Gen Z’s new platform to influence Rotorua politics

1:44 pm on 8 December 2023
Rotorua Lakes Council elected member Fisher Wang was first elected in 2019.

Rotorua Lakes Council elected member Fisher Wang was first elected in 2019. Photo: LDR / Laura Smith

From serving at McDonald's to the civil service, Rotorua's youngest councillor Fisher Wang is now set to guide a new generation on local politics.

Wang was 19 and working a shift at Mcdonald's when he learned he had been elected in 2019.

He and mayor Tania Tapsell are alumni of the Rotorua Lakes Council's youth council, which was disestablished in 2017.

Now, council staff say there is an appetite for such a group to be re-formed.

Elected members voted at a meeting last month to re-establish the youth council. Tapsell and Wang would act as the council's representatives.

Community wellbeing advisor Felicity Jansonius-Bidois said there was previously no formal mechanism for including youth voices in decision-making.

"As the largest and fastest-growing population group, they will play a significant role in our future economic success as a district."

She said at least 35 councils had a youth council.

Jansonius-Bidois said a new youth council would be formed with issues the last group faced in mind.

This included concerns around diversity and purpose - it had turned more into an "event management" tool rather than a strategic one.

Thriving communities director Kelly-Anne Panapa said staff did not suggest a youth council, which would range in age from 15 to 20, was the answer to every youth concern.

"But a youth council is the most significant opportunity for the council to purposely invite rangatahi in and engage meaningfully with them on issues that matter to them."

It would focus on four priority areas: Long-Term Plans; council youth voice strategy; climate action and the Inner-City Revitalisation Long-Term Plan.

Start-up costs would be funded from the operational budget. More funding would be sought through the next long-term and annual planning cycles.

Wang said forming the youth council would not just be a "tick-box exercise".

He called it a win-win in that the elected council would hear from an "underrepresented portion" of the community and could provide insight into the civic process in turn.

This included "the good and the bad", Wang said. From there, youths could choose whether local politics was a path they wanted to take.

Wang said it was like succession planning for the district.

Rotorua mayor Tania Tapsell will join Fisher Wang in working with the youth council.

Rotorua mayor Tania Tapsell will join Fisher Wang in working with the youth council. Photo: Andrew Warner

Councillor Conan O'Brien said re-establishing the group was "not a priority" given other "pressing concerns", including an economic crisis and financial challenges.

He believed there were opportunities for youth to have a say, such as through petitions.

Councillor Karen Barker noted the alumni in the room. "It obviously did a good job in the past."

But she agreed with O'Brien on the timing of it.

Tapsell said youth were aware of the challenges the wider community faced.

"We have nothing to lose and everything to gain from allowing them to not only come through these doors and learn more about council, but sit at this table and learn the highs and lows of being a decision-maker here in Rotorua."

Councillor Trevor Maxwell, the longest-serving elected member in New Zealand, "wholeheartedly" supported re-establishing a youth council. "I used to be the youngest on council."

Councillor Don Paterson said youth should be "fully cognisant" of what was involved, and what challenges may lay ahead.

"If they are prepared to get involved, then I applaud them."

Councillor Robert Lee questioned whether it could be called a council if members were not voted in but recruited through applications.

He was told this process could be reviewed in future.

Lee and O'Brien voted against the youth council being established.

Rotorua Girls' High School principal Sarah Davis told Local Democracy Reporting she was a big fan of the initiative and the school was encouraging students to consider it.

"I believe the youth in this town have plenty to contribute to how they wish to see the town in the future."

"I am super excited to see this up and running hopefully early in 2024."

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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