Shane Te Pou: Apathy towards local elections needs reversing

OPINION:

Few forms of civic engagement are made easier for us than voting in local body elections, yet six in 10 of us conclude that filling in a ballot paper sent to our home and returning it in a pre-paid envelope over a generous time window is too much bother.

Turnout in local body elections is so low in New Zealand, it feels less like apathy and more like a boycott.

The trend is in the wrong direction, too. Nationwide, the percentage of voters who participate in council elections has declined from 57 per cent in 1989 to less than 42 per cent today. Bear in mind: postal voting wasn’t introduced until 1992, so can you imagine how much worse the trendline would be if we had to drag ourselves to a polling booth on one Saturday in October?

Voter turnout in general elections has also trended downwards over the same period but to nowhere near the same extent. In fact, a survey conducted for Auckland Council showed more than half of the people who didn’t vote in the city’s 2016 elections went on to do so in the parliamentary elections the following year. This is a democratic deficit particular to local government.

This matters because low turnout creates a death spiral effect as councils are elected by a smaller and smaller band of voters – disproportionately older and more affluent – and everybody else feels increasingly alienated and more and more choose to opt out. But it almost goes without saying that not everybody loses from this. Anyone who does well from the status quo prospers. As has been the case ever since the first Wellington municipal elections in 1842 kept the riff-raff at bay with an exclusionary poll tax, the establishment emerges victorious.

The widespread rejection of party politics at the local body level in New Zealand is another factor that drives down participation and upholds conservative interests. In the absence of a partisan contest around competing policy platforms, it tends to be the “man (or woman) about town” who prevails. Name recognition and strong existing networks are what get you elected, which explains why real estate agents and former MPs occupy so many council seats across the country. Localised party labels operating as effective proxies for the main parties fail time and again to fire up the base.

The Auckland Council research found that 52 per cent of non-voters said it was either because they knew nothing about the candidates (29 per cent) or not enough about their policies (23 per cent). When everyone on the ballot is ostensibly an “Independent” or representing some bespoke proxy brand, it’s a heavy lift to work out where each of them stand on the issues or their broader approach to politics. You may not like traditional party labels, but they undeniably serve as useful shorthand for voters. And if it turns out that convincing voters that “party politics has no place in local government” was a conscious National Party strategy this whole time to depress turnout and support conservative interests, it’s been a wildly successful one.

Another structural disadvantage faced by non-traditional “outsider” candidates are strict campaign spending limits which are purported to keep money out of politics but, in fact, serve to keep the moneyed and already powerful in charge. This is counterintuitive, perhaps. It’s reasonable for people to assume that allowing big money into campaigns will create a US-style corporate cash spree that hurts progressive causes. But spending limits for council candidates are so modest in New Zealand that it makes it near impossible for non-traditional, non-establishment candidates to garner the profile they need to compete. This is especially true given the disintegration of local newspapers, shutting off the possibility of building name recognition through earned media. No wonder ex MPs win every time – you know who they are, and you know where they stand.

The local government reforms currently under consideration won’t address much, if any, of this. Nor should they. But it’s nonetheless a once-in-a-generation chance to revitalise local democracy and turn back the tide against apathy and disengagement.

The last major overhaul was in 1989, from which time we’ve seen a precipitous decline in voter turnout. The most controversial aspect of those changes – the amalgamations – turns out to have been their sole redeeming feature. By contrast, the adoption of a corporate board model for councils, which concentrated way too much power in non-elected chief executives, and highly prescriptive rules around planning, consultation and reporting, have suppressed innovation and driven a wedge between councils and their public. When voters became just another “stakeholder”, it was all downhill from there.

My hope is this wave of reform tackles the democratic deficit head-on by allowing councils the room to create meaningful local solutions, and giving mayors and councillors some actual power to go along with their responsibilities.

Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist.

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