Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Low vote more yawn than protest

The slug-out between mayoral candidates John Banks (left) and Len Brown helped to lift the voter turnout in 2010.  Photo / Dean Purcell
The slug-out between mayoral candidates John Banks (left) and Len Brown helped to lift the voter turnout in 2010. Photo / Dean Purcell

Unless the 700,000 or so Auckland electors who have not yet voted suddenly leap out of bed tomorrow and head for a council service centre to vote in person, the 2013 turnout could be the lowest ever. It's shaping as a rival of the 37 per cent of 2007 and way below the 51 per cent of the inaugural Super City poll of 2010.

Political scientist Bryce Edwards endeavours to paint the low turnout nationwide as some sort of agitprop uprising by a disgruntled populace. "This year's non-vote is certainly shaping up to send a powerful message of protest to say that the system isn't working [with citizens exercising their] legitimate right not to endorse what might seem like an electoral sham."

I fear this rather romanticises what is more likely to be just a big yawn from two out of every three potential voters. If it is a protest, it's so silent the politicians seem to have missed the message. They're blaming faults in the mechanics of the election machine.

Local Government NZ president Lawrence Yule blames postal voting, saying people leave the forms around the house and never return them. "To ensure greater participation", he favours electronic voting.

He was following the lead of Local Government Minister Chris Tremain, who more than a month ago as good as admitted defeat by declaring a trial of online voting during the 2016 local elections "to encourage people to become involved in the democratic process".

Those of us with a long memory will recall postal voting being introduced in 1992 for the same worthy reasons. Unfortunately, voter turnout actually declined nationwide that year and apart from the odd bounce, has slowly dropped ever since. The big exception was the 2010 Auckland Super City election, which recorded a 51 per cent turnout. A temporary aberration, it seems, as far as voter interest goes.

Obviously the reorganisation of Auckland politics whetted voter interest - not that I'm suggesting permanent revolution as a solution to voter inaction - but I suspect the slug-out between two major political figures for the mayoralty, John Banks in the blue corner and Len Brown in the red, was the true drawcard. It was a contest that was easy to understand and to take sides in.

It's interesting that it was the right, led by Act leader and then Minister of Local Government Rodney Hide, that forced through the creation of the massive Super City in the interests of democracy and good governance. Now it's the right-wing thinktank the New Zealand Initiative that has teamed up with Mr Yule's Local Government NZ to push for the new fad of Localism. They're proposing central government devolve more public services, and taxing powers, into the hands of local government, pointing to New Zealand local authorities spending only 11 per cent of total government expenditure compared with the OECD average of 30 per cent.

Local Government NZ chief executive Malcolm Alexander says a greater devolution of real authority to local government might encourage greater participation by the public. He enthuses over the United Kingdom Localism Act 2011, which reduces the power of Whitehall and strengthens "the decision-making powers of councils and communities" and notes "in New Zealand, the opposite is happening, with ministers giving themselves greater powers to override decisions made by local and regional councillors ..."

Aucklanders might appreciate what Mr Alexander is saying, but it's hard to see how handing more power to the Auckland mayor and council is going to suddenly boost voter turnout.

I suspect the answer is more basic, and can be found in a Local Government NZ survey on reasons for not voting. Of those quizzed, 31 per cent said they didn't know enough about the candidates, 24 per cent either forgot or left it too late and a further 14 per cent were not interested.

None of these reasons suggest the reason was protest or disengagement. The big factor, and a very rational one, was that people weren't willing to sign a contract, as it were, without understanding its contents.

Anybody who got as far as reading the list of hopeful Auckland District Health Board members in the official information booklet will empathise. And that's without even going through the torture of ranking the candidates in order of preference.

If politicians want us to vote for them, the answer is in their hands. Create parties with a platform voters can relate to, and to which the politicians can be held accountable. It's simple really.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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