Laura Toailoa — 22, graduating in December with a BA (Honours) in English Literature, and co-editor of Victoria University’s student magazine, Salient — is a first-time voter, who’s wondering why it’s so hard to become a well-informed one.
I still don’t know enough about politics to know who I should be voting for on September 23. And that’s not just me. I hear pretty much the same thing from other students at Vic.
I’ve never voted in a local or general election before. One of the reasons is that I’m used to obeying institutional authority: parents, teachers, bosses, and the government. It’s so deeply ingrained in me to be a rule follower that it freaks me out having the audacity to tell the people in charge that they should doing things differently.
I don’t know how much of this is because women are made to feel like their voice is less legitimate. Or whether it’s because I can’t fully remove the colonising racial inferiority embedded deep in my psyche. Or because I’m the sixth out of seven children and I’m well-trained in the role of the follower, the one waiting to be told what to do.
But I’m now 22, and I realise I’ve slipped into adulthood while I’ve been busy looking to the adults for answers and guidance. I also realise that many men and women who’ve been put into positions of authority are just muggles who’re doing the best they can with what they know — which often isn’t much.
So, this time, realising that these people in charge might be wrong, I’ve decided to add my five cents worth by means of my vote. Preferably a well-informed vote.
So far, I’ve watched WHY YOU SHOULD VOTE videos online, read thinkpieces on news sites, and policy outlines on party websites, and insightful hot-takes on Twitter, and watched some leaders’ debates.
And the first lesson is that it’s damn hard to get informed. There’s no shortage of voices spouting on the internet like they came out of the womb yelling for tax cuts or calling for an end to poverty or neoliberalism.
Man, there’s a myriad of information out there. But how reliable is it? And how reliable are the smiling politicians?
Now, I don’t have a formula for spotting the phonies and the fake news, but here are a few suggestions if you want to get your head around some of the issues.
1. Check out the three most popular online quizzes — and do one or two of them.
They won’t give you everything you need to know. But they’re pretty good starting points to introduce you to the ideas and parties being talked about in the lead-up to the election.
On The Fence is the easiest tool to use. They ask 18 questions, and you’ll be able to see where your opinion (if you have one on that issue) lies between the two extremes. It’s a good start to get a line on your top two parties and see if other stuff they’re saying aligns with what you think is right.
TVNZ’s Vote Compass has more questions. But these questions are asked in a way that assumes you have some knowledge of New Zealand government and politics. So I found I was doing a lot of “I don’t know” clicking.
For example, the second question is: “The government should restrict the tax breaks that can currently be claimed by property investors.” Well, I just don’t know.
Unlike the first two, The Spinoff: Policy doesn’t ask you what you think about each issue. Instead, it summarises some of the policies of the main parties. You can click on all the ones you like, and when you’re done, you can see which party’s policies you seem to agree with most. This one takes the longest but you can do it in little chunks at a time. Or just do the bits you can be bothered with.
2. Read an article today or tomorrow.
Just start with one article. I like to pick one that’s trending, read about it, then look at what social media has to say about it. Then come back to the article.
Sometimes when I read something new, I like to see what random people on the internet are saying. Then I go back to the original piece and see if my reaction differs a second time. The thing about educating yourself, is that you can move at the pace that suits you.
Māmari Stephens’ blog is one of my favourites.
3. Watch a debate or two.
The first debate I’d ever properly watched was from The Nation, with the minor party leaders. I just happened to be in front of the television on a Sunday morning and the debate came on.
After hearing National and Labour being talked about so much, I liked not having them there, so I could hear from those I don’t usually. Politicians often answer questions by, well, not answering the question. But, sometimes, they make concrete statements without apology, and those are the moments I look for.
Like when David Seymour, the ACT leader, said that his three-strike law took the “worst offenders off the street,” my lips pursed, my eyes narrowed, and I figured that our definitions of the most dangerous people are different.
4. Don’t feel like you have to keep up with every single development.
Things are happening daily, and even minute-to-minute during these campaign weeks. But there’s no need to pressure yourself to keep up with all of it, all of the time.
I just pick one part of my day for a quick look at recent updates, then leave them to it. We need time to process information and trying to cope with a constant stream of news and opinion can be unhelpful.
5. Talk to people about the candidates and the party policies.
I don’t bring up politics in conversations to have a debate, or to see who knows more facts or more history.
But I know there’s value in chewing over some of the issues — especially those that might affect me personally — and trying to get a better grasp of them.
It can be surprising what insights you can pick up in the course of friendly, frank conversations. For instance, I was recently chatting with friends who’re permanent residents and not citizens. They feel like guests in this country.
And their attitude is that it feels rude for them to vote for who should be in government: “Like going over to someone’s house, receiving their hospitality, then deciding the way they run their household should change to suit my needs.”
In another conversation I admitted to a close friend that I’d never voted. This was a person who’s told me about the importance of local politics and who I’ve seen lecture others on how important it is to exercise their vote.
I was bracing myself for a rebuke. But I just got a question: “Why?” I wasn’t attacked or belittled. Just quietly told why I should vote. And I appreciated that courtesy and patience.
I still don’t know nearly as much as I’d like to. But, bit by bit, I’m making some sense of all the noise.