Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: An electoral wakeup call for politicians

Photo / Kenny Rod
Photo / Kenny Rod

The election results in the weekend were a wakeup call for all politicians and anyone else interested in democracy.

A 'business as usual' election resulted in very little change, and it was the tremendously low voter turnout that was the main outcome of significance. Roughly two million eligible voters declined to participate in the elections, leading to a turnout of around 40% of the voting age population (including those not on the electoral roll).

The situation is satirised in Ben Uffindell's Civilian blogpost, Low turnout results in lawnmower winning Auckland mayoralty. The most well-written insight into the low voter turnout is provided by Newstalk ZB political journalist Felix Marwick who outlines his own personal experience of voting in Local body election so damn tedious. The whole report is worth reading, but can be summed up with this part: 'The reason people don't give a damn about local body politics is probably because it's so damn tedious and so damn nebulous.

It appears, on the surface, to be a succession of beige candidates with beige ideals. Figuring out exactly what they stand for is a task beyond us mere mortals'.

Tracy Watkins offers other explanations in Low local body vote 'due to lack of issues', as well as looking at the implications for general elections. Blogger Alan Papprill also nicely sums up the problems in his post Some brief thoughts on Local body elections. Clearly, politicians at all levels need to be aware of the massive problem of voter disengagement. There needs to be a considerable conversation - if not some sort of commission of inquiry - about the growing democratic deficit in electoral politics.

Fixing the problem

Expect to see a lot of discussion about the potential solutions to low voter turnout. Some of these are outlined in Claire Trevett's Low turnout spurs look at vote system and Steve Kilgallon's Minority rules in low voter turnout. We are being told that the answer lies in everything from electronic voting to civics classes for children. Even compulsory voting is being proposed. But local government specialist Andy Asquith dismisses this - along with most other suggestions - saying, 'If we did that, we'd better turn ourselves into an island prison, the Alcatraz of the South Pacific, because everyone would be incarcerated [for not voting]'.

Labour's local government spokesperson is not only pushing compulsory voting, but also state funding of election advertising in the local elections - see Felix Marwick's Calls for state funding of local election campaigns. Marwick's article also quotes many opponents of such measures.

The compulsory option is canvassed by blogger Carrie Stoddart, who suggests an alternative that is more carrot than stick - see: What about a voter credit?. This is the concept of paying voters a small amount of money for participating in elections.

The electronic option is getting the most coverage. Auckland mayor Len Brown is even saying that this will lead to a doubling of voter turnout - see Dan Satherley's Len Brown backs electronic voting. Of course, the Government has promised a trial of electronic voting in a few areas for the 2016 local government elections. There will now be pressure for this to be extended or brought forward. David Farrar blogs on this issue, complaining about the slowness of progress on this development, pointing the finger at officials: 'the Department of Internal Affairs has been incredibly resistant to change, from what I have observed. If it were not for them, we could have been trialing e-voting in 2013'. Farrar suggests that a trial be brought forward to any parliamentary by-elections instead - see: The low turnout.

There are plenty of other theories about low voter turnout. Pam Corkery blames central government - see: Let's unite and tell the bullies in Wellington to stuff off. And Martyn Bradbury sees the answer in regional television - see: 35% turnout in Auckland - apathy the winner on the day - how to change it.

Bolder solutions have been presented on the right of the political spectrum. Rodney Hide gives his reflections on the Auckland supercity election results, and suggests that voters be given the option of handing their electoral choice back to central government to make appointments instead. He says: 'The big winner from the local body elections is "none of the above". Apathy won. We aren't aware of any difference our vote will make in local bodies. We don't have the sharpness of difference that party politics gives in national elections', Then he proposes the solution: 'We need a new box to tick on the ballot. One that says "none of the above". That would enable voters to say, we don't care, we just want the elected government of the day to appoint the best people to run our city and region. That's what happens now for most government-run organisations and operations. We need that option on the ballot for local bodies' - see: Don't care? Let government decide.

A red-green tide?

Some on the left are taking the local government election results to mean a significant shift towards the left is occurring in New Zealand politics. Or at least its going green - Metiria Turei has labeled it a 'Green Sweep'. The Green Party has certainly done well, especially in Wellington. For more on this, see Green bloggers David Kennedy (Local Bodies and the Green Tide) and Chris Ford (Local elections 2013 - the Green/Red tide is coming in).

Labour MP Phil Twyford has also argued that the results represented A good day for the left. He says there are now 'centre left mayors in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin' and 'the vibe is good for the left heading into 2014'.

Auckland's supercity

Len Brown is one of the biggest victims of the low voter turnout. Despite a commanding lead over his rivals, he still only won about 163,000 votes - or about 15% of the eligible voting population of Auckland. Matt McCarten therefore calls his victory 'more of a relief than a celebration' - see A deserved win ... but only just. McCarten also draws attention to the 'slight move to the right in his new council' - also reported in Cassandra Mason's Risk of stalemate in new council.

But it's hardly a big swing to the right, as Simon Wilson points out in his blog post, No great shift to the right in Auckland. Similarly, Russell Brown argues that the left-right divide on the council is more complicated than might be assumed - see: The non-binary council. Bernard Orsman also examines the New look council and details who will work for and against Brown. Len Brown is a seasoned operator who should be able to politically manage his council. As Matt McCarten points out, 'one of the benefits of office the mayor enjoys is having plenty of powerful roles and baubles to dish out to ensure a working majority on his council'.

Christchurch shakeup

The 'business as usual' election result meant that in all the main cities incumbent mayors were returned (Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Dunedin, Invercargill, Palmerston North, Whanganui, Tauranga, etc). Christchurch was the exception, because there was no incumbent, and Lianne Dalziel won easily but also failed to mobilise large numbers of voters (meaning she was endorsed by only about 25% of eligible Christchurch voters). Nonetheless, there is much enthusiasm about her and the new council - see the Press editorial, Promise of a new beginning and Glenn Conway's Dalziel's passion offers hope for council unity. A number of fresh faces on the council come from the rise of a new council ticket, People's Choice - as explained by blogger Keir Leslie in Christchurch local government results. But a more sober assessment is offered by Labour blogger James Dann in Punditry for the Red October.

Elsewhere - business as usual?

Wellington bucked the trend of declining voter turnout - perhaps because of the highly competitive mayoral election. Green mayor Celia Wade-Brown won. According to David Farrar 'She is rather fortunate to get re-elected considering the high level of discontent over the Council's performance. A lack-lustre campaign by Morrison helped her considerably'. The council is now made up of 'Green 4, Labour 2, Centrists 5, Leftists 1, Righties 3' - see: The challenges ahead for the big city Mayors. Farrar outlines the challenges for not only Wade-Brown but other mayors in the main centres. For a different conservative take on the Wellington situation, see the Dominion Post's less than enthusiastic editorial, Time for action from Wade-Brown. Meanwhile, in Dunedin, the Mayoralty stayed the same but quite a few new people came onto council - see the ODT's A contentious council?.

Finally, Jesse Mulligan provides Ten excuses to soothe your guilty voting conscience, and Jane Bowron explains why she nearly voted in Christchurch for Kyle Chapman of The Resistance Party and Tubby Hansen of Electronic Schizophrenia - see: Do we have sensible but boring choices.

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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