A vote of no confidence in the local body elections

by The Listener / 13 October, 2016
As “the council’s” reputation sinks, the talent pool of people willing to stand for local office grows shallower.
Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

Politicians frequently misalign cause and effect, but the reflexive promise of “easier voting” after the predictably low turnout for the local body polls adds insult to injury.

Despite persistent indications that online voting cannot be made safe from hackers, the Government has vowed to press on with trials – as though the dismaying 41% voter participation were merely a matter of clickbait.

The dreary and confusing task of form-filling and schlepping to the postbox are only marginal factors in voter apathy. The main cause is that voters correctly divine that they’d be wasting their time. They see chronic paralysis of decision-making, such as that on the Auckland Council and Environment Canterbury; secret deals to bypass elected officials and public opinion, such as Wellington City Council’s subsidisation of a foreign airline; individual politicians’ pet projects bulldozed through incompetently and divisively, such as the last Wellington mayor’s now dismantled cycleway; and small councils hopelessly out of their depth with vital infrastructure, such as Hastings’ floundering to diagnose the cause of its poisoned water system.

No wonder turnout barely lifted in the cities and sank lower in the provinces.

Voter apathy flourishes in a perfect storm: the declining viability of the media means less local news is reported, so poor decision-making is seldom sheeted home to those responsible; it’s just “the council” being incompetent again. As “the council’s” reputation sinks, the talent pool of people willing to stand for local office grows shallower. Those with name recognition, usually incumbents, have an inherent advantage, but the dearth of scrutiny masks the fact that a worrying percentage of them are time-servers or cranks. All of this creates a vacuum that is readily filled by officials who need never worry about the ballot box. When something goes wrong, they are seldom held accountable. It’s “the council” in the wrong again.

Contempt for openness and democracy has become so routine that Auckland Council officials last year told councillors they could not legally express an opinion on the Unitary Plan because that would be showing a bias that would disqualify them from voting on it. This arrant nonsense was rightly ignored, but a study by Massey University researcher Catherine Strong recently found that 15% of councils purport to enforce rules restraining councillors from speaking out against council decisions.

It’s understandable, if not forgivable, that officials usurp power to avoid the chronic inertia of squabbling councillors. Wellington’s $9 million subsidy for Singapore Airlines and $300,000 for an Australian call centre were made secretly by three councillors and chief executive Kevin Lavery. The full council learnt of the airline deal only because it was leaked. Lavery held secret merger talks with Porirua council, without reference to the full council (or public opinion, which was overwhelmingly opposed), and said in a staff circular, “I hope to make real progress on the Film Museum and Convention Centre, the airport runway extension and the establishment of an Urban Development Agency.” None of these projects had been sanctioned by the council.

Voters are perhaps understandably resistant to seeing national political tribalism replicated locally. But this has resulted in perpetually scuffling collections of individuals around council tables, rather than coherent tickets or blocs. Loose tickets can occur, such as on Auckland’s new council, but they lack the discipline of a central party caucus. On the contrary, councillors have an incentive to go rogue on a regular basis to top up their name recognition.

A further red herring is that young people are excluded from the process and need somehow to be babied into it, including by electronic voting. The young have always been less inclined to vote than older cohorts, and there’s no reliable evidence that online voting would change what is a natural tendency towards their lack of interest, which only time and life experience can genuinely address. Young Auckland mayoral candidate Chlöe Swarbrick’s campaign platform of making cycle helmets voluntary – in the teeth of global evidence about head injury – is a reminder of why it would be foolish to artificially engineer youth participation.

It’s often said people get the elected officials they deserve. Equally, until both elected and unelected council leaders show respect and consideration for the people they are supposed to serve, they will get the voter turnout they deserve.

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