a day that feels like any other, but this one is a public holiday, they catch the same bus to school where they go every other day, they go to where they’ve been taught civics education and they cast their first vote.” Luke believes that if youth voter turnout for one generation is increased, 90 to 100% participation could be achieved. This generation would continue to vote as they aged, leading to a generation of voters. “I think that when we get Māori, Pacific, low income and other minority and diverse populations voting then we truly have a representative democracy”.
From School Strike 4 Climate to the campaign for Parliament, Luke Wijohn is on a mission to steer New Zealand towards decisive climate action. Kia Kaha.