Rangatahi from around the country got the chance to ask youth representatives from some of New Zealand’s political parties their most burning questions on poverty, suicide, education and more.

The online session which took place last Thursday evening was organised by different organisations including Save the Children. 

The youth representatives were Arena Williams (Labour Party), Ricardo Menéndez March (Green Party), Matt Doocey (National Party) and Karen Chhour (ACT). Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer was unavailable to attend. 

The rangatahi were chosen by organisations including Save the Children, GirlGuiding New Zealand, Unicef and VOYCE - Whakarongo Mai.

Here are the highlights:

Waikato University student Iona Mortimer who is the 2022 Youth MP for James Shaw asked: “Does your party support lowering the voting age to 16?”

Chhour (ACT): No

Menéndez March (Green): Yes

Williams (Labour): Personally, yes. Declined to speak for the party.

Doocey (National): Personally, no. Declined to speak for the party.

Quilla Cashell-Smith, 17 from Save the Children New Zealand asked: “Would you support compulsory education about sexual consent in schools?”

Chhour (ACT): Yes (but depends on age)

Menéndez March (Green): Yes

Williams (Labour): Yes

Doocey (National): No

Fifteen-year-old Ella Pearson from GirlGuiding New Zealand asked: “Currently, there is very little representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in the NZ curriculum. 

“Does your party support increasing the representation and visibility in the curriculum?”

Chhour (ACT): Maybe

Menéndez March (Green): Yes

Williams (Labour): Yes

Doocey (National): Personally, yes. Didn’t speak for the party.

Kids leaving schools to help parents pay bills

UNICEF youth champion for UNICEF Aotearoa Josiah Tupa’I asked: “Many kids attending schools in South Auckland are leaving around Year 12 and 13 to help their parents pay bills. 

“How will we keep these kids in schools and how will we help the parents to make ends meet?”

Ricardo Menéndez March said the Green Party is tackling the cost of living for families by trying to introduce rent controls and raising benefits which he hopes would require fewer high school aged rangatahi to work in order to support their families.

Arena Williams from Labour said this issue was being handled well by local communities and schools, highlighting Manurewa and James Cook High Schools’ efforts to reach out to students who had left school to work so they could keep them connected with education opportunities.

Wiping Work and Income debt

Iona, 18, also asked: “In the five years prior to 2019 debt to Work and Income tripled to $307 million. After uncovering these figures, Auckland Action Against Poverty has called for the wiping of the debt to Work and Income. 

“Does your party agree with wiping the debt? And if so, is this a priority within your party? 

“If not, what other actions would your party like to take to support those indebted to Work and Income instead?”

ACT Party’s Karen Chhour did not address the idea of wiping Work and Income debt.

She said more than 15,000 New Zealanders owe Work and Income more than $20,000 which is more than people on benefits can afford to pay off.

While repayments are low while you are not working, they increase when you return to work, she said. 

This puts people in the “uncomfortable position of having to choose to stay in poverty because they're in debt”, Chhour said.

ACT’s policy is that the Ministry of Social Development, which runs Work and Income, should have debt limits that don’t allow people to take on more debt than they can afford to pay off. 

Chhour added ACT has a policy where they believe the Ministry of Social Development should have more control over a person’s money if they have “been on welfare for a very long time or if they keep having more and more children on a benefit being born into poverty”. 

She said in this system the person would get discretionary money to spend but the rest would be handled by a third party who would “make sure that the money is going to the children and…where it's intended to go”.

National’s Matt Doocey (National) also did not address the idea of wiping Work and Income debt.

He said the National Party believes in welfare but also “workfare” - a welfare system where people accepting welfare often need to work in public service jobs or engage with work training.

“We have a range of employers who are just crying out for more staff. So it really concerns me when we do have a disconnect between those who are seeking employment and employers who are seeking staff. 

“Because I think what we don't want is anyone in a predicament where they are just growing their personal debt because let's be honest, we know they're not going to clear that debt,” Doocey said.

He highlighted that “an increasing number of people report mental health as their primary obstacle to employment” and said tackling causes like this will make it easier for people to get a job.

Teen suicide and mental health issues

Quilla also asked: “Teen suicide has been a major issue in Aotearoa for a really long time and improvements are not being made fast enough. What tangible actions would your party take to reduce teen suicide?”

Green Party’s Menéndez March said it is important to identify the pressure points impacting teens' mental health. 

He brought up homelessness and inadequate housing for some young people, and how there was limited access for young rainbow people when it came to gender or sexuality affirming services. 

All young people need access to health and mental health care, he said, but specialty services for vulnerable people are important when it comes to addressing these problems.

ACT’s Chhour said although New Zealand spends $2 billion a year on mental health and addiction services, she doesn’t think anything is changing. 

ACT wants to open a speciality mental health commission, where people can reach out to be assessed, and then be given a range of options for counselling and treatment, she said.  

Making period products more accessible for everyone

Ella also asked: “50% of us menstruate and have to pay for period products. Wouldn't it be fair if this was free for all?”

Williams from Labour said this was an absolute must.  

She brought up research showing 95,000 9 to 18-year-olds were missing school because they had their period and didn't want to be somewhere where they had no access to menstrual products.

The Government is currently providing free menstrual products throughout almost 1700 schools in New Zealand. 

She encouraged young people to make sure their schools have opted in to this programme.

National’s Doocey said as well as Government initiatives like period products in schools, shops needed to play a role in providing cheap period products.

“I visited my local Warehouse that is making very cheap and accessible $1 period products,” Doocey said.

“It just shows you that it's not only a government approach, it should be about the community as well … And I think the private sector has a role in it.”

Top Image: Politicians and rangatahi met online last week to discuss important topics. Photo: Re:/Supplied

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