This week the halls of Parliament were buzzing with the noise of energetic rangatahi arriving to Parliament to claim their space, as youth MPs, leaders and representatives.
Youth Parliament is held every three years and is promoted as a unique opportunity for young New Zealanders to learn first-hand about democracy in Aotearoa. The process permits one young person to take up the seat of each MP for a few days. They are given the opportunity to debate in the House, ask questions of ministers, sit on select committees and do interviews with media.
However, despite the awesome opportunity this can be for the 120 who are chosen, it can also feel like tokenism in action, when it's only for two days, there aren't any tangible outcomes, and they didn't even have the live reo Māori interpretation for our rangatahi!
With a young population of 70 per cent under 40 years old and 25 per cent under 21 years old, for us as tangata whenua it's important that we extend every opportunity possible to grow our future leaders and representatives.
So we decided to do our own youth programme and tasked our young staff to co-design a wānanga that would bring together rangatahi chosen from within our electorates.
On Monday 120 brilliant young people from Aotearoa arrived to a powhiri of only five Members of Parliament to receive them - the Ministry of Youth struggled to pull together a waiata to support them.
In stark contrast, 40 of our rangatahi arrived to a haka pōwhiri at Pipitea Marae where the president, co-leaders, executive and full staff team was present to receive them. The marae was warm with manaaki of Ngāti Pōneke. The excitement and hope of the week to come was evident in every face present.
There is much talk about the wisdom of age – but too little talk about the wisdom of youth. These inspiring rangatahi were a cross-section of their generation – rural, urban, straight, queer, students and workers. They have been raised to know that Te Tiriti must be implemented, not settled or dishonoured.
In the workshops our team set up for them, they navigated through solutions on climate crisis, racism, education and poverty, each sharing how much they appreciated their voices being heard. They analysed legislation and spoke about imagining when you don't have to imagine positive futures. No other generation has ever had to confront the prospect of global pandemics, climate collapse and inequality reaching levels that will force societal breakdown.
Some of the feedback we heard from the rangatahi is that they were so grateful to have been asked to give their opinions and perspectives on policy, campaigning, communications and the growth of our movement for tino rangatiratanga.
They spoke of the sadness they feel sitting in mainstream classrooms and not having their voices heard. We shouldn't have to set up kaupapa like this in order for young people to feel heard.
Too many times we hear leaders and representatives talk about succession and the decisions they make for future generations, but how often do we see them actively hand over the baton? When we talk succession, we mean it. Rangatahi are not the leaders of tomorrow, they are the leaders of today. I'm very clear that my role in Parliament is as a bridge for the next generation to come through.
When my Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi and I walked into the debating chamber on Monday afternoon, we were overcome with emotion at the sight of seeing our rangatahi filling the house with their unapologetically Māori energy, wairua and kōrero.
Our rangatahi aren't here to learn how to become part of the system. They are learning how to infiltrate the system and overthrow it from the inside.
In the words of my Youth MP, Luke Orbell (Kai Tahu), "I have an opportunity to speak for my whānau, for my iwi and I'm not taking that lightly. I'm seeing more rangatahi actually standing up for what they believe in like climate change, land back, healthcare rights, for hītori to be taught in schools."
When our rangatahi stand in their power and communicate their reality as young people in the 21st century, it stops me in my tracks and gives me real hope for the future.
• Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is co-leader of Te Pāti Māori.