With youth representation in Whanganui up for review, Zaryd Wilson heads along to a Whanganui District Council youth committee meeting and talks to those involved.

The game is simple.

Everyone stands in a circle and when a name is called out that person must duck before the people either side of them can "shoot" them by raising their hand and yelling "bang".

Once the game is over, everyone takes turns to tell the others what they did that they were proud of.

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It is a bit of whimsy to start the June meeting of Whanganui District Council's youth committee.

Forty minutes later, though, playtime is over.

Some youth councillors, committee administrator Claudia Perkins says, haven't been pulling their weight in working groups and it's been brought to her attention.

"That is absolutely not acceptable and it's not fair," Perkins says.

"[The youth committee] is not just sitting here around the table, it's about really supporting our youth here in Whanganui and we need to reflect that.

"Tasks have been allocated to people and tasks have been absolutely ignored which is not fair on the group and it will reflect badly on the committee."

Whanganui High School student and committee co-chair Ara Molijn joins the call.

"Because there's nothing worse than looking through a chat that has 15 people on it and having only three people at a meeting".

You could walk into a youth committee meeting at different times and get a completely different impression of what it is about. That is essentially the nub of what is being debated now.

What is the role of the youth committee? What is its purpose? And how best does it represent and improve the lives of young people in Whanganui?

The question has been hanging over the committee since its budget was hotly debated by the district council in 2017.

The budget ended up being slashed from $45,000 to $25,00 and out of that smaller pot the youth committee had to hire an administrator for eight hours a week, having lost its staff support which had been coming out of council budgets.

Whanganui Mayor Hamish McDouall laid down the gauntlet.

The youth committee needed to be relevant and the youth councillors' desire needed to be to represent the youth of the district.

"It's not [just] something to put on your CV," he said at the time.

"The colour run - nice idea, but is that really going to be addressing the substantial issue of bullying throughout our schools?"

Christie Wallace is sworn in as a youth councillor by Whanganui Mayor Hamish McDouall. Photo / Zaryd Wilson
Christie Wallace is sworn in as a youth councillor by Whanganui Mayor Hamish McDouall. Photo / Zaryd Wilson

A year on, the youth committee's budget has been restored to $45,000 but with the condition it is reviewed.

The review working party includes five district councillors - McDouall and four others - alongside council staff and youth committee co-chairs Ara Molijn and Rhea Colaabavala.

"Obviously, we wouldn't like to have a review because in a sense it's easy to see a review in a negative light because it's almost like we're not doing the role that council envisaged us to do," Rhea says.

"But for me I see it as a good thing because we can really address any issues we see and it's an opportunity for us to grow and make things better."

Ara is just as pragmatic.

"It's also a really good way to get some communication between what the expectations are, how we're meeting those expectations and what both sides can do better to really support a better youth committee," she says.

A disconnect between the youth committee and the council is the first thing that's been identified by the review.

A "meet the councillors" event is being held this week to bring the youth councillors and district councillors together.

The review puts everything on the table including the number of councillors, whether the committee structure is the right approach, alternative funding, and whether it is advocating for the right things.

The youth committee currently comprises 18 people between the ages of 12 and 24. Members are appointed after going through an application process.

Josh Chandulal-Mackay, who is part of the review, has a deeper insight than most as the second former youth councillor to have gone on to be elected to the full district council. The first was Jack Bullock.

He still sits on the youth committee as the appointed district councillor and is an advocate for its place in Iocal government.

Josh Chandulal-Mackay, also photographed as a youth councillor in 2010 (inset), is one of two to later be elected to the full Whanganui District Council. Photo / Bevan Conley
Josh Chandulal-Mackay, also photographed as a youth councillor in 2010 (inset), is one of two to later be elected to the full Whanganui District Council. Photo / Bevan Conley

As a 12-year-old, Chandulal-Mackay shook as he read the declaration in front of councillors as part of his swearing in.

"It was so intimidating because at that stage even a 14- or 15-year-old seems miles ahead of you in terms of their ability to articulate a viewpoint and contribute. I felt like a bit of a benchwarmer for a couple of years."

But he credits the youth committee with his development.

"It's got a huge part to play and it's that kind of environment that I think creates enthusiasm for local government among younger people – the fact that they are empowered to do stuff on their own and that it's not just a talk fest."

Chandulal-Mackay says that is because the youth committee is an official, legitimate committee of the Whanganui District Council.

It has six-weekly meetings. Meetings follow council standing orders. It has a budget which it is accountable for. Co-chairs report to each district council meeting.

The youth committee has a representative on the Rural Community Board and two appointees to the YMCA board.

Whanganui youth committee members (from left) Helena Hazelhurst, Ara Molijn and Rhea Colaabavala report to June's Whanganui District Council meeting.
Whanganui youth committee members (from left) Helena Hazelhurst, Ara Molijn and Rhea Colaabavala report to June's Whanganui District Council meeting.

This month, youth councillor Emelye Brown joined councillors and staff on a trip to Rotorua to see how the city's recycling programmes work and what ideas could be brought back to Whanganui.

"It's pretty substantial stuff and that sets it apart from many other committees around New Zealand," Chandulal-Mackay says.

"That's advocacy. And alongside that I think a natural part of advocacy is creating opportunities for young people to come together and actually feel part of the community and I think that's where the events side of things come together.

"There's this perception that all the committee does is have their six weekly meeting and that's it."

The youth committee tries to tie its events to serious issues affecting youth.

The Vibe music festival was about getting people talking about mental health. The Castlecliff Beach clean-up was about the environment. The colour run was about bullying.

Rhea says some of the feedback they get from the council is the youth committee isn't just supposed to organise events; it needs to be tackling issues.

"And I do get what they mean but to address really important issues like mental health and environmental issues - the best way is to ask youth to get directly involved and bring that issue to the forefront of their mind.

"A lot of people think we're kind of a mini council because I guess the venue is the council chamber but I don't see us as that as all."

Ara says: "We are youth, we're not trying to do what council does."

Chandulal-Mackay says the expectations put on the youth committee need to be realistic.

"Take the issue of youth suicide - you've got some of the most brilliant, experience and empathetic minds in the world grappling with this issue and we've got a country that has the highest rates of suicide between 15- and 19-year-olds in the world.

"Yes, the youth committee should be playing a role in this space but to expect them to make some kind of substantial change when so many others haven't managed to - I think is a hell of a burden to be placing on a bunch of young people between the age of 12 and 24."

Chandulal-Mackay there's nothing wrong with youth councillors' personal development being part of it.

The Vibe festival was an example.

"It provides something spectacular for the community, but we had an event manager, Josie Verhaaren, who was 16 at the time, and she basically coordinated everything and was the real driver of this project along with Ahilan Saravanapavan.

"How many 16-year-olds can say that at the end of Year 12 they've managed and coordinated a community event?

"The committee allowed her to develop the capacity to do that in a way school never could."

Youth councillors Josie Verhaaren and Ahilan Saravanapavan lead the Vibe music festival in 2017. Photo / Bevan Conley
Youth councillors Josie Verhaaren and Ahilan Saravanapavan lead the Vibe music festival in 2017. Photo / Bevan Conley

Chandulal-Mackay says it's become clear the engagement between the committee and council is "pretty insufficient" but the review will help.

"I would like to have a really thorough discussion about how the youth committee could be more effective in that space and I'd really like to test the intellect of the other elected members about how they see the committee doing that."

Back at the youth committee meeting, Helena Hazlehurst's resignation letter has been accepted and new youth councillor Christie Wallace has been sworn in by Mayor Hamish McDouall.

He gives a speech about empathy which kind of reveals what he sees as the role of the youth committee.

"Sometimes it's a bit hard to open your mind and envisage the experience of others," he says.

"Empathy is this thing. Don't worry about youth councillor being on your CV. Worry about the word empathy.

"We are, after all, a species that bands together, that's why there's a community, that's why there's a district here. We're not lone wolves.

"I hope you can use your collective empathy to understand some of those young people out there who may be do not have the time, space of safety … to allow them to empathise.

"This is your job. My hope is that you'll be able to transmit through that empathy to us what the youth in Whanganui are experiencing and how best to react to it."

The youth committee is an official branch of Whanganui District Council and its meetings follow the council's standing orders.
The youth committee is an official branch of Whanganui District Council and its meetings follow the council's standing orders.

Really, the council and the youth committee agree on its role and the current discussion and review is just about how best to do that.

"I think it's just really important for people to know that we're here and we'll listen," Ara says.

"Don't be afraid to approach us if there's something you want to see changed in Whanganui. We can help to make that happen."

There's nothing whimsical about it.

"The official things like passing resolutions and voting and stuff – that's just kind of management – but really at the heart of it we are just youth trying to make a difference and make change," Rhea says.