Rotorua's youngest elected councillor says he considered not standing again in this year's local body elections after being subjected to abuse targeting his age and ethnicity.
At 19 years old, Fisher Wang won a seat on Rotorua Lakes Council in the 2019 elections. Since then the councillor has been targeted in a wave of regular personal harassment and abuse.
Wang's experience comes as nearly half of New Zealand's elected representatives responding to a Local Government New Zealand survey say they have experienced racist or sexist abuse since starting their job in public office.
The findings, released last week, have prompted concern that such harassment was already forcing some elected members to step down while other would-be candidates may be dissuaded from running in this year's local body elections.
Wang said he experienced plenty of abuse mostly based on his young age, or being of Asian descent, he said.
"When you experience it in person, when that happens, it's hard to evade. It's almost as if you are forced to grow a bit of a thick skin against it but even then, it still gets to you sometimes."
Much of Wang's harassment came via social media, which he was able to manage without issue most of the time. It was much harder when this happened in person which felt "very personal", he said.
He learned to walk away from such incidents because it was easier than getting into an argument which "personally, for me, is not any better".
"We are in a public role. We are put here by the community. I would expect people to come to me if they were unhappy about something but I feel like something has changed and I would almost say the current political climate ... it almost feels more hostile."
Wang was part of a young elected members committee, comprising of councillors aged under 40. They made up just 13 per cent of all elected members in councils across the country and "quite a few aren't standing again", he said.
"The harassment that they have faced has definitely resulted in that. I know a lot of them, and many of them are quite optimistic people. They, like me, are there because they are passionate, they want to represent their community and make decisions for their community for the future."
But the abuse affected their mental health and made them feel unsafe, Wang said.
"Unfortunately we are losing really good people as a result of this."
Wang said he was familiar with the view some expressed that "you signed up for this, you should take it", he said.
"But we are talking about elected members who signed up because they are passionate about representing their community. They didn't put their names forward to be harassed."
Wang said he's also been contacted for advice by some people considering running and he's battled with himself whether to sugarcoat what the experience is like.
"We need more people standing. We need that diversity so they are representing the actual representation of the community but I don't want to scare them away either."
Despite the abuse, Wang said he would stand again for the council in this year's election.
Bay of Plenty Regional Council councillor Stacey Rose announced late last year he would not seek re-election in this year's elections due to abuse he said he received. Much of this was ageism, he said.
Rose, also elected at 19 and becoming the council's youngest councillor, said the survey findings were a "sad reality".
Diversity in all of its shapes was essential to local government actually representing the spectrum of its community, he said.
Rose, like Wang, hoped would-be candidates this year were clear about what they were getting into but also not put off.
Rotorua councillor Mercia Yates said she had been yelled at and heckled "for speaking Māori" in karakia or prayer, or for pronouncing words correctly. She has also been accused of being biased in her voting because she's Māori and from Te Arawa "or more specifically Ngāti Whakaue".
"I was elected to represent the whole of our community, not part, and I believe that I demonstrate that. I walk the talk."
But for Rotorua MP Todd McClay there had been little in his 14 years in the role "that's concerned me or alarmed me".
"There will be times when people are angry, frustrated or have mental health issues. You've got to be pretty robust and not easily take offence. Freedom of speech is extremely important. If you are offended by something someone says ... you're probably in the wrong job."
In 2014, McClay was dubbed a "blond-haired, blue-eyed, redneck" by then Mana Movement leader Hone Harawira over a proposed gang patch legislation.
"I didn't take offence to it and I'm still in Parliament and he's not," McClay said last week.
However, Local Government New Zealand president Stuart Crosby said in order to make a change, it was important to acknowledge there was a problem and find ways to address it.
"We need our councils to reflect the diversity in our communities and this type of behaviour puts the progress we've begun to make at risk," Crosby said.
Despite there being a "small uptick" in the number of Māori, women and young elected members around council tables, the survey results made for "tough reading"
The Local Government New Zealand survey found 49.5 per cent of 105 respondents experienced racism or gender discrimination in their role. Another 43 per cent experienced harassment, prejudice, threatening or derogatory behaviour in their role.
Local Government New Zealand chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene said she was already concerned about "some of the behaviour and rhetoric" in this year's election.
"The campaign trail is a powerful platform for positive change, so we really want candidates to use it to engage with the important issues facing our communities. We know there's a more inclusive and productive way to get their voice heard."
Local Government New Zealand was now providing election candidates with greater support, a new code of conduct and a refreshed induction programme.
At a local government conference last week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was "abhorrent" that some people representing their communities were facing violence and the local electoral environment was becoming dangerous.
Ardern said the requirement of elected representatives to be available had, in recent times, "become more challenging". She was concerned the impact of this could result in losing mayors and councillors.
Changing the election requirement for residential addresses on campaign advertising was part of helping better protect elected members, Ardern said.
A total of 105 anonymous survey respondents were received from 56 local authorities. Their findings include:
- 49.5 per cent of respondents experienced racism or gender discrimination in their role
- 43 per cent of respondents experienced other harassment, prejudice, threatening or derogatory behaviours in their role
- Close to a quarter of respondents are not sure how to report instances of harassment and/or discrimination
- Less than a third of respondents felt connected with other elected members in their workplace