Andy Asquith and Andrew Cardow: In praise of Colin Craig ... and openness

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Colin Craig's Conservative Party is openly backing candidates in the local body elections. Photo / Richard Robinson
Colin Craig's Conservative Party is openly backing candidates in the local body elections. Photo / Richard Robinson

Don't get all excited - this article is not endorsing the Conservative Party or its policies. Rather, it's a commentary on the fact that Colin Craig has the strength of conviction to field candidates across Auckland for this year's local body elections under a clear party political banner.

This is surprisingly rare. Apart from Labour's Richard Northey in Maungakiekie-Tamaki Ward and left-field mayoral candidate John Minto, who is standing for the Mana Movement (not to be confused with the Mana Party), just about every person seeking election claims to be some form of "independent".

Drive around the city and your eyes will be assaulted by a deluge of advertising boards all seeking your vote - many featuring a photo of the candidate in their Sunday best, their name and the word "Independent". Or even worse: a group or team of independents.

Just how a team can be independent is unclear. Does each individual determine their own position on each issue or not? If these are embryonic political parties, then why on earth not say so? At least Mr Craig et al have the strength to do so.

Many would argue that local body politics and political parties do not traditionally mix in New Zealand. To a great extent this is a misconception. Certainly in Auckland City pre-2010, the council was dominated by two major groupings: Citizens & Ratepayers and City Vision. While the first was essentially the National Party, the latter was a loose centre-left coalition with roots firmly in the Labour Party.

This might not be a popular view, but political parties have the potential to add real value to local body elections. This is especially important considering the increasingly low voter turnout. One of the major reasons so few of us bother to participate in local body elections is the lack of candidate exposure and the almost total lack of debate surrounding the issues facing our communities.

On both of these counts, political parties could make a positive and important contribution. The calibre of those seeking elected office on our local bodies often leaves a lot to be desired. Political parties can help to regulate this by ensuring only those best qualified and equipped are selected as candidates.

They can also help to inform the level of debate by moving us away from trivial local issues and focusing on the big strategic issues - the very issues those elected will be required to act upon. The "not in my back yard" mentality of single-issue candidates or independents really has no place in the governance of our single, global city.

One of the amusing things about many so-called "independent" candidates is they are often clearly identified with political parties. In 2010, for instance, both of the serious mayoral candidates - Len Brown and John Banks - ran as "independent" candidates.

Brown joined the Labour Party before he could vote, while Banks is now the Act MP for Epsom. Others have similar histories. Penny Webster, the current councillor for Rodney, is a former Act MP and Grant Gillon, who is campaigning for a local board position, is a former Alliance MP.

These are just two of the candidates who have previously held national political party positions and who now expect us to believe that they have shed these clothes to become, all of a sudden, "independent". We should be given just a bit more credit for our intelligence and sophistication.

If you were to read the election statements and profiles of the majority of the independents, you are likely to see sweeping statements surrounding their commitment to cut your rates bill. All good election theatre, but in reality a hollow, misinformed objective.

Quite simply, you cannot just take a knife and slice away, say, 25 per cent of local body expenditure. Many of the functions our local councils perform are statutory requirements that cannot be cut. The so-called "luxury" services are generally offered on a user-pays basis already. If we had better equipped candidates, perhaps they would comprehend these simple realities.

Some would argue that having independent candidates and councillors allows ordinary citizens to seek election without the shackles of a political party. This is questionable, especially in Auckland where the cost of fighting an election successfully is not insignificant.

Only those with sizeable bank balances can afford to seek election on a truly independent platform. Meanwhile, individuals associated with political parties have the power and finance of the party machine behind them, opening up the possibility of standing for election to a greater range of people.

Dr Andy Asquith and Dr Andrew Cardow are local government specialists with Massey University's School of Management.

- NZ Herald

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