The turnout for the Auckland Council election was profoundly disappointing. When voting closed on Saturday the number received was not much above the proportion of those eligible who voted three years ago, which itself was well down on the 51 per cent who voted in the first "Super City" election in 2010. What has happened to the hopes once held for a unified, strongly led city?
The first mayor's fall from grace cannot be blamed. It did not become public knowledge until the day after the votes were counted in 2013, and that turnout was even worse than this one. In fact, even his critics have acknowledged that Len Brown lived up to the hopes for the newly united mayoralty in his first term. The low turnout in 2013 may simply have been attributable to the lack of a strong contest that year, and the same explanation is available for the turnout this time. Phil Goff looked a certainty from the moment nominations closed and no experienced council member was standing.
If the lack of a keen mayoral race explains the low turnouts at the last two elections, it may also explain the relatively high number who voted in the first, when Brown was running against John Banks. Both were mayors of cities disappearing in the amalgamation and Banks was a polarising personality. But there was also additional interest in that election because a united city was new and its possibilities unknown.
Not so now. After six years, references to a "Super City" are hardly heard any more, except in irony. The limitations of the authority of the elected mayor and council have been all too obvious over issues such as the performance of Ports of Auckland Ltd and its claims on the harbour, and the housing crisis - more accurately crises of affordability and homelessness. The council has looked to be at the mercy of demands from the Government above it, and unable to exert much influence on the largely autonomous "council-controlled organisations" Auckland Transport, Watercare, Auckland Trade, Events and Economic Development and others.
But even more seriously, as Goff and other candidates acknowledged during the campaign, the elected council has seemingly struggled to impose its will on its own officers and staff. This is not a deficiency that will be easily fixed by a change of mayor and some members of the council. The constitution of the council reflects a theory of governance that gives "operational" decisions to the officers as an executive body and restricts the right of elected representatives to "interfere" in its operations. It can only ask questions of the chief executive, and fire him if it comes to that.
The system is not working satisfactorily for those elected, or the public who want to hold people to account when things go wrong. If a corrective requires a change of legislation, it should be done. But surely the new mayor and his chief executive can find a way to give the elected members a more active role and give more people reason to find it worth voting.