20 Jun 2014

The next wave: Labour's Arena Williams

9:07 am on 20 June 2014

With the general election just three months away, whose are the fresh faces in politics? In the first of a series of profiles of some of the major parties’ new candidates under 35, The Wireless producer Elle Hunt talks to Arena Williams, Labour’s candidate for Hunua.

You can trace how the Labour Party has benefited Arena Williams’ family over six generations, she says. Her great-grandparents received the old-age pension because of the first Labour Government; her dad was able to attend teachers’ college thanks to the second. “Labour seemed like they were behind our family,” she says.

At 24, Williams is the party’s youngest candidate in this year’s general election. But she’s been involved with Labour for nearly a decade.

She joined in 2005, out of frustration with “something bad that Labour had done”: Helen Clark’s government’s controversial foreshore and seabed legislation. Williams, then a teenager growing up in Papakura, began delivering flyers and making herself “useful on the phones”.

“Then I started helping the MPs who I saw as standing up for their values in the House … but also trying to move forward on [the issue].”

A picture of Arena Williams out campaigning for Labour

Arena Williams out campaigning for Labour Photo: Supplied

As a law and commerce student at the University of Auckland, she was active within the Princes St branch of Young Labour, as well as the Auckland University Students’ Association. In 2012, she was both AUSA president (a stint marred by controversy over a junket to Israel) and an official spokesperson for the Keep Our Assets campaign, alongside Grey Power’s national president Roy Reid.

With two years’ experience on Labour’s policy council and manifesto committee, she says she has experience of organising, campaigning and policy processes at most levels of the party. (She has also been placed at number 40 on the list.)

She accepts that criticism about “being too young to do the job” is par for the so-called ‘career politician’ course, but she doesn’t feel like she’s disadvantaged by her age. “I feel like I’ve been around a while.”

Besides, being a young person today is not “like how it was when John Key was 18”; if Parliament is to be representative of society, there need to be younger voices in the House.

“Part of the diversity of representing all New Zealanders is about having people who understand what it’s like at the moment, and what challenges young people face,” she says. “Being rangatahi in Parliament at the moment is being 35 to 40.”

(She’s right: just two MPs currently in the House are under 30, and most are over 45.)

But part of the challenge of achieving a more representative House is making politics more appealing and accessible to young people – which Williams is hopeful will be one outcome of her campaign for Hunua. She’s involved groups of new Young Labour activists in Tauranga and Whangarei behind the scenes, and is working to engage high school students.

“The first few years of my involvement [with Labour] was just going to meetings and not understanding a lot about what was going on,” she says.

For her, politics has always been “very much a family thing”, and she’s hoping to make activism more accessible for those who haven’t had that grounding, or who don’t belong to a tertiary institution to organise around.

She wants young people at the “starting stages” of their political awakening “not to have to go through as many years of sitting in a room with lots of grey-haired people, not understanding how to get involved.”

Her contribution to the Labour Party over nine years is best measured in legwork and man-hours. She campaigned for Kelvin Davis in the Te Tai Tokerau by-election in 2011, and helped out with social media for Meka Whaitirii’s bid for Ikaroa-Rawhiti last year.

It wasn’t a job then, she says, and it isn’t now. “Every night for the past six weeks, I’ve been doing something about the campaign in Hunua, but it’s just an extension of what I’ve been doing for the last few years – delivering flyers,” she says. “The difference is I have my face on them this time.”

With her background in organising, it makes sense that she seems to prioritise the same on-the-ground, real-life activity. In Labour’s announcement of her candidacy, which billed her as likely to appeal to young, first-time voters, she criticised over-reliance on “viral video and social media” campaigns: “It’s a useful tool but we’re swamped with online messages. We must improve the way we talk face-to-face. Being able to listen will be the key to genuine engagement with young voters.”

Given blithe assurances that the election will be won on social media, which reflect that online it’s easier to keep score, it’s a refreshing attitude – as well as a bit of a blessing given youth wings’ capacity for cringe.

Though Williams has the benefit of hindsight, having pulled such stunts in the past. As AUSA president, she made headlines by stripping down to her underwear to protest rising student fees, despite the connection between the two being, arguably, only tangentially obvious. (Of course, she wasn’t the first – or the last, even that year – to court mainstream media coverage by putting a face, and tanlines, and undies to an important and under-covered issue.)

A picture of Labour's Arena Williams out campaigning

Labour's Arena Williams out campaigning Photo: Supplied

Access to tertiary education is still a topic she’s passionate about. She’s worried that it’s too often talked about in terms of personal benefit, with its contribution to society, the economy, and small communities lost in the discussion of job prospects and wage premiums.

In particular, she’s concerned by the number of young people – especially Maori – who are in neither study nor work. In rural areas outside of the main centres, like the Bay of Plenty, those numbers can be as high as one in three, she says: “And if you look like me, if you’re a young Maori woman, it’s like, one in two.”

But the solution doesn’t lie just in improving access to education. “I think a big part of the problem is the young people who don’t feel like they’re worth it,” says Williams. “It’s not even at the stage of going to interviews and being able to present yourselves and having a good CV, it’s before that, thinking, ‘What can I do? What are my skills?’”

She wonders what the impact will be in 20 years’ time, when today’s disenchanted, disenfranchised 20-somethings will be struggling to provide for their families because they haven’t had access to education or training.

Plans to grow the Maori economy dependent on having the right people, with the right knowledge and qualifications, ready to take up the challenge, she says. “Any business who is concerned about their pipelines of staffing should be concerned about the statistics around young people getting into their first job.”

I don’t think a lot of voters there feel listened to, or that their hopes and concerns for the area are reflected in National’s policies

Williams wants to see – and be part of – a practical strategy of how to engage young people in study or work, to be enacted in the next term. She’s in support of Labour’s plan to incentivise businesses to take on young people as apprentices, saying it would benefit people living in communities like those in Hunua.

“A big concern for them has to be how education, and training, and getting ahead at work if they’re already in work, is going to work for them when they’re not in city centres, when they’re not near the big tertiary providers.”

She says many voters in Hunua, and other “typically very blue ribbon seats”, are “ignored” by their MPs. “I don’t think a lot of voters there feel listened to, or that their hopes and concerns for the area are reflected in National’s policies.”

But Hunua has been described as “one of the safest seats for National” in the country, with retiring incumbent Paul Hutchison taking 66 per cent of the vote at the last election. National’s candidate this year is Andrew Bayly, a chartered accountant, merchant banker, company chair, and former paratrooper who once dragged a sled to the South Pole; a bit like a superhero designed to appeal to the centre-right.

Williams is as such realistic about her chances of becoming an MP: “I wouldn’t be betting on myself on iPredict.”

But she says a vote for National is for the “same-old, same-old, and that’s not working”, while she brings a new perspective to the table. She says she has real experience of “getting policy up”, and, as MP for Hunua, she’d hope to be able to act directly on the community’s concerns.

Right now, she works in a bank. One day, she’d like to work in an organisation that manages communally-held Maori assets. But for now, she sees politics as the best way to effect the change that she sees needs to happen, and as such, she’s not looking beyond September 20.

“I don’t have a Plan B. This is the plan. Every Labour organiser – I don’t just mean candidates, I mean everyone involved – with the hope that we’re going to be elected and will be able to enact some of the things that we’ve planned.”

Disclosure: As twenty-somethings in New Zealand, Elle Hunt and Arena Williams have friends in common, but are not themselves friends.