Whanganui turnout the best but voters still lagging

By John Maslin -

Whanganui has topped the poll in terms of voter involvement in this year's local body elections but at least one observer says councils have a lot to do to reconnect with voters.

On preliminary results at least Whanganui's 56 per cent vote was the best of all the country's provincial centres, with Invercargill and Marlborough the next best. They are returns well ahead of Waikato District with only 30 per cent of voting papers returned.

In the metropolitan cities voter turnout ranged from 45 per cent (Wellington) to 38 per cent (Auckland).

But the provincial returns were still about 7 per cent up on voting in the metropolitan cities and researcher Jason Krupp said this was a worrying trend.

Since the 1980s voter turnout has been falling and Local Government NZ ran a 10-month campaign aimed to lift voter numbers above 50 per cent nationally for the first time since 1989.

Mr Krupp is a research fellow working for New Zealand Initiative, a think-tank funded by the country's major businesses, and he told the Chronicle the continuing decline in
voter turnout at a local body level will take some arresting.

"In 1989 the turnout averaged 56 per cent. Now it has dropped to less than 40 per cent so it's been a one-way track," he said.

Whanganui's returns were well ahead of response in Wellington.

"Wellington's the political centre and meant to be a pretty switched on place but its 40 per cent turnout is an indictment really. You can dismiss it by saying voter apathy is happening globally but the drop off in involvement is not as acute as it is in NZ," Mr Krupp said.

He said low voter turnout was "something systematic rather than people being disillusioned with democracy".

"And it's also a matter of local government becoming increasingly disenfranchised."
He said the problem stemmed from central government getting too involved with setting policy that affects local communities. Areas such as dog control and liquor licensing were two examples.

"While the district council has to do the work "Government won't spend a penny of extra funding those councils. But if some in the community get upset with the new policy it's the council that cops the criticism," he said.

Mr Krupp said councils' Annual Plan documents had become "complex and technocratic" and made it hard for residents to get engaged because of that complexity.

"Someone has calculated that if you sat down and spent eight hours a day reading at a speed of 200 words a minute it would take you 55 days to read the entire Auckland unitary plan document. That's an example of this disconnect between councils and their communities."

He said local body amalgamation was another worrying trend because it tended to further isolate council representatives from their people.

"There's no silver bullet but essentially local councils have to be accountable to their communities and not the Government. If I could wave a magic wand I'd ban central government from getting involved in local issues," Mr Krupp said.

He said one way to bridge the gap between councils and community and generate interest in issues was through referenda. He said those held in Whanganui some years ago "showed your city was ahead of the curve".

"As a means of generating interest in public spending it's a good idea because it gives the community a focus and definitely a say in what they'd prefer."

The 2013 turnout was 58 per cent.

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