Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Politics round-up: Who's killing local democracy?

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Photo / File
Photo / File

A million eligible voters chose not to vote in the last general election, resulting in the lowest voter turnout in 126 years. Will we see a record low turnout in the current local government elections? It's likely that up to two million eligible voters will reject the option of participating, which will raise further questions about the decline of democracy in New Zealand, especially at the local level. This poor regard for local elections is nicely satirised today by Ben Uffindell's blogpost on The Civilian: Nation gears up for October practice elections. He mocks the low status given to these elections, suggesting they are little more than pretend candidates chasing after pretend votes and serve no other purpose than giving voters a chance to practice prior to the real (general) election next year.

For an official view on the state of local body elections, you can see Local Government New Zealand's very informative article, Voter turnout in New Zealand local authority elections - what's the story?.

This has useful graphics and statistics showing the decline in voter participation in these elections. The upshot is that turnout is generally well below 50% in most elections, although there was a minor boost at the last local body elections taking it to 49% - probably related to some close contests and the novelty of the Auckland Supercity election. This time, we might expect - especially in Auckland - the rate to plummet.

So what's behind the death of local democracy? And who's to blame? Normally the voters - particularly those choosing to abstain - get the finger pointed at them by authorities, newspaper columnists and editorial writers. See, for example, the ODT's Rights and responsibilities, the Timaru Herald's Your vote is important, the Listener's No more butts, and Mai Chen's Auckland's future needs your vote. Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) - the body representing the various local authorities - is unsurprisingly trying to convince voters to participate - see Mike Reid's Make time to elect your officials.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the chief executive of LGNZ is pointing the finger at the local authorities themselves. This week, TVNZ has quoted Malcolm Alexander as saying: 'My feeling generally is it's fairly low key around New Zealand this time and this is a reflection of the failure of local bodies to get out there and to engage and enthuse people' - see: Low voter turnout reflection of local body 'failures'.

This is a fair criticism. It also comes at a time when a number of local authorities appear to take a rather lax approach to the elections, including allowing mistakes to be published in election material for voters - see Stuff's Spelling mistake costs thousands and Bernard Orsman's Super City elections 2013: Candidates furious over booklet error. On top of this, The Auckland council is skimping on democracy, according to Brian Rudman, by using cheaper and less democratic voting ballot methods - see: Juggling the names easier than pulling cow from hat. Rudman also points to other questionable cost-cutting in the Supercity - see: Cost-cutting a fast-growing issue.

Candidates can also be accused of playing a part in killing local democracy, especially due to their typically awful campaigning. This is epitomised in Kerry McBride's excellent coverage of Wellington candidates' efforts - see: When candidates say nothing at all. Victoria University media studies lecturer, Dr Peter Thompson assesses the billboards of the candidates running for the mayoralty, and says 'They all give these slogans, but none of them are saying how they would deliver their outcomes. None of them tell you what they stand for. In fact they don't say much of anything'. That probably sums up the quality of the local elections across the country.

With such bland, grey options, it's hardly surprising that few citizens participate. It also means the occasionally colourful candidate easily stands out. For example, David Farrar has pointed to an incredibly eccentric candidate who has previously received what Farrar thinks is a surprisingly large vote - see: The most unusual candidate statement. Another maverick who will likely stand out is controversial and disgraced ex-CEO of the Employers and Manufacturers Association Alasdair Thompson - see his always interesting blog. Also, note that Thompson has recently made headlines for the fact that he lobbied to have the minimum wage significantly increased, and is now a supporter of the living wage - see Simon Collins' Former CEO for bosses now backs 'living wage'.

Proponents of increasing voter turnout are usually inclined to look for technologically innovative ways to turn around the decline in participation. Postal voting was once seen as the savior of local elections but even that is now dismissed by authorities as part of the problem - see Dan Satherley's Postal voting 'trivialises' local govt. Online vorting is the next fashionable fix, and this will be trialled at the next local body elections in 2016. But don't expect this to remedy a problem that is much bigger than the question of how to go about making your tick.

There are plenty of endorsements being pushed at the moment. Some of the most interesting are the online evaluations made by an environment youth group - see Generation Zero. John Minto is one candidate unimpressed with their judgements - see: Generation Zero gives Len Brown's big new motorway an A grade. Another very interesting online device being trialled is AskAway.co.nz, with the capacity for interaction with the candidates. For a further explanation of this, see Boris Jancic's Your chance to quiz mayoral hopefuls.

Unions are getting in on the endorsements in Auckland - see: Unions Auckland. Of course, David Farrar responds by suggesting this is a good resource for figuring out Who not to vote for if you don't want huge rate increases. Farrar has also outlined his endorsements amongst The Wellington City Council candidates. Various other high-profile bloggers are giving their guides to their own locations - for example, see No Right Turn's Who to vote for in Palmerston North.

Our electoral systems play a key role in the functioning of local elections and there is an argument that the current democratic deficit might be reversed through electoral reform. There's currently a lot of support for the STV system - see for example, Nigel Roberts' STV - the truest form of democratic choice and Janine Hayward's Why DCC elections are in an exclusive club. The Hamilton City Council is holding a referendum on whether to introduce this system there - and Mark Servian makes the case in favour in STV tick could change HCC for the better'. Meanwhile, in Wellington, Graeme Edgeler discusses the systems in his blogposts, Council elections: FPP Q&A and STV. See also, Stephen Franks' Graeme Edgeler on STV and Making STV work tactically.

Little attention is ever paid to the various District Health Board elections. It raises the question, put by blogger Ele Ludemann: Do we need DHB elections?. One expert says not. Looking at the last DHB elections, Prof Robin Gauld has argued in the past that New Zealand's health board elections are more of a fig leaf of democracy than a reality, and that many candidates are motivated by the remuneration - see Eileen Goodwin's District health board elections questioned.

Despite the downward trajectory in participation, there are a few signs that turnout could rise this year - see Glenn Conway's Christchurch Press article, Record turnout in local elections so far and Katie Chapman's Dominion Post article, Slowly, voters start to have their say in polls. However, with little in the way of substantive issues in the campaigns this seems unlikely. What's more, most of the mayoralty contests in the bigger cities appear to be relatively uncompetitive. For some details on this, look at iPredict's NZ Local Body Elections. Currently, in Auckland Len Brown is on 98%, in Christchurch Lianne Dalziel is on 94%, in Palmerston North Jono Naylor is on 98%, in Hamilton Julie Hardaker is on 92%, in Dunedin Dave Cull is on 98%, and in Invercargill Tim Shadbolt is on 99%. Only in Wellington is there a more even contest, with John Morrison on 57% and Celia Wade-Brown on 35%.

Other interesting, insightful, or interesting items:

What are the lessons for New Zealand politics from Germany's recent elections? Academic blogger Geoffrey Miller is currently teaching at a university in Germany, which allows him to provide some comparative insights in Five reasons why the German election matters for New Zealand. Andrew Geddis also deals with one of the implications in his blogpost, The Herald's post-2014 election fantasy.

John Key has been labelled a 'galloping colonial clot' by the British Daily Mail newspaper - see its article, Queen Elizabeth in her Balmoral living room with New Zealand PM John Key, as well as its analysis of The Key photo. Of course, Key's stay at Balmoral was actually quite unique, as David Farrar points out in The PM and the Queen. He says 'The Queen has had 14 New Zealand Prime Ministers during her reign, and according to media reports Key is the first to ever be invited' to stay at Balmoral. He elaborates: 'it is a first for a NZ PM, and I think possibly for an Australian or Canadian PM also. The question is why was Key invited, when no other NZ PM has been? He is not the longest serving. I think it is purely the strength of their personal relationship'.

Debate is raging still over David Cunliffe's alleged padding of his CV, with Matthew Hooton's original allegations being carried on by David Farrar in posts such as A third case of padding? and by Cameron Slater in numerous blogposts - such as Is this David Cunliffe's own "fake but accurate" scandal?. For the reaction on Twitter, see my own blogpost, Top tweets about David Cunliffe's alleged CV lies. The left of the blogosphere is labelling it a smear campaign - see, for example The Standard's Return of the Hollow Men.

Of course, Cunliffe isn't the only MP with a Harvard connection. On the leftwing blogsite Ideologically Impure, some comparisons are being made between the demographics of the senior Labour and National MPs, which show that university educations are similar in both parties - see: Cabinet vs Shadow Cabinet: the identity politics. Although the post is most concerned with issues of oppression, the more interesting part is this: '17 out of 20 on Labour's list and 18 out of 20 on National's have a university education. Both parties have two members with a stint at Harvard mentioned on their Wikipedia page: David Cunliffe, Shane Jones, John Key and Hekia Parata'.

Identity politics in Labour is discussed today by Damien Rogers' Herald opinion piece, War already won threatens Labour. There's a condemnation of this on The Standard, which points to alleged links between Rogers and senior Labour personnel.

Some of this debate relates to Labour's chosen candidate for the Christchurch East by-election. This selection is covered well by The Press' Labour's choice has work to do. Blogger Pete George uncovers some disgruntlement about the selection from The Standard - see: A candidate for Christchurch East or Labour?.

Labour's new lineup is evaluated by Martyn Bradbury in Rating Cunliffe's shadow cabinet: Game of Thrones meets Pulp Fiction. And Chris Trotter defends Labour from leftwing criticism in: What's Love Got To Do With It? Chris Trotter responds to John Moore's critique of David Cunliffe. Trotter also explains Labour's latest ideological fashion in Full Marx to the New Left phraseologists.

But has Labour wimped out, with the news of Maryan Street's Voluntary euthanasia bill withdrawn? One leftwing blogger thinks so - see Carrie Stoddard's End of Life Choice Bill withdrawn. David Farrar supports the bill, and he hopes that a Green MP will pick it up - see: Street drops euthanasia bill.

The housing affordability debate has all been about home ownership. But what about renters? Ali Memon has written an excellent opinion piece on this topic - see: Pity the poor who are forced to rent.

Drug laws are still a hot issue. Pam Corkery criticised them in her Herald column, New synthetic drugs law is simply insane. In response, see David Farrar's Corkery on drugs and Russell Brown's Not so insane. See also, Olivia Carville's Outcry over R18 drug store and details of Dunedin's newest museum: Cannabis museum part of campaign.

Now that the America's Cup challenge is over, we can reflect on the politics of it all. Some of the best pieces on this are: Joseph Romanos' The America's Cup con job, Vaughan Elder's A corporate contest, prof says, Karl du Fresne's Cup whips up national hysteria, Paul Buchannan's Whose Team New Zealand?, and Grant Duncan's 'What are the political implications of Team NZ's loss?'.

Finally, what does David Shearer really think about being replaced as Labour leader? You get a pretty good idea from his candid answers to Sarah Stuart - see: Twelve Questions: David Shearer.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

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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