Matt McCarten on politics
Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Democracy dies with lazy voters

Voting papers need to be mailed by this Thursday. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Voting papers need to be mailed by this Thursday. Photo / Sarah Ivey

If you don't mail your voting papers for local government elections by this Thursday, you'll join the legions of non-participants who find the task of holding local rulers accountable too onerous.

Voting choices are more complex than for national elections. In Parliamentary elections, the media is full of political news and our TV sets are bombarded with taxpayer-funded party advertisements.

Local elections, in contrast, have no public funding and candidates have to use their own resources to pay for their hoardings.

Unfortunately, billboards tell us nothing and most promotions parrot similar generalisations.

In other countries, political parties openly run tickets so you know who (or what) you're voting for. Unfortunately in this country, we pride ourselves in rejecting party slates and buy into the nonsense that independents will be more accountable to the community.

Really? Name three things your local councillor voted for or against recently. I won't even bother to ask if you know what your local board gets up to, let alone the hospital board. The problem is that local government, particularly in cities, has become more divorced from local communities in recent years.

In 1989, the number of elected authorities was cut from 850 to 86. We were promised savings and efficiencies. We were even kidded it would be more democratic as power would shift from local tinpot barons to qualified managers.

The reality is we now pay many of our elected representatives full-time salaries for the public service they used to do as volunteers.

They attend meetings and pretend to be in charge, but the real power rests with the bureaucracies. For example, 80 per cent of the Auckland Council's assets are controlled by unelected boards.

Remember when the Mayor was trying to get the ports management to a meeting to stop their anti-worker campaign that was costing Auckland millions of dollars? They told him to naff off, and he did.

No wonder people switch off. Even where the council is supposed to be in control they are required to appoint chief executives, pay them gigantic incomes and delegate decisions to them. In the rare case where a CEO messes up, as was recently exposed in Christchurch, hapless ratepayers have to pay them a fortune to buy them out and off.

This Government promoted the Auckland restructure as a blueprint for the rest of New Zealand. Frankly, other councils couldn't afford this model.

Auckland's top 120 city managers collectively take home more pay than our entire Parliament of 120-odd MPs. Several of them earn more than our Prime Minister, with one raking in almost $800,000.

It's a racket. It's no accident that communities with smaller councils have huge voter turnout. The Auckland SuperCity, at the other extreme, has the lowest.

It's even worse this year. Voting ballots have been trickling in at half the return rate as the last election. If this continues, the paltry 2010 turnout of 51 per cent in Auckland will look like a people's revolution.

It's possible only a quarter of Auckland's electors will bother to vote. We have a crisis of democracy and accountability. The people with their snouts in trough would prefer people to turn off and not vote. That way, nothing changes.

I helped put together a recommended list of candidates across Auckland who have the will to at least hold these people accountable, published with my column two weeks ago and on the Herald website. If you agree with me politically, vote for these candidates. If not, vote for the other candidates. The important thing is to vote now and post it tomorrow. Abdication is not an option in a civil society.

- Herald on Sunday

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