Editorial: Stay awake: it's time to make your vote count

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Local body elections billboards in Auckland City. Photo / Richard Robinson
Local body elections billboards in Auckland City. Photo / Richard Robinson

Local democracy has a delicate life at more risk of suffering from neglect than abuse. When most of its eligible voters ignore its debates and cast an unthinking vote, if they vote at all, they are at risk of handing power to an unrepresentative minority. In Auckland the risk is already apparent.

In the absence of a strong mayoral candidate against incumbent Len Brown, the contest is between the leftish mayor and challengers who are further left. Rivals such as John Minto do not seriously expect to be elected, they are standing to draw the debate left and they are succeeding.

Last week they moved the mayor's position on the union campaign for the "living wage". Having previously said he would wait for a report on paying council workers an $18.40 hourly minimum, Mr Brown now endorses the proposition.

The living wage is a fine principle but its adoption by the council needs to be carefully considered in all its implications for Auckland employers and ratepayers, not approved under pressure from election rivals.

At this rate Mr Minto's promises of free public transport, construction of 20,000 council rental houses and income-related rates, may be only weeks away from a mayoral endorsement.

It is hard to take much interest in an election where the hottest issue might be whether or not citizens should be expected to mow their strip of lawn on the street outside their property. This has never been in question for three-quarters of the city where the council has not previously mown the berm. But the former Auckland City Council used to cut the grass on the isthmus.

The new Auckland Council's decision to save the cost could be expected to appeal to the right and offend the left, but the reverse has occurred. John Palino, the most active mayoral candidate on the right, has noticed that the grass is getting long and promises, if elected, to give local boards the chance to reinstate council mowing.

How that promise might be received in Manukau, Waitakere and North Shore remains to be seen, though offered the service residents there would accept it too. This is how the scale and cost of government constantly grow. On this issue, Mr Brown is defending the public purse, pointing out that it would cost $12 million to $15 million a year to mow all the berms, adding 1 per cent to rates.

Yet Mr Palino is promising to keep rate increases level with inflation, rightly challenging the mayor's notion that local government has to accept costs rising above general inflation. A "council rate" of inflation is largely a result of soft contracting and it is up to voters to stop it.

Only one mayoral candidate, Stephen Berry, would go further, reducing rates across the board. Mr Berry also advocates selling shares in Ports of Auckland and the airport to finance the inner city rail link, which he opposes but accepts will go ahead. He favours the city's spread as well as intensification and would allow the port to reclaim more of the Waitemata.

His is a lonely voice in the public debates but possibly not so lonely among those who do not make their voices heard and possibly will not vote. Of the many who do not vote in local body elections, most say it is because they do not know enough about the candidates. Many others say they intend to vote but do not get around to it. Not many say they are not interested.

It would be odd to be uninterested in decisions that may affect your house and its value, your street, water supply, drains, traffic and transport services, the parks and trees and most of the amenities that make a residential area pleasant, or not. Those complacent about these things cannot afford to leave the election to a few activists. It pays to stay awake.

- NZ Herald

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