Home > The Body Politic > What if they gave an election and no one came?

What if they gave an election and no one came?

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2013 local body elections

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Much has been made of the low voter turn-out at the recent local body elections, with pundits, media, bloggers, et al, trying to figure out why voters weren’t motivated enough to bother filling our their ballot.

This is my insight into the problem…

1. Brand Politics

I’ll start with the easy one first, and refer to “brand politics”.

Quite simply, unless you happen to be follow local body politics and community issues – one is left scratching their head as to what each candidate stands for.

What are their political leanings on the Left/Right spectrum? For example, how many people in Dunedin knew that Hilary Calvert – standing for the mayoralty and Council – had previously been an ACT MP?

Calvert’s political background and extremist libertarian views would have a direct bearing on any position she was elected to. For a Party that garnered only 23,889 party votes (1.07%) in the 2011 general elections, how many Dunedin voters  knew they were voting for the radical, card-carrying, member of a failed ideology when they cast their vote for her?

Where do candidates stand on the issues such as “core services” vs civic involvement by Councils?

Or on contentious issues such as water flouridation? One Dunedin candidate simply listed “water flouridation” as an issue of interest on his election leaflet – without any indication where he stood. Not very helpful.

This is where party or group branding is a useful tool for voters. Standing under a group banner with specific policies makes it easier for voters to understand who to vote for.

As Auckland mayor, Len Brown said,

But we still have this fundamental issue that nobody knows who their councillor is and what council does, and until we address that you can have any system you like – you can have compulsory voting even – but if people don’t know what the hell they are voting for, it’s pointless.”- Len Brown, 13 October 2013

Source: Minority rules in low voter turnout

At the same time, Madeleine Foreman from Generation Zero, referred to “a lack of information” as well as  “an information overload“.

Source: IBID

The situation below does not constitute meaningful “information”,

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Christchurch_local_election,_2013

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The Auckland group, City Vision, gave voters – who might not otherwise be familiar with candidates – a better idea who to vote for (or not), according to their own political beliefs.

Voting in general elections is relatively easier because of political “branding” via Parties. We don’t need to understand what every candidate stands for, because their Party “brand” is a short-hand explanation. (Though on occassions, such  Peter Dunne’s crackpot  rag-tag fellow United Future MPs in 2005,  we still didn’t know what we were getting with our Party Vote.)

I would advocate a greater use of umbrella groups such as City Vision and Citizens & Ratepayers Association (now known as Communities and Residents). 

As we lead busier lives with more constraints and demands on our time (eg, the fracturing of the country’s electricity supply into a “market”, meaning we now have to shop around for “cheaper” prices) , umbrella groups could make the voting process easier for those wanting to participate – but not quite knowing who to vote for.

One wonders how many Dunedin voters voted for Hilary Calvert without knowing her right wing, ACT connections?

2. Postal Ballot

Postal voting is a great idea for some – but not for everyone.

The problem with postal voting is that ballot papers can be misplaced; piles of other correspondence placed on top; and otherwise forgotten.

We need to run the postal voting system alongside the voting station option.

The best rationale for returning to ballot booths is that they are a visible reminder for people to vote.

I recall the very first time I ever voted. It was the Wellington local body election and I was driving past the old Wellington Children’s Dental Clinic in Willis St.

I had forgotten that the local body elections were being held (being a young man, I was more focused on young people’s stuff), and seeing the Voting Booth signs on the footpath, I immediatly pulled over and went inside to do my civic duty. (I voted for Labour candidates, as otherwise I had little idea as to what other candidates stood for.)

Voting stations may be more expensive, but cost should not  be a determinant for democracy. As well as reminding people, they are a community-oriented means by which to cast your vote. There are others around you doing the same thing and this builds a sense of social cohesion and purpose.

It is the “watering hole” for local democracy.

There’s nothing much community-minded to tick a box on a piece of paper and posting it. Or sitting at your computer clicking on a box via e-voting.

Sometimes, doing things the “old fashioned way” should not be automatically dismissed as “obsolete”.

3. Central Government

The biggest fault and brick-bat for the low voter turn-out, I reserve for this current government. John Key’s administration has done more to marginalise local body democracy and engender growing apathy than any other causal factor.

National has undermined local democracy by using it’s central government powers to over-ride democratically community representatives and impose it’s own policies;

Auckland Super City

In April 2009, ACT MP and Minister for Local Government, Rodney Hide, refused to allow Aucklanders the chance to voice their opinion – via a referendum – whether or not to create the Auckland “super council”.

In Hide’s view,

The difficulty with a referendum is it would cost a million dollars and it would just ask `yes’ or `no’.

What I’m picking up, very clearly, is that a lot of people favour a super city but they’ve got particular views about how it should be structured and run — it’s not just a `yes’ or `no’ question, that’s why I’ve been so actively engaged with the mayors.” – Rodney Hide, 24 April 2009

Source: Hide rules out referendum on ‘super city’ proposals

So one man decided the fate of 1.4 million Aucklanders? Is that democracy? What would this chap say to Hide, I wonder…

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stalin - hide

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The people of Auckland had no voice in the matter.

Ecan

In March 2010, National  sacked every councillor from the Environment Canterbury, replacing them with unelected, appointed commissars commissioners:

  • Margaret Bazley (Chair)
  • Hon. David Caygill (Deputy Chair)
  • David Bedford
  • Donald Couch
  • Tom Lambie
  • Professor Peter Skelton

To date, Ecan still has no elected councillors and it’s governing body is appointed by John Key’s government.

The new powers of the commissioners were such that they could   implement regional plans for Canterbury but which could not  be appealed to the Environment Court. (See: Environment Canterbury commissioners named)

In April 2010, Forest & Bird uncovered an agenda by central government,

“...to abolish Environment Canterbury to fast-track large-scale irrigation.

Papers obtained by Forest & Bird under the Official Information Act show that from September last year briefings to Ministers and Cabinet papers focussed on the Hurunui and Rakaia rivers and how the Crown could help remove “blockages” to their progress.

“The Government was looking for a way to fast-track irrigation in Canterbury and undermine protection of the region’s over-allocated rivers,” Forest & Bird Canterbury Field Officer Jen Miller says.

Source: Forest & Bird uncovers Government plan to push irrigation

It appears that National had less-than-transparent reasons for dismissing Ecan’s councillors and replacing democratically elected representatives with hand-picked appointees.

The people of Canterbury had no voice in the matter.

Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA)

Coming into effect in late Match 2011, CERA was created by Commissar Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee as a super organisation with powers never before seen in the country. As Brownlee himself admitted in a Beehive press statement,

“…CERA would have wide powers to relax, suspend or extend laws and regulations which would be used responsibly and for clearly defined purposes related to earthquake recovery.” – Gerry Brownlee, 29 March 2011

Source:  New authority will deliver for Canterbury

Brownlee tried to reassure New Zealanders that National was not creating a monstrous government organisation that essentially gave dictatorial powers to the Minister,

These are essentially reserve powers and there will be checks and balances on the use of these powers so the public can have confidence they are being used wisely and with restraint.”

Source:  IBID

Considering National’s track record on riding rough-shod over community concerns; subverting local democracy; ignoring public opinion; and prepared to dismiss the forthcoming referendum on asset sales – Brownlee’s assurances ring hollow.

In fact, National had such faith in the democratic process – including “checks and balances” – that the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Bill 2011 was rushed through under urgency in July 2011.

CERA’s un-elected CEO is Roger Sutton, who is appointed and answerable solely to Minister Brownlee.

The people of Canterbury had no voice in the matter.

Auckland Housing

National’s interference in Auckland’s draft Unitary Plan and housing policy is, by now, well known.  As The Aucklander reported on 14 March this year,

The Government is becoming increasingly heavy-handed over Auckland’s housing shortage, with talk of a new Crown agency to free up more land.

Environment Minister Amy Adams has suggested stripping the Auckland Council of some planning powers for three years to allow a Crown agency to play a role increasing the city’s residential land supply.

New Housing Minister Nick Smith has also released a Government report which, he says, shows a worrying trend of reduced land availability and soaring section prices.

Last week, Dr Smith vowed to break the “stranglehold” of Auckland Council’s policy of containing urban sprawl – a policy he said was “killing the dreams of Aucklanders” by driving up house prices.

Source: Govt piles on pressure for housing land

National’s heavy-handedness on this matter was in direct response to Labour’s (well-founded) accusations that the current government was not addressing a critical housing shortage in this country.

National was content to see urban sprawl for short-term political gain, with Nick Smith’s outrageous hyperbole that the Unitary Plan would result in “killing the dreams of Aucklanders“.

The Nats also refused to enshrine the Unitary Plan in law, as they apparently had their own agenda. (See: Nick Smith and Len Brown’s relationship put to test)

The government-Council dispute was apparent to all when, on 25 March, a meeting scheduled to last for two hours was cut short after only one hour. (See: Len Brown, Nick Smith meeting breaks up without agreement on Auckland house plan)

Despite the Auckland super-city being a creation of the National-ACT government, they were unwilling to allow Aucklanders the chance to solve their own problems.

One wonders if it wouldn’t  be cheaper to simply abolish the Auckland Council and appoint Nick Smith as Commissar for Auckland, and run directly from the Beehive? At least it would be more honest.

Interestingly, on 10 October this year, Nick Smith was keen to reassure voters that that was no housing crisis in this country,

I don’t accept that there is a crisis and the duplicity of parties like Labour is exposed when the affordability index was a whole lot worse in 2008 and they rejected any notion of there being a crisis then.”

Source:  No housing crisis in Auckland or Christchurch – Smith

That’s an awful lot of effort that Smith and his ministerial cronies are putting into an an issue that isn’t really a crisis at all.

Go figure.

Christchurch Housing

Earthquake recovery minister, Gerry Brownlee, has an almost  ‘schizophrenic’ attitude when it comes to the housing crisis in Christchurch.

On 20 March last year, Minister Brownlee stated that Christchurch’s critical housing shortage was  “best left to the market” to resolve,

However, the Government was careful about how it influenced the housing market, he said.

If it had jumped in earlier, it could have artificially lowered the appetite of private investors to provide a solution that could be lucrative for investors, he said.

Source: Christchurch rent crisis ‘best left to market’

Not much help to Cantabrians living in garages or cars. But at least Minister Brownlee is living comfortably in a tax-payer funded ministerial home. (See: $18m state housing bill for new Government tenants)

But by 22 November of this year, Brownlee appeared to have belatedly realised that Christchurch did indeed having a growing housing problem. His language was disturbingly dictatorial,

Christchurch City Council has been given an ultimatum – sign off the city’s land use recovery plan or the government will go it alone.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee has lost patience with councillors and says he’ll meet them on Friday in a final bid to solve the problem.

If that doesn’t work he’s going to use the powers parliament gave him to ratify the plan himself.

The plan allows more buildings on existing sections in urban areas and Mr Brownlee says its a vital to get house building moving.

Source: Brownlee gives Chch council an ultimatum

So much for Brownlee reassuring New Zealand that, with the creation of CERA,  that National was not giving dictatorial powers to the Minister,

These are essentially reserve powers and there will be checks and balances on the use of these powers so the public can have confidence they are being used wisely and with restraint.”

Source:  New authority will deliver for Canterbury

Brownlee’s strong arm tactics worked, and the Commissar for Christchurch got his own way,

We agreed a process that officials from both sides will work on over the weekend and early next week. They intend to endorse the land use recovery plan next Thursday and we will take it to cabinet the following Monday.”

Source: Chch council agrees to endorse plan

This is what centralised government rule, from a small clique of ministers, looks like.

Central Government issues diktat for “core services”

In case local bodies were still unclear on National’s policy of centralised planning and control, Minister Nick Smith last year released a plan euphemistically called “Better Local Government”. (See: Govt puts the squeeze on councils)

It was an agenda to control Councils’ operations and return to “core services”. Council planning and policy-making would no longer be left to local voters – but would be determined by government appointed officials such as the  Local Government Efficiency Taskforce , the Infrastructure Expert Advisory Group, and the Productivity Commission. (See: IBID)

More here: Dept of Internal Affairs – Better Local Government

Interestingly, Smith never actually defined what constituted “core services”.

A day later, Dear Leader Key backed up Smith by stating categorically,

In narrowing their purpose clause, it may exclude them from providing those services, or at least challenge their thinking about whether those services should be provided.

One has to ask the question, if central government isn’t providing those services, then really should local government step in and fill the breach? Because there might be a very good reason why central government hasn’t done it.”

Source: Councils must focus on core business – Key

So, for example, if central government decides not to house the poorest people in our communities – by reducing state housing – that evidently means that local bodies must also sit on their hands and see homelessness increase? Is that how it works under a centralised National regime?

That is what I take from Key’s comments.

What voters want is apparently irrelevant.

What central government wants trumps local communities needs.

Any one or two instances of central-government interference in local body affairs could be dismissed and quickly forgotten. But taken together, there is a growing, pernicious perception (perception?!) that important decisions are emanating from The Beehive and independent local body representation is little more than illusory.

One has to wonder how motivated people are to engage in local body politics, knowing that the decisions of their locally-elected representatives can be over-ridden by a minister from central government?

If that doesn’t foster apathy, what will?

Key and his henchmen/women need to keep their grubby paws of local body bodies. They should have enough on their plate with high unemployment; high debt; critical housing problems; struggling manufacturing sector; environmental problems; etc.

We don’t need a Keygrad and National Politburo micro-managing our communities. This is one instance where the State (or at least central government) can – and should – stay out of our lives.

If National is re-elected next year, we may not be seeing much more of this kind of local, grass-roots democracy in action…

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Local-Board-Members-Against-Contracting-Out

Photo acknowledgement: The Daily Blog

And supreme irony of ironies, it was the Nats who labelled the previous Labour-led governments as “Helengrad”. In reality, Labour was a Libertarian party in comparison to this neo-Muldoonist system of centralised planning and control.

I am reminded of Russel Norman’s words earlier this year,

Next time you see John Key smiling, remember he’s not smiling because he likes you, he’s smiling because he’s giving favours to his mates while undermining your democracy.

But we have seen all this before… Robert Muldoon would recognise this Government as one after his own heart, but with better spin doctors and a smilier disposition.

Mr Key may not look like Muldoon but he sure as hell is acting like Muldoon.” – Russel Norman, 1 June 2013

Source: Norman: Key ‘acting like Muldoon’

This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 29 November 2013.

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References

TV3: Ex-ACT MP Calvert eyes Dunedin council

The Press: Minority rules in low voter turnout

Fairfax media: Christchurch Rent Crisis ‘Best Left To Market’

Elections NZ: Local Body Elections

Wikipedia: New Zealand local elections, 2013

NZ Herald: Election results Around the country

Dept of Internal Affairs: Local Authority Election Statistics 2010

Previous related blogposts

How To Guide: Voting in Auckland

Guest Author: Dunedin election – my guide to who’s left and who’s not

Other blogposts

The Daily Blog: “What If Our Government Tried To Guide Democracy, Rather Than Dictate To It?” And Other Rhetorical Remarks

The Daily Blog: Why You Need to Vote in the Local Body Elections

The Daily Blog: Housing: Auckland Needs Real Practical Solutions – Not Grandstanding By Desperate Ministers

Waitakere News:  Is the Government set to undermine Auckland’s Metropolitan Urban Limit?

Frogblog: National’s approach to local government is all over the place

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  1. 14 December 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Interestingly enough, the loss of democracy in Canterbury was actually in one of my textbooks for a recent Social Policy paper. Most people in Christchurch know that the real reason for sacking ECan was that they were going to vote or in the process of voting to reduce irrigation water use.

    • 15 December 2013 at 8:36 am

      Chris, it’s interesting you say that. More than one source has made that suggestion, and subsequent events seem to confirm that the government appointees on Ecan are more agreeable to National’s Canterbury irrigation than was previously the case.

  2. Gecko
    17 December 2013 at 3:54 am

    I was going to sit out this election but I think I’ll vote for the Mana Party. Just to piss Key off. It’s the only time we can make politicians as uncomfortable as they make us feel the rest of the time.

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