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September 25, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

I’m Not Sure How I Feel: Disillusionment With Elections

This post-election sentiment was written prior to the election, due to both the limitations of print and the pervasiveness of this disillusionment beyond the election’s outcome. If there was a revolution over the weekend, some of these thoughts can be disregarded.


I am a Young Person¹ and, like many other Young People, I was told that the 2017 election was my opportunity to engage in politics, to make a change, to have my voice heard. I read policies and debates and forum discussions. I was told why to vote Blue or Red or Yellow or Green or something else.

While reading through one party policy, I clicked on a link in the document to be met with a message — Error: this page cannot be found. A dead link. The research to justify the policy statement was lost somewhere; inaccessible and lacking legitimacy.

Much like elections themselves.

Our feelings towards elections are often framed in terms of outcome, limited to whether we consider it a Win or a Loss. Media outlets had their headlines planned for either outcome well in advance; Bill’s Back or Labour To Lead Us.

But are our responses not more complex? We struggle to balance and mediate conflicting feelings — feelings that often come with a caveat of uncertainty or alienation. In reality, the way I feel about elections depends on who I am talking to, what I’ve read, how much sleep I’ve had.

I asked those around me how they felt about elections, and found myself agreeing with all of them, in some way.

1. I feel hopeful; hopeful to hear those who are in power discuss issues that matter to me — abortion decriminalisation, tertiary education, climate change — in a way that indicates potential tangible change to the law, rather than vague ideas of societal shifts.

2. I feel interested in the prospect of change that never seems to eventuate.

3. I feel lucky to live in a country where a democratic system is upheld and implemented.

4. I feel conflicted about the role of Democracy as a colonising force which has been implemented upon indigenous cultures as a civilising mechanism, (forcefully) replacing pre-existing governance structures.

5. I feel powerless.

6. I feel helpless, looking at the list of parties and feeling alienated by all of them.

7. I feel tired from the constant strain of Stuff comments, Facebook posts, and conversation which morphs into a polarising and hateful discussion.

8. I feel angry being told that Young People don’t know anything about government, when Young People all around me are reading policies and informing themselves and asking critical questions while others vote purely based on habit.

9. I don’t know how I feel.

As with many Young People, my views on elections are not fixed. While I understand how MMP and a democratic system works in the abstract, the way election campaigns and policies become tangible change is somewhat murky. It is difficult to see how two ticks on a piece of paper translate to the way decisions are made — while those ticks contribute to which parties get seats in parliament, our influence on that parliament’s actions is limited. Our “representative” democracy means that we leave it to parliament to make decisions for us. So, although a vote is held up as the most influential role we have in that system, it is not clear how our votes impact what policies will be prioritised, or what bills will be passed under urgency, and therefore how influential that role really is. This disjoint, between our “active role” as voters and our very inactive role in parliament’s decision making makes it difficult to place ourselves in relation to the whole.

Elections often do not feel like they are for us. They relegate Young People to the periphery, involving us as an object, but not as an active subject, in discussion of policy and voting. Elections heighten this disconnect between the system and those it “represents” — politicians, from all parties on the political spectrum, trying to appeal to Young People appears, at best, false and cringeworthy. It often feels patronising. Young People are interested in tertiary education and Chlöe Swarbrick, but don’t they understand that farming is the backbone of this country? Those who come and speak to groups of Young People are quick to recall when they were at university or when they had teenage acne or when they were broke; but do not actually address what it means to be us, here, now.

As Young People, the way our lives are framed by others is often inherently politicised; positioned against — Baby Boomers, homeowners, business people. The rhetoric is tiring. It lumps Young People into a voting bloc and assumes a homogeneity of views, before we have had the chance to assess how we actually are placed on different policies or perspectives. For many Young People in Aotearoa, the inherent politicisation of being a Young Person is layered with other modes of politicised oppression — racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism. This can further alienate individuals who do not feel represented by the parties we have to choose from, or the representative “system” itself.

Part of this disillusionment comes, I think, from the systemic nature of the issues Young People witness and experience. We live in a country where layers of inequality are evident in our schools, our communities, our courts. Some of these are viscerally, uncomfortably obvious — the woman with a cardboard sign asking for change outside New World; the statistics regarding rheumatic fever. Others are more slight, but still pervasive — your male colleague’s pay rise; the Stuff article about the single mother who feeds a family of four for $100 a week.

Tangible shifts to systemic inequalities are possible only through deep, fundamental change, and an avenue for that change is not readily available in our current electoral system. Inequality is perpetuated by different layers of decision making, beyond the individuals in parliament. There are the policy advisers, Treasury executives, and ministry officials who dictate the way money is spent and resources are allocated; there is a legal system that entrenches the way property and people are valued; there are norms and behaviours which negotiate “acceptable” ways of being. Our participation in elections might influence one of these layers, but it is hardly surprising that we might feel dissatisfied with one empty gesture of democracy. The idea that my two ticks are indicative of my integration and involvement in this civil society makes me uncomfortable, if that same civil society engages in the oppression of marginalised groups, incarceration, poverty, gender inequity.  

When asking those around me how they felt about elections, another response came from over the phone: I don’t even feel like elections affect me. My initial reaction was disbelief. Of course elections affect you, government has a majority in parliament, and parliament makes law. But peeling that statement back, I realised they meant it in a different light — not that the election would not have any impact on their life, but that a change in political leadership would not resolve the issues they cared about.

Elections are confusing, because while dressed as an opportunity for change, it is unclear how there will be change to these inequalities. Budget expenditure will shift, houses will be built; but when it comes to addressing and resolving fundamental, underlying inequalities, the system cannot promise to remedy the very issues it was built on.

In a discussion hosted by Paiaka in August, constitutional lawyer Moana Jackson reflected on the way decision making is framed in Aotearoa. “I get frustrated when people refer to it as The Law,” he said. “This is but one way of making decisions. There are many different ways of making decisions.” For Jackson, the system of representative democracy imported from the UK cannot remedy inequalities, because the process by which it was brought to Aotearoa, through colonisation, was violence. Effective change requires a different structure, not a different leader.

So, what does this mean? Addressing inequality is not just about voting or not voting. It is about critiquing (dismantling) the system. While our parents and whanau might be entrenched in the way they view elections and politics, we do not have to be. Not knowing how to feel about elections can be hard, but it also means being alive to the prospect of an alternative. And if the alternative is a system not built on inequality, perhaps it is worth feeling uncomfortable. The election spectacle brings with it fanfare about change in one specific context, but challenging inequality and seeking systemic shifts is work to be done all of the time — not once every three years.

The end of elections make me feel relieved. It means an escape from strangers asking me who I am voting for. From the amplified Facebook discussions that polarise their commenters. From the politicians who visit campus in their politically coloured ties. For me, a Young Person, the election was not a Win or a Loss, but a reminder of the inadequacy of the system it represents and perpetuates.

I’m not sure how I feel.


  1. “Young Person” is (ironically) used here to refer to individuals aged 18–30 in Aotearoa, as is done by the Electoral Commission. Although not a homogenous group, they (we?) are often viewed as one bloc of people, despite being from different cultural groups, communities, and socio-economic brackets.

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