Political engagement and conversations on the street

People who go to election events are generally pretty politically engaged. Our idea, was to run an event where people who would otherwise not vote, or not engage in the political process, would have a space, an inviting space, to come to.

By Anna Casey-Cox

Yesterday, I was part of an Election Candidates Event. We thought we would try something different. People who go to election events are generally pretty politically engaged. Our idea, was to run an event where people who would otherwise not vote, or not engage in the political process, would have a space, an inviting space, to come to. Here they would see candidates and political figures in person and maybe, just maybe, have a conversation about the things that matter to them.

Our event was located in Frankton Market at Go Eco, in the old Post office building. My role was to encourage people to come inside, to enjoy some food, a cup of tea and to meet their election candidates. 

My opening line was “have you figured out who you are voting for this year”. It made most people look up at least. There were a lot of yes’s and also lots of “I don’t need to talk with you” moments, but equally there were a lot of no’s and quite often, “I don’t vote”. 

One man explained to me that the justice system had failed him and his family. His daughter had watched her grandmother being abused and she had seen no justice delivered. From this experience, he had lost complete faith in the system and in government, and so had chosen to not vote. I moved the conversation to things like the future that he had in mind for his daughter. In the end, he walked away thinking about Jacinda, his mother’s friend apparently. I said “this year could be your year – the year you vote again”. 

Another young man I spoke to said that he would vote either National or Labour. He saw them as so similar. He was interested in labour’s rail policy and could see how this might be good for him and others, enabling access to Auckland, to jobs possibly. He thought that if Labour was going to do it, National would likely do something similar. I encouraged him to come inside and have a chat. He said he would go away and come back. He wasn’t coming back. He was happy to talk with me, but to talk with politicians was another level that he felt not quite prepared for. He was, at least, may be going to have more of a think of the issues that matter most to him.

A few people would not even look at me. One fella, not even looking up, said I’m voting for “no-one’. I understand this lack of interest. I’m guessing that nothing had changed in his life time, it’s probably been one difficulty after the other and no government policy appears to have made a difference. This is a reality.

And then there was my conversation about whether all of what the politicians are saying at the moment will even eventuate. “They can say what they like, but will it result in anything?” – a good question. And just how do we keep our politicians accountable, especially when the only time people may engage in the political process is at election time, and often not even then?
Kotahitanga, one man said. Working towards unity, towards an understanding that we are in this together. Stop the fighting, the put downs, the confusing rhetoric, the endless policy pitches, the claiming of one thing being so much better than the other - it’s exhausting for the community who really don’t know how to make sense of it all. This focus, kotahitanga, a focus on working together, on knowing the issues and figuring out policy together, that sounded positive. I was all ears. 
So, did the people, the relatively disengaged, talk with our election candidates? A few did. And if the conversations were good, as the ones I overheard were, then there is hope. Was this event better than a typical election candidates’ debate? I’m not sure. It was different. Did providing a space help? The street seemed to work pretty well for me. Talking with people about what they cared about, about policy and about voting, that worked well. People like to talk to someone who is interested in them, who cares about their life. This job is not limited to our politicians. It’s limited to us, to all of us. The more we talk to each other about our ideas, our dreams, the policy and our realities, then the more engaged and connected we will be. And there is a lot of hope in that. 

I understand disengagement.  I don’t blame people. They are often just trying to cope with the outfall of policies and the shifting rules of life that have been handed down to them. A conversation can help though. It can spark a thought that leads to another, and even that, just that, is a sign of some engagement. A thinking society, a society that talks, that connects and that shows it cares. That’s the New Zealand I want to live in.


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