Otago candidates aim to change face of region

Jayden Cromb. Photo: Supplied/Facebook
Jayden Cromb. Photo: Supplied/Facebook
Otago is one of the least diverse regions in the country - and its local bodies reflect that.

However, there is a growing number of candidates from diverse backgrounds, and they hope to change the make-up of local body's following next month's elections.

When it comes to diversity, Otago is an outlier in Aotearoa.

About 87 percent of people identify as European, compared to 70 percent nationally.

Only one in 12 are Māori compared to one in six nationally; one in 14 are Asian compared to one in seven nationally, and one in 37 Pasifika compared to one in 12 nationally.

In Central Otago, those discrepancies were even more exaggerated.

That was part of the reason local youth trust chair Jayden Cromb had put his hand up.

"I'm running on that thing of diversity because as far as I'm concerned even if we don't all agree, if you have that diversity of thought, opinion and experience that helps us get the best result at the end of the day,"

Others had already approached him about standing at the 2025 election as a result, the 27-year-old of Waikato iwi said.

"Because it hasn't really been done before it makes it quite hard for some people.

"I've already had others come out and said, 'Next time I feel more confident that I could run', and so I've said from day one even if I lose and don't get onto council if it means we have more people under the age of 30 or more people who are Māori or Pacific then that's a win for me."

Cromb had big policy goals with increasing affordable housing at the top of his list.

"I work for Uruuruwhenua Health, which is the Māori health provider, and we support people in all sorts of different ways that are having a tough time and housing was a really big issue.

Hana Halalele. Photo: Dominic Godfrey/RNZ
Hana Halalele. Photo: Dominic Godfrey/RNZ
"I was sick of us just doing what we could but always having to keep moving people out of the community because housing wasn't being dealt with."

Queenstown Lakes had long been Otago's most diverse district.

One in 10 were of Asian descent, but they had been a voice missing from its local politics.

Matt Wong, owner of Queenstown's iFly indoor skydiving attraction, hoped to change that, but he admitted it was not part of his thinking in standing for council.

"I think one of the key elements I was thinking more of was the age and the experience and the direction I come from.

"Councillors tend to be a little bit older, I think the average age is 54, and male. I'm a father of two young kids at primary school, I'm a business owner, I employ staff here and I just happen to have an ethnic background to me."

But he had noticed the lack of diverse voices around the council table.

There were unique barriers for minorities to overcome, Wong said.

"I think the challenge of taking on the position of a councillor at a local government is it has felt like you have to be a local for a very long time.

"A lot of the time minority cultures feel like they don't have a voice and it takes a very brave person to stand up and say 'I want to run for council and I speak on behalf of minority groups within the community.'

"It is a tough job regardless of what your ethnic background is, so I think there are some significant barriers there."

He wanted to be a councillor to give back to the community which had given him so much, and because he wanted to bring his expertise and perspective to the table as the district navigated through a post-pandemic world.

Hana Halalele became the Waitaki District's first Pasifika councillor in 2019.

She was running for a second term in October.

Tim Cadogan. Photo: Supplied
Tim Cadogan. Photo: Supplied
But there were systemic barriers which made it difficult for many Māori and Pasifika to stand for election, Halalele said.

"The model that local body elections operate in makes it difficult for not only the wider community but specifically Māori and Pasifika to participate.

"Like our families we need two income earners with our children - the current model and structure that it operates within makes it hard."

Those factors meant those early in their working career or with young families were put off by the sacrifices and time involved in the role.

But diverse voices and perspectives were needed in decision making, and greater effort needed to go into ensuring a wider range of people could participate in local democracy, Halalele said.

The candidates all agreed a greater emphasis on civics at school would be a start.

Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan agreed more needed to be done to get young and diverse communities engaged in local democracy.

The two-term mayor was elected unopposed and he had concerns about turnout and engagement in local elections, especially among younger demographics.

He was pleased to see the increasing number of women on the Central Otago District Council and to see two councillors aged under 40 after the last election, and two under the age of 30 standing this time around.

But while there had been progress in increasing diversity around council tables, it had been slow and more needed to be done.

Cadogan agreed teaching civics at school would be a start at getting people engaged as voters and participants in democracy from a young age.

"I don't think there would be a local government leader in the country that wouldn't say we're failing our young people and people of the future by not teaching civics at school.

"It's an absolute gaping hole in our education system that needs to be filled, and it's a matter of significant urgency."

Voting papers started arriving around the country today, with polling closing on 8 October.