The coroners report into the 2019 elections will no doubt include a comment about the state of our local democracy: "Vital signs critically low. Bradycardia and bradypnea evident". In other words, voter interest is so low that the majority of folk can't be bothered voting.
The decline and further decline of voter engagement in local body politics has been a talking-point after every election for the past decade or more, as are the calls that "something must be done about it". Some say voting should be compulsory and those who fail to do should be restrained and flogged or pelted with past use-by-date tomatoes.
I would agree that compulsion and public humiliation or tomato throwing may be appropriate if a "no confidence" or "none of the above" option was added to the voting papers. At least then those who can't bring themselves to voting for any of the candidates on parade can express that view. I personally would take this a step further and void the outcome of an election if the "no confidence" option gained the most votes! In that case it should be the defeated candidates who would be publicly humiliated by the mere fact that they were beaten by no confidence.
Politicians blaming voters for not voting is a little like a business person blaming the consumer for not buying their goods. As things stand at present, I see no problem with people not voting if they consider the candidates on offer are not worth voting for.
Most people are not interested in local body elections, because the politicians don't make local body politics interesting. They actually make it boring, which explains why so few members of the public turn up to sit in on their meetings. Those who do are usually hire-a-crowd people organised by a lobby group with a cult-like world view on issues like free lunches for homeless kittens, or solitary desolate souls with a bone to chew.
It's the job of a politician to make politics interesting, so the public engage in the process. Just like it’s the job of a business owner to make their product or service worth the asking price. In the case of a politician, the asking price is nothing more than a tick of their time, but it seems even that is a price to high for many to pay.
Here are a couple of suggestions as to how local body pollies could spice things up a bit.
Say something interesting while in office. Don't just turn up to meetings and say "aye". Fear not the criticism that will inevitably follow if you happen to say something someone else disagrees with, which is usually the case when something worthwhile is said. The problem here is councillors become intimidated into silence, not only by a hateful minority, but also by their own council's Code of Conduct. All councils are required to adopt a Code of Conduct setting out how elected members should behave. In practice it becomes a weapon used by councillors to muzzle other dissenting councillors. Dissention in politics is nothing to be feared; it is a sign of a healthy democracy.
Engage the community in the decisions, like how their rates money is to be spent. How about asking them which of the endless list of capital projects being proposed by council staff they prefer? "Asking them" is not putting an ad' in the local paper that no one reads anymore. It's about engaging them through street meetings, surveys, media reports, focus groups, etc. It's ridiculous that voters only hear from their representatives every three years when they need them for their continued employment. No wonder voters are dismissive of local politicians.
Some say online voting will make a difference to voter turnout. If people can't be bothered taking a minute or two to tick a voting paper and post it then they are not likely to take a minute or two voting online. Online voting is simply an option put by those who do not want to address the real causes for the lack of voter interest.
Make it interesting and voters will be interested in voting.