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.

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.

Latest

Bill Ralston: We care for Grace Millane – we should care for the others too
100435 2018-12-15 00:00:00Z Crime

Bill Ralston: We care for Grace Millane – we shoul…

by Bill Ralston

The death of young tourist Grace Millane touches us all and is a call to action.

Read more
There are some striking similarities between Trump and Bill Clinton
100425 2018-12-15 00:00:00Z World

There are some striking similarities between Trump…

by Paul Thomas

Donald Trump may be a stark contrast to past Republican presidents but he bears comparison to a Democrat who survived impeachment.

Read more
Handmade gifts to treasure by New Zealand's talented craftspeople
100475 2018-12-15 00:00:00Z Style

Handmade gifts to treasure by New Zealand's talent…

by Kate Richards

These six makers share their love for the handmade.

Read more
Wellington's Lime e-scooter launch a sign of NZ's transport evolution
100488 2018-12-14 15:12:37Z Tech

Wellington's Lime e-scooter launch a sign of NZ's …

by Peter Griffin

Despite an initial flurry of ACC injury claims, transport sharing schemes look set to become part of the fabric of urban transport.

Read more
Win an Oscar Wilde prize pack, including books and double passes
100464 2018-12-14 10:08:08Z Win

Win an Oscar Wilde prize pack, including books and…

by The Listener

Enter and be in to win The Selfish Giant, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Happy Prince and Other Stories, and a double pass to The Happy Prince.

Read more
Trends in 2018: What Kiwis searched for this year
100457 2018-12-14 09:38:50Z Life in NZ

Trends in 2018: What Kiwis searched for this year

by RNZ

Here's what piqued our interest this year.

Read more
The curious connection between these new celebrity biographies
100448 2018-12-14 09:13:59Z Books

The curious connection between these new celebrity…

by Russell Baillie

Our reviewer wades into a flood of celebrity biographies and memoirs and finds they’re all connected in some way.

Read more
Hop to it: The best Kiwi beers for summer
99461 2018-12-14 00:00:00Z Dining

Hop to it: The best Kiwi beers for summer

by Michael Donaldson

Here's what to crack open on a hot day, from our very own Kiwi brewers.

Read more