Thursday, October 10, 2013

Karl du Fresne: A shot in the dark

Some of us (but only a minority, by the look of things) have taken the time during the past couple of weeks to cast our votes in the local government elections. As a result of this three-yearly exercise in participatory democracy, some cities and towns will have new mayors by this time next week. A much larger number will have an intake of new councillors.

As always, the candidates include a significant proportion of no-hopers, cranks, misfits, oddballs, mischief-makers, egotists and single-issue obsessives. Fortunately, local government also attracts conscientious, capable people who genuinely want to serve their communities. The problem for voters is that it’s often hard to tell the difference between the two types of candidate.
The information we are given with the ballot papers, or in advertising material, is a wholly inadequate basis on which to cast our votes.

It tells us what candidates value – or at least what they say they value – and what they propose to do if elected. But it gives no indication of how they will perform if they succeed in winning office. The proof of the pudding, as the saying goes, is in the eating.

Mostly, candidates’ election promises consist of safe platitudes that no one could disagree with: stuff like keeping rates down, ensuring transparency and working hard to represent their constituents.

Usually the election bumph lists the councillors’ credentials, but these don’t tell us much either. Even a certifiable sociopath might be truthful in saying he’s lived in the town for 20 years and is married with four children – but it’s no guide to his competence as a councillor.

I recall years ago being impressed by the CV of a council candidate in Wellington. He seemed to tick all the right boxes, but turned out to be a disaster: erratic, argumentative, emotionally unstable and incapable of working with his colleagues.

Attending candidates’ meetings is more informative than reading election material. It provides an opportunity, albeit a limited one, to assess candidates’ personalities.

I went to one such meeting a couple of weeks ago and, as a result, changed my mind about a person I previously intended to vote for. A sitting councillor, he struck me as casual and complacent. He didn’t bother to confirm to the meeting organisers that he would turn up and he hadn’t prepared any speech notes, instead speaking off the cuff in a rambling fashion.

He dropped from number one on my preference list to last place. I reasoned that if he took such an offhand approach to a candidates’ meeting, he would probably be similarly lackadaisical in his attitude to council business.

The problem is, only a tiny handful of voters make the effort to attend such meetings. Many of the few dozen people present at the meeting I attended were senior citizens, and I suspect a lot of them knew enough about local politics to have already made up their minds about who they would vote for.

Now here’s another problem. Traditionally, people have formed judgments about the performance of their mayor or councillors through the local media. Media coverage was a never a perfect basis on which to cast an informed vote (in fact it sometimes had the perverse effect of giving prominence to stirrers at the expense of councillors who got things done), but it was far better than nothing.

Alas, many local newspapers that once provided detailed coverage of council meetings no longer have the resources to do so, or have diverted those resources into supposedly sexier subjects.

This means people wanting to make their vote count must find out more about the candidates for themselves, but the overwhelming majority don’t consider local government important enough to make the effort. They end up voting for people because they like the look of them, they recognise their name or they have a sister-in-law who has her hair done at a candidate’s salon and says she seems nice.

That is, if people bother voting at all. Most don’t.

A recent survey by Local Government New Zealand revealed that 31 per cent of people didn’t bother voting because they didn’t know enough about the candidates. Another 24 per cent intended to vote but forgot to, and 14 per cent were too busy. But only 14 per cent were genuinely not interested.

The low participation rate is hard to explain when you consider the profound impact local government has on our daily lives: the streets we drive on, the sewage plants that treat our waste, the hospitals we go to when we have an accident, the water we drink, the disposal of the rubbish we create, the sports grounds we play on, the libraries that issue our books and the hygiene standards of the restaurants and takeaway bars we patronise.

LGNZ chief executive Malcolm Alexander put an interesting spin on the elections last week when he pointed out that local government controls $120 billion worth of assets and spends $8 billion annually. If you were a shareholder in a company that size, he said, you’d surely want a say in who ran it. 

In many respects, local government has a more direct influence on our quality of life than legislation passed by Parliament. Yet a general election generates infinitely greater interest and excitement than the local government polls.

And it goes without saying that Parliament attracts a different type of candidate. National politics has an aura of glamour and power – words not normally associated with local government. The money’s better, too.
Yet there’s never a shortage of candidates for local office. For reasons that are not immediately apparent, it seems to appeal to a particular personality type. And I suppose the rest of us should be grateful, because someone has to do it.

All of which brings me back to those oddballs, mischief-makers and egotists.

Inevitably, some of them will get elected. And once in office, they can be hard to dislodge. They will attract publicity. Their names will become known.

And three years down the track, when people vote again, they may get re-elected simply because people recognise their names.

That’s one of the hazards of local government. We just have to hope that the sensible, conscientious councillors will outnumber those who are in it for self-aggrandisement or to pursue their own weird agendas.

Karl blogs at This article was first published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.

1 comment:

Brian said...

A Shot in the Dark.
Apathy, when the history of New Zealand comes to be written, will feature in banner headlines as hopefully, a dire warning to future civilisations.
As a people, we are little different from the Romans, seduced by promises made acceptable by the distraction of premier events such as the recent America’s cup, All Black power in Rugby etc. At least in Roman times, the populace had the final decision on the fate of those who, in the Coliseum, failed to live up to expectations... with a thumb down and the Gladiator’s sword.
Having like Karl attended a few recent local body meetings, what has annoyed me and was exemplified the recent T.V.’s 3 Vote programme. It is the lack of control by the “Chairman” over “candidates” who simply ignored the basic rules of conduct during a meeting! Pam Corkery’s continual outbursts in pushing her particular “barrow” is a prime example. What Karl has so rightly described as “oddballs, mischief-makers, egotists and if I may add another addition, “Conspiracy-terrorists”.
It is no wonder people avoid meetings with such outbursts, and those who resort to such tactics might well take note of a phrase by H.L. Mencken (quote).
“Have a steady willingness to believe that his (or her) opponent is as honourable a person as they are, and may even be right!”
What actually is shattering Local Government for most of us, is the mass of bureaucracy which dominates all its services; only Council Executives have time to wade through this ever mushrooming and legally written “Red Tape”. It can be rightly called “the curse of over complication of what are merely, simple issues of common sense”. And that is a potent threat to us all, refer 1930 Germany!
We do not want larger Local Government; we want less bureaucracy, less central government interference, less regulation which in turn, will generate more interest and understanding by people in their own local affairs. Brian.