There are certainly few teenagers in Aotearoa who can tell a story of skipping school just to hear a politician speak. Likely none of those few would have that politician be the 75-year-old leader of New Zealand First, Winston Peters. 

But there is an exception and his name is Jay McLaren-Harris — the now chairperson of Young NZ First. McLaren-Harris, who is now 21, also wants me to include that he only did so in Year 11 with parental approval.

I had a chat with Jay over Zoom last week as NZ First’s campaign shifted into high gear for the final stretch before election day. 

Young NZ First is by far the newest entrant among youth wings of the major political parties; having been only formally recognised in its party’s structure since 2015.

With NZ First having long held a voter stereotype, I asked him about what the party — known for creating the SuperGold card — had to offer to young people.

“One of the things we’re standing on is our education policy and our tertiary education policy — specifically what we call upfront investment. So for example, if a uni student studies for five years to become a doctor and they rack up $40-50k in debt.

“If you spend the same amount of years working in New Zealand, using your degree that you did studying for your degree, then we would swipe your debt,” says McLaren-Harris.

“First of all, it shows his education is an investment, not an expenditure. And it’s investing into the future generation so that we continue to keep the most talented people here in Aotearoa. Because of COVID, this is a prime opportunity to keep our most talented students and graduates in New Zealand,” he continued.

He also emphasised that the scheme would apply to trade schools, polytechs, cadetships and anything that already qualified as tertiary education.

Another policy the youth wing chair wanted to highlight was his party’s stance on supporting and funding St. John ambulances.

The charitable organisation currently relies on donations and says it wants the government to meet 90 per cent of its funding requirements —  while still letting it stay as an independent charity.

McLaren-Harris also had something to say about perceptions that NZ First is more focused on attracting older voters.

“I don’t think there’s a reputation of NZ First being the party for the older generation. I’m 21, myself, and when the youth wing series was launched, I was 20. When the youth wings debate was happening, I was the youngest person on that stage,” McLaren-Harris retorted.

“At the convention, there were heaps of young people there. And these young people connected with us. The reason that they connect with us is simple — because we’re real, raw and authentic young people that aren’t driven by agendas,” he continued.

He isn’t wrong either, with the party having had a relatively average voter demographic in the last general election, though this wasn’t a trend reflected in previous general elections.

When asked whether he thought the voting age should be lowered, McLaren-Harris said he felt 16-year-olds were not ready to vote.

“We have some amazing and very bright 16-year-olds but we also have some very immature 16-year-olds out there in the country. You know, two years, there’s a lot of time to grow. And so I encourage those young people out there that are keen to start voting at 16 to start getting involved in youth wings and to get engaged,” McLaren-Harris said.

The youth wing chair also said he felt Young NZ First had a significantly different appeal as compared to some of his youth wing counterparts. 

“You look at every other youth wing around New Zealand, including the Young Nats, including Young ACT, Young Labour and Young Greens, their primary focus are university students in city centres.”

“We noticed that and we said hang on a sec. Everybody deserves a chance. Only 30% of school leavers actually go on to further education and so we needed to change that.”

“Part of the restructure when I joined Young NZ First was actually taking things away from the university side of things and actually going into the regions of New Zealand and saying how we could engage with young people from Kaikohe or Te Awamutu,” he says. 

But it might well be the end of the road for New Zealand First tomorrow. One would have to go back to 2008, when the party first fell out of Parliament, to find any polling which is in the same territory that NZ First is in now. 

In spite of the statistical odds though, Jay’s tone was unequivocal. 

Never underestimate NZ First and Winston, he suggests. It’s a line in reference to history, which certainly isn’t new but which has dominated punditry around the party’s chances. He suggests the pollsters have underestimated NZ First in the past and will do so again.

In fact, he suggests voters will gravitate towards the stability in New Zealand First and Winston Peters.

“Winston has been the leader of New Zealand First, for 27 years. What that shows is stability within the party. What we don’t have is three leaders in three months. What we don’t have is our MPs leaking against the leader, what we don’t have our leaders calling their MPs useless,” McLaren-Harris says in reference to Simon Bridges’ leadership of the National Party.

“The energy of Winston Peters as a 70-year-old man is well beyond my 21-year-old body. He has the energy of a 16-year-old and he gets up every morning and campaigns,” he added.

If the polls are to be believed though, then Winston Peters may have finally hit retirement after 42 years of dismissal, tenacity, resurgence, kingmaking and xenophobia. 

Giving a final pitch, McLaren-Harris said that “[NZ First] are a rocket booster for bright ideas and a handbrake for those bloody stupid ones from the left.”

McLaren-Harris mentioned he was voting no on both referendums. 

Outside of Young NZ First, Jay says he’s working as a programme manager with The Moko Foundation — a charitable trust which provides opportunities for underprivileged youth. 

JUSTIN HU is a first year communications student at AUT.

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