If you’re feeling disinclined to vote in the current local government elections, then perhaps you simply shouldn’t. Ignore the chorus of political commentators, bloggers and various politicos who are pleading and hectoring you to vote, and simply refuse to take part in this year’s elections.
Certainly if you’re bored by it all, unimpressed with the lack of meaningful electoral options, or just disgruntled with the state of your local authority and democracy, then one of the most powerful options you have is to protest by not participating.
Although such a message is considered beyond the pale by the ‘political class’, in reality it’s your legitimate right not to endorse what might seem like an electoral sham. This year’s non-vote is certainly shaping up to send a powerful message that the system isn’t working. Signs are that voter turnout will be the lowest in living memory. If central and local government politicians are truly listening, then two million eligible voters refusing to participate could lead to some sort of radical reform of local democracy.
The extent of public discontent and disconnect with the local government elections is plain to see in numerous news articles reporting the very low turnout so far. In terms of Auckland, see TV3’s 87 percent of Aucklanders still to vote and Wayne Thomson’s Auckland voters taking their time to decide who will run their city. For the capital, see TV3’s Wellington voter turnout 'to be ashamed of'. For Christchurch – see Glenn Conway’s Low voter turnout feared. And for an overview of the nation, see Daniel Adams’ Apathy leading contender at the polls.
The last item is particularly worth reading, as it looks at some of the reasons that citizens are choosing not to participate. It reports the analysis of Massey University academic and specialist in local government, Dr Andy Asquith, who focuses much of the blame on the local authorities: ‘He said the disconnect between councils and their constituents, confusion over the role of elected members, and the public's lack of understanding about the importance of voting were all factors in declining turnouts. Local politicians had two roles: to be "our voice", and making sure the organisation was well governed, but often became mired down in the latter, he said. That left local politicians "appearing" every three years at election time, he said, when they had a responsibility to be far more visible mid-term’.
The article also says that the huge non-vote is ‘sparking calls for a radical overhaul’. Therefore, it’s realistic that some good might actually come from choosing not to participate in 2013. Not voting in these elections helps indicate that the system lacks legitimacy.
So what exactly is wrong with local government? I suggested some of the problems in my column last week – Who's killing local democracy? But a much better analysis of the key problem of local government in New Zealand is put by Brian Easton in his latest Listener column, Voting in a vacuum. This points out that New Zealand is one of the ‘most centralised states in the world’ and ‘local authorities have little power to act, except at the behest of central government, which frequently overrules them’. Easton doesn’t sound very convinced about the need to vote: ‘Is there any point voting in local body elections? I shall vote in order to demonstrate to the centralists that I believe in local democracy, even if they don’t’.
In Auckland, Brian Rudman has also expressed his lack of enthusiasm to vote and the reasons why: ‘For the first time in my life, I'm finding it hard to argue against those who can't be bothered voting in the upcoming election’ – see: Super City elections all too hard. He complains that the Auckland Super City model has been a failure for local democracy: ‘The promise of a Super City, headed by a super-council more akin to a state government, has not been fulfilled. By government-design it's become little more than a cypher for the mayoral agenda. It's failed to excite public attention, or assert itself, either collectively, or as individuals. Is it any wonder that voter apathy is their reward’.
So should local authorities be given much more power? Radical reform is proposed by the rightwing New Zealand Initiative think tank, which has published an excellent discussion document by its executive director Oliver Hartwich – you can download the PDF here: A Global Perspective on Localism. The best media coverage of the report is Brian Fallow’s Calls for public services to be funded by local government, which emphasizes the fact that New Zealand local authorities have only 11% of government spending, compared to the OECD average of 30%. David Farrar comments as well – see: Localism.
Such reforms aren’t the only way to shake up local government. Another possible solution is to properly reintroduce political parties to the contests. Massey’s Andy Asquith is reported as advocating this: ‘He also believed national political parties should stand candidates in local races. "If we have party politics in local elections, you'll actually know what candidates are standing for”.’ This change would make the elections more coherent, and locals would have a better idea of what they are voting for, thus making the elections more meaningful. In reality, the idea of all candidates being ‘independent’ has always been a farce. This is an aspect that Brian Rudman has complained about in Auckland: ‘With… the majority of council and board candidates lurking behind a babel of 62, mainly meaningless, labels, it's all too hard. With 119 candidates, for example, claiming to be "independent", including seven of the 17 mayoral hopefuls, what's a voter to do?’
Similarly in Christchurch, local blogger Caleb Morgan has written his review of the candidates on offer, complaining that ‘the main barrier to informed voting seems to be that most candidates are doing their utmost to portray themselves as being non-party-affiliated and sometimes even “non-political”.’ – see: Politics without politics – a local election guide. He explains why this happens: ‘I guess candidates want to cash in on cynicism about politicians, and appeal to our lazy post-modern ‘post-political’ ‘post-ideological’ political ideology. But it does make it rather hard to tell what they’re actually standing for, when nobody really follows local politics, and then all we get from the candidates is vague billboards and a paragraph of meaningless platitudes’.
Arguably, without political parties contesting the electoral contests, the competition becomes a focus on name recognition. By extension, most councils, particularly provincial ones, are very conservative and beset with conflicts of interest. It also means that the majority of candidates tend to be those, who, to put it bluntly, have seriously vested interests, or a lot of time on their hands. What’s more, under the current pro-independent model, the political parties are involved in council campaigns, but the individual candidates simply skirt around their actual political associations.
Brian Easton isn’t so sure about the value of the parliamentary parties: ‘Libertarian Act was hardly pro-decentralisation when it held the local government portfolio. You might expect the Greens to be, but MMP has given them a direct route into Parliament instead of building a platform in local body politics. In any case they, like the rest, are all too keen to grab power at the top and use it to direct everyone else’.
Therefore it might be best to boycott the current elections, and try to force change. However, there’s certainly a different view on this. For the best defence of voting in local elections, see political scientist Jean Drage’s Your vote counts in local elections. And there are plenty of other variations on this message going around at the moment. For the ultimate list of reasons, see Liz Breslin’s Voting is sexy, polite, easy ... and a privilege. The head of Local Government New Zealand, Malcolm Alexander puts forward his arguments in his Herald column, Have a say on how your city is run. From the left, Julie Fairey writes Why You Need to Vote in the Local Body Elections and Greg Presland of The Standard says: Vote!
Finally, even renegade ex-MP Aaron Gilmore is getting in on the act, urging people vote – as well as endorsing Lianne Dalziel for the Christchurch mayoralty – see his blogpost, Local Body Elections. He says: ‘There is another week to vote for local body elections. Please do so. Your vote is important. For me I’m fortunate to be able as a multi property owner/resider to be able to multi vote in multi areas, but I am only voting once in Christchurch and in Burwood Pegasus in 2013’.
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Otago University.