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, is quick to retort he only did so in Year 11 with parental approval and during lunch.

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

Since a tense moment in the Spinoff debates, McLaren-Harris has ‘educated’ himself and is voting no on both referendums. 

Outside of Young NZ First, he works as a programme manager with The Moko Foundation — a charitable trust which provides opportunities for underprivileged youth. Young NZ First is by far the newest entrant amongst the youth wings of the major political parties, having been only formally recognised in its party’s structure since 2015.

With NZ First itself having long held a reputation of retaining an older demographic among commentators, I asked McLaren-Harris 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… [where] If you spend the same amount of years working in New Zealand, using your degree that you studied for, 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 oportunity to keep our most talented students and graduates in New Zealand,” he continued.

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

NZ First sees value in St John ambulances and wants the government to meet 90 percent of its funding requirements — while legally 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. Retorting that at the youth wings debate he was the youngest person on stage. Instead people “connect with us … because we’re real, raw and authentic young people that aren’t driven by agendas,” McLaren-Harris said.

He isn’t completely wrong either, with the party having had a relatively average voting demographic in the last general election — though not necessarily reflected strongly in general elections prior.

When asked whether he thought the voting age should be lowered, McLaren-Harris said he felt 16-year-olds were not ready to vote and instead suggested engaging with young wings

Young NZ First believes everybody deserves a chance. And stand out compared to other young wings by widening their focus off university campuses and into the wider regions of New Zealand. Noticing instead that “Only 30% of school leavers actually go on to further education […] and so we needed to change that.”

But it may well be the end for the road for the party at this election. You would have to go back to 2008, when the party fell out of Parliament, in order to find any polling which is in the same territory that NZ First is in now. 

Despite the statistical odds, McLaren-Harris’ tone is unequivocal. 

Never underestimate NZ First and Winston, he suggests. “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”. Rather, McLaren-Harris continues, a youthful energy to get up and campaign every morning. 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.”

JUSTIN HU is a first year communications student at AUT.

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