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

Political Roundup: What's wrong with local government?

Ticks out for Harambe election hoaring on Queens Drive Invercargill. Photo / Southland Express
Ticks out for Harambe election hoaring on Queens Drive Invercargill. Photo / Southland Express

There's plenty of discussion at the moment about both the failings of local authorities and the process for electing mayors and councillors in our regions. The various problems mean that the public are largely disengaged from the elections, driving voter turnout down, and reducing the public's trust and confidence in local politicians. We have a serious democratic deficit in the way that local politics works, and perhaps it's time to re-think local government and elections in this country.

Is there a problem with political party involvement in local government?

There is a very strong political culture in New Zealand against the involvement of the parliamentary political parties in local government. This negativity to candidates who stand on behalf of parties is reflected in today's news report about a businessperson running a campaign against Wellington mayoral candidate Justin Lester, with billboards and advertising that exclaim "Don't vote for a party political mayor. Keep Wellington independent" - see Matt Stewart's Who's behind Wellington's anti-Labour billboards?.

The campaigner, Graham Bloxham, says he had become "disenfranchised with the Labour Party meddling in a local election". Similarly, in Wellington's Hutt City, the incumbent mayor, together with nine "independent" candidates, has put out "a brochure urging voters to keep party politics out of Hutt City" - see Nicholas Boyack's: Mayor Ray Wallace leads charge against party politics.

But do political parties really degrade local government? According to Massey University's Andy Asquith and Andrew Cardow the electoral process would actually benefit from more party involvement: "Rather than hide behind the mask of independence, is it not time for serious candidates and the political parties they represent to take local elections seriously and stop treating local electors as mugs? Be honest. Say what you represent and, in the spirit of openness and transparency, be clear about who is supporting your candidacy" - see their Herald article, Mayoral candidates should show their real colours.

These academics blame the political parties for not being involved enough in local elections, and suggest that many "independent" candidates are, in fact, backed by parties anyhow. Noting that all 19 of the Auckland mayoral candidates are running as "independents", they say this is an insult to the public's intelligence.

It's certainly the case that party labels help voters understand the type of politicians they are voting for. The party names, colours, logos, etc all help give clues to what we are getting. To some extent the "tickets" that some candidates run on also play this role, and mean voters can more easily navigate the election campaigns, without having to trawl through masses of reportage or candidate statements. And this point is essentially reiterated by the Prime Minister, who explained how he is going to vote to Paul Henry - see: Not even John Key's going to read his election candidate booklet.

According to this, "John Key hinted to Paul Henry on Monday morning he'll just tick the candidates attached to the Auckland Future ticket." He's quote as saying: "If you're a centre-right voter, you can say Auckland Future's centre-right and if you like those people, you go vote for them."

But John Key's Auckland Future ticket has hardly been a resounding success so far. The project was an attempt to come up with a new centre-right organisation that would broadly represent the National Party in Auckland local government. Its failure is examined by Matthew Hooton in the latest Metro magazine in a column that is now online - see: Election 2016: Centre-right fiasco. Hooton is exasperated about the fact that although "Auckland is now overwhelmingly a National Party town" it's Labour Party people dominating the council due to the failure of National to set up a half-decent ticket.

Hooton says that the National Party has bureaucratically created Auckland Future in an entirely top-down method without organically allowing democracy to create a genuine rightwing platform: "However old-fashioned it may sound, the authority for a new political entity needs to be clearly seen as emerging from a convention floor rather than perceived edict from afar. A new movement should be formed and its name chosen by acclamation from the conference floor, a founding executive elected, a constitution drafted by a committee of trusted experts, an initial leader chosen, policy bitterly debated by members, candidates selected in brutal internal contests and a campaign designed for the times. Ironically, because these ancient truths weren't upheld, this year's centre-right effort has been run by pre-Pacman-era people in a post-Pokémon Go age."

Is there a problem with "tickets" in local elections?

Of course the various tickets and alliances themselves often create all sorts of problems, especially when candidates who campaign together claim to be "independent" - see the Christchurch Star's Front row campaign under fire from opponents. It seems that two incumbent councillors are wanting to have their cake and eat it too, and opponents are claiming this is misleading voters.

In the absence of clear political labels, the campaign promises and messages of candidates are often rather inadequate. Massey University Andy Asquith has commented on this too, in Michael Fallow's article, A few thoughts on voting.

Asquith is quoted saying "Lots of candidates saying they're going to cap rate increases, cut spending, cut waste, cut bureaucracy", and therefore "you couldn't put a sheet of paper between these people, never mind find a profound point of difference". Likewise, the statements about candidate's personal backgrounds are mostly useless: "Three kids. . . local butcher . . . this sort of malarky. Yabba dabba do. So what? It means nothing."

In Auckland, Metro's Simon Wilson argues that the various "tickets" are all really party proxies anyhow, and that these do a very poor job of producing quality candidates - see: Young people are not revolting. And other lessons from the Auckland election campaign. The article is a very useful examination of the relationship between the Auckland tickets and the parliamentary parties.

How democratic are local government elections anyway?

The question of local democracy was recently discussed by Kathryn Ryan on RNZ with academics Andy Asquith and Jean Drage - listen to the 12-minute conversation How democratic are local government elections?.

One Auckland mayoral candidate even claims that corruption impedes a fair result - see Michael Sergel's Penny Bright: "This election is rigged". But others make a much stronger case for a lack of democracy. Former reporter Ainslie Talbot is one of a group of protesters who disagree with the Government's decision against returning Environment Canterbury (ECAN) to full democracy this year - see Conan Young's Protesters go for bust over Canterbury election.

The complaints of Talbot are reported: "the Ecan elections were rigged, because six of the 13 councillors would be appointees and the wards had been gerrymandered in favour of rural candidates." Talbot is quoted as saying: "With the appointed members by the government, and the appointed members by Ngāi Tahu and the rural councillors, the numbers will still stack up against the environment." See also Charlie Mitchell's The other election: why your ECan vote matters.

There is another local authority in transition to democracy in this election - see Conor Whitten's Democracy returning to Kaipara with local body elections.

Where is the power in local government?

Do the elected authorities we vote for really have the power to effect change? There's an increasing awareness of how much power the unelected officials - especially council chief executives - wield. This is a point made strongly by John Roughan: "The mayor and council are a democratic facade, maintained for appearances while professional staff make all the real decisions. You don't have to go to a meeting to see the ignorance in which the elected members are kept, it becomes apparent every time something goes wrong" - see: Where is a mayor who can fix Auckland's democratic facade?.

Roughan also says: "the truth about the Super City is that its mayor and council you can do very little unless the chief executive and senior officers let them. The council gets to discuss big amorphous principles such as environmental sustainability, community engagement and land-use planning objectives but once they have decided these are a good thing, they have to let the officers decide how, where, when and under what conditions they might be put into operation."

Similarly, see Greg McKeown's Let's put Auckland Council back in control. He says: "While the Super City was designed to deliver integration of citywide infrastructure, no one intended such a great loss of democratic representation and excessive influence by unelected officials, except the officials themselves. We are all concerned about transport and housing. A less rousing but equally significant issue is the balance of power between unelected officials and elected representatives."

This focus on the power of mayors and councillors is also examined in two interesting articles by Simon Maude - see: Just how powerful is Auckland's mayor? and The politics of power - we rank the influence of the country's mayors.

Not surprisingly, there are various proposals for reform being mooted at the moment. For instance, Rob Stock reports that "Some, like Christchurch City councillor Raf Manji, believe it is even time for councils to be run more like corporates. He argues that council's governing bodies (composed of the councillors) should operate like boards, setting strategy and holding council executives to account if they fail to deliver it" - see: If Auckland Council were a company, it'd be one of our biggest.

Outgoing Dunedin city councilor Hilary Calvert says her council lacks checks and balances, and proposes ways to "have a much more democratic and transparent operation of council" - see: Scope for more democracy with checks and balances.

Finally, the must-read analysis of what's broken and how to fix local government is provided by former Act leader and local government minister Rodney Hide - see: Fixing dysfunctional local government. Writing in the NBR earlier in the month, Hide gives seven reasons that "Local government is kaput", and he puts forward five possible fixes for this, which he says he advocated when in government, but "They never found much favour". And for a very different point of view, see Geoff Simmons' Local Democracy is broken, but whose fault is it?.

- NZ Herald

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