Don't be a victim of voter apathy

By Annemarie Quill

You are happy. You've just bought your first home in a quiet street in Tauranga. You have a good job. Your wife is pregnant.

You have few worries. Weekends you watch the footy, walk around the Mount, and have a few drinks in The Strand.

One morning a thick envelope arrives in the mail. It's the local body elections. You look at the photos of the contenders. You can't be bothered. You were peeved at the council when Tauranga missed out on a Rugby World Cup game, but heck, you are not going to get all political about it. You hand the form to the wife. She uses it to line the cat's litter tray.

Later you hear a loud drilling at the back of your section. A sea of bobcats are digging up the land you thought was a reserve. A cheery council contractor tells you it's a new development of apartments - four storeys high. Goodbye sunlight. You hope they will be upmarket units? The contractor tells you yes they will be exclusive - to rehabilitated criminals.

Someone is at the front door. It's that nice lady who just moved in next door with all her daughters.

She is here to tell you about her rare allergy to trees. You look down your street, which used to be lined with 100-year-old oaks. Only stumps remain.

"Come round when you like," she says, "I'll give you a discount". You realise the girls are not her daughters. Welcome to the neighbourhood brothel.

Stressed out, you head to the Mount. You get stuck in road works. They are turning the Harbour Bridge back into a toll road. You will have to pay five dollars each time. When you finally reach the Mount there is a new sign saying "No walkers". The council has sold the track.

You drive back to meet your wife downtown. You can't find a park. You go to your favourite cafe. They are building a motorway along the waterfront. That must be expensive you think. Your wife tells you your rates are going up 20 per cent to pay for it, as the council is a billion in debt. You need a beer. But it's gone five o'clock. The new bylaw prohibits drinking after five. Your boss calls. He is going to have to let you go as the council told him he hasn't got correct compliance anymore for your desk. Your wife thinks she is going into labour. You had better hurry to Hamilton, the maitre d tells you, as the DHB has just closed the Tauranga maternity unit.

THERE is a general election on but it seems no one cares. Wednesday night's city council election meeting was so poorly attended that the candidates nearly outnumbered the audience. Just 15 people were in the audience, including partners of candidates and other candidates.

Last Monday's meeting for mayoral candidates attracted just 160, predominantly retired people.

Voter apathy is not a new phenomenon, nor unique to Tauranga. Local body elections, in some regions, struggle to get more than half of the electorate to vote. In the last 2010 elections, the turnout was just 33.55 per cent.

South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela cherished democracy so much he spent 20 years in prison for it. Myanmar politician Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years. Suffragette Emily Pankhurst was locked up for campaigning for women to be allowed to vote. In both world wars, thousands died fighting for it. In Syria - and many other places worldwide- they are still dying.

Democracy - a basic human freedom - should be cherished. True, the local elections are not sexy but local government plays a more integral role in our daily lives than central government.

It's not just about what time the bin man comes or who is going to fix that dodgy paving stone.

Local councils and health boards are in charge of millions of dollars of ratepayer money. Roading, infrastructure, health, the environment, local land - the powers of the city hall are growing all the time.

If less than half of us vote, it's not a real mandate for change. Are we all so happy with the council that we don't want change?

Deputy mayor David Stewart thinks so, telling our reporter after Wednesday's low turnout that "if people are unhappy with the council they turn up".

I cannot speak for the whole of Tauranga, but I have never heard one of our readers, nor met one person, who is happy with the council.

Given the whinging we do about them, you would have thought we would be turning up in our thousands.

Cr Stewart also said the low turnout was due to the lack of a big issue. Isn't $400 million council debt big enough?

Next Monday another election meeting will take place from 5.30 to 8pm at the ASB Arena.

I am sure we would rather watch The Block, walk the dog, or even do the kids' ironing than listen to a bunch of suits on a Monday evening. But our future - and the dog's and the kids' future - depend on it. Even The Block's future - council controls home renovation.

True, the voting forms are a pain and confusing. We are all busy.

But if we don't vote, we will be in danger of getting the council we deserve. Again.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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