As council elections near, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) has launched an ambitious campaign to make New Zealand the most inclusive and active local democracy in the world.
But when Hamilton City Council's youngest councillor Sarah Thomson, 31, was elected in 2019 and had a baby the next year, there was not even a parents' room at council and no opportunity for joining meetings online.
After Covid, things changed: Zoom meetings are now part of everyday life and the council installed a parents' room that was also used by fellow councillor Kesh-Naidoo Rauf, 37, who had a baby girl in 2020.
Both councillors are part of the 13.9 per cent of elected members in New Zealand who are under the age of 40 and welcome the call for more diversity in local council chambers.
Waikato Herald also spoke with outgoing South Waikato District (SDWC) mayor and veteran councillor Jenny Shattock, 67, about what needs to be done to achieve more diversity in local councils.
LGNZ says that of the current mayors, councillors and other elected members, 40.5 per cent are women and the average age is between 56 and 60 years, only 13.9 per cent are under the age of 40.
The association also says the representation of Māori, as well as multi-ethnic and Pacific communities, are low.
LGNZ's chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene says workload, pay and a lack of inclusion were part of the barriers to getting diversity into local councils.
Shattock who will leave her council after 24 years in local government agrees: "Local Government needs to move with the time and become more flexible, especially for young women."
She says she wanted to stand for council because she was passionate about her community.
"I grew up in Tokoroa and wanted to make sure that the future of Tokoroa was going to be as good for my children as it was for me. I wanted to have a say in where the town is going and do my part to shape [its] future."
Hamilton councilwoman and mum of two Naidoo-Rauf was born in South Africa but came to New Zealand over 20 years ago. She already had a 4-year-old son when she was elected but had a baby girl, Aaira Rauf, now 15 months, in 2020.
She says she decided to stand for council after the March 15 Christchurch terror attacks.
"I gathered financial support from the Rototuna Business Network and teamed up with my father-in-law and the local mosque to cook halal meals for families in Christchurch. I was chosen to fly down and deliver the meals and I met the victims.
"Coming back, I couldn't go back to normal, I felt like I needed to do something extra for our community."
She says that while it was challenging to be a mum to a newborn and a councillor, it was "absolutely" do-able.
"It comes down to flexibility. Lockdown really helped change things through virtual meetings. Even now, if my child is sick and my husband is unavailable, I can still contribute and participate [in council meetings]."
Chatting with a member of the community, Naidoo-Rauf goes even further. "I met this young mum who said 'we need parliament and local government to be run by young mothers, because there is no one more passionate than a mother that wants to make the world a better place for their child' and I think this is so true."
Fellow councilwoman and mum to 2-year-old Leo Stockman, Thomson says the pandemic and zoom meetings made the job more accessible.
"When I started, before Covid, there were no zoom meetings, so the only way to participate was to be in the council chambers. I was even told nothing could be done to change that."
She says that the council converted an unused room next to the council chambers into a parents' room. "Which meant I could be in the chamber but also be there for my son."
Thomson is a former community lawyer in Auckland. Her motivation to stand: Climate change.
"We got such a small window to act and prepare the city for changes, so I felt a sense of urgency to bring this voice to the table. As cycling is one of my key modes of transport, I also wanted to help improve the infrastructure for this."
LGNZ president Stuart Crosby says local government needs a wide range of candidates to stand in the elections and represent their communities when decisions are being made.
"Now is not the time for people to turn off. It's time for everyone to be heard and included, to shape the community they live in."
Shattock says she feels like her current council is already diverse, but there is always room for improvement.
"Diversity in our council is so important, because [the South Waikato District] is such a diverse community. We have youth, Māori representatives, a Pacific community, ...
"As an elected member you need to bring people from different backgrounds and views together. I had some challenges doing that, but as long as we have a collective vision, we can work together to promote this vision."
Naidoo-Rauf says it was not only about how to get more diverse people into councils but how to get diverse ethnic communities to engage with councils in the first place.
"That's the million-dollar question. Most immigrants come to New Zealand with jobs, but they are dealing with the challenges of living in a new country, settling in and finding a place of belonging. In all of that, local government is not a priority, unless it's something they are passionate about."
She says the structure and tone of voice of local government are also contributing to a low uptake from diverse communities.
"Especially the way you are meant to speak which is what I found quite difficult. I have a background in pharmacy, I was taught to speak simple, so people understand. There is no jargon. But in council, the language is different, you use big words.
"Then, the council job is not really financially stable. For young people, this can be quite daunting."
Thomson says it was not only the financial side of things. "People need to take time out of their career [to stand for council] which makes it harder to go back [after the term]."
Naidoo-Rauf says the key to more diversity is to make local government relevant to people.
"And to make minority groups comfortable to talk about their issues. It is safe to voice an opinion. Let people know that their opinion matters no matter who they are."
Thomson says it was also important that people can envisage themselves in council. "We have seen an increase in younger and more diverse people standing in the [recent] byelection. If we see more people like them, it helps others to put their names forward."
She says another way to get more diverse candidates was to encourage people around us.
"There are some amazing people out there in the community who do a great job already. Tell them you think they will be a good fit for council. This time around they might not be ready, but you might plant a seed and they will be ready when the next election comes.
"Sometimes all it needs is a bit of encouragement."
Anyone interested in standing for council can put their name forward from July 15 when nominations open.