John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: A no-vote can be a better decision

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If Len Brown is returned today on a low turn out, his mandate should not be questions. Photo / Sarah Ivey
If Len Brown is returned today on a low turn out, his mandate should not be questions. Photo / Sarah Ivey

In a few hours we will receive the results of local elections and there will be a lamentation in the land - or at least in the news - that so few have bothered to vote. I've never understood why this was a problem.

Sitting on my sideboard right now are ballot papers for a couple of seats on the boards of Auckland Airport and the Port of Tauranga.

As a tiny shareholder I'm not going to bother. Those with a much bigger stake in the companies are watching them more closely than I am and I'm rather glad about that. I get the benefit of their knowledge of subjects that bore me.

I don't know the candidates for those seats and their supplied statements are not much help. It is not in my interest to vote, I want those directors selected by people who know them.

I did vote in the local body elections because I find the issues interesting and I happened to know two good candidates for the council and the local board.

They have been energetic, helpful board members and I hope they make it.

Their chances would be better if the ballot was confined to voters who take an interest in public business.

Mass voting drives probably do more harm than good. There is a woman on the North Shore whose regular success at elections amazes anybody who has heard her at a public meeting. She knows how to make news for the suburban freesheet and I assume her name rings a bell when voters are looking through a list of strangers.

Nobody should feel obliged to vote. It is the opportunity that matters.

The opportunity is enough to ensure those elected will pay attention to voters' needs.

Those who lament a low turnout will say that the opportunity is not real unless exhaustive efforts are made to ensure everyone knows an election is on and it is important that they vote. Well, up to a point. But if somebody is so tuned out that they practically have to be coerced, what value is their vote?

It would be nice if society was one big civics seminar, but it is not. Local government is not an arresting topic of conversation unless something is going seriously wrong. A low turnout is more than likely a sign of satisfaction.

If Len Brown is returned on a low vote today I will not be questioning his mandate. He has done well enough to have no strong challenger. Were he to be defeated by some extraordinary twist, it could be on an ignorant vote like mine. Having voted for people I know for the council and local board I picked a complete unknown for mayor who said he would put Ports of Auckland back on the sharemarket.

I shouldn't have done it. The port has performed abysmally since the former regional council bought full ownership and it I think it is important to Auckland and the national economy that stronger commercial pressure is brought to bear. But no issue is more important than the calibre of a candidate. For all I know I could have voted for a clown.

That can happen when even a careless vote is encouraged. If public interest in local government is steadily declining, I'm not surprised. The decline can be attributed to the severely limited power that elected councils now possess.

They are supposed to operate under a modern notion of "governance" that says matters of policy should be strictly separated from the provision of services. It was disingenuous of Local Government NZ to cite water supplies, roads, drains and other essential services as a reason to vote. "Governance" gives elected representatives very little say over them.

Elected representatives make policy and council officers make decisions of detail. To see what policy means, read as much as you can bear of an Auckland Council planning document. Elected people are required to read a lot of plans.

Policy-making means they get to decide that water should be clean, drains should be sufficient for future demand, streets should be well maintained, trains should run on time, heritage should be protected and the like.

If they want to do anything about these things they are intruding on operational decisions that staff are supposed to make. If you are worried about a particular water main, drain or the condition of a street, the best your elected representative can probably do is mention it to the chief executive, the sole gate keeper to the organisation. Officers are answerable to nobody else.

This is why the concrete issues and intense arguments that used to put council members in the news are seldom heard any more. That is why elections no longer attract much interest. The wonder is that anybody stands.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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