It's been a funny old election campaign. Far Northerners have a record 90 candidates to choose from for the mayoralty, Far North District and Northland regional councils, community boards and Northland DHB, offering a very wide range of promises, yet we seem to be more reluctant than ever to take part.
We were told last week that if the early trend continued the Far North turnout would, for the first time, fall below 40 per cent. And it's not just us who can't be bothered. Even in Auckland and Wellington, where mayoralty candidates in particular offer starkly different options, the majority of electors look like giving it a miss.
Theories as to why that is are many and varied, as are the proposed solutions, from introducing online voting to making voting compulsory. Perhaps the problem though is that many people genuinely believe that their votes won't make a difference.
It is true that any one of us as individuals deciding not to vote won't change the outcome, but it'll be a different story if 60 per cent of us don't take part. But even with a 100 per cent turn out, would anything change?
For all the variety offered by candidates in the Far North, it might well be that most of us, dissatisfied as we might be, simply don't believe those who say they are going to instigate some sort of revolution on our behalf, at least in terms of the district council.
Any number of those who are standing are promising to make the council more responsive and to slash the bureaucracy that seems to make the simplest of decisions and processes a test of endurance. Good luck with that. 'Fixing' the council, if it needs fixing, won't be as easy as some are suggesting it will be, given that much of the bureaucracy stems from Wellington, and, with the exception of the CEO, elected members have no control whatsoever over council staff.
In many ways the challenges that will face the district council over the next three years and beyond are rooted in the continuing devolving of responsibilities from central government — the 50 per cent of government funding that the council once functioned with has now, we are told, reduced to 12 per cent — and the unfortunate fact that there is a limit to how much a relatively small number of ratepayers in a geographically large district can stump up with.
Some specific issues could have been given greater attention. The disgraceful lack of progress on securing Kaitaia's water supply over the best part of a decade is one. The evolving shambles that the relatively simple job of building a couple of dog pounds is another, but whoever is elected on Saturday isn't going to arrive with a hitherto untapped pot of gold, and none of the candidates have even mentioned those or other specific issues within the writer's hearing.
Lack of interest in the district council elections is hardest to understand. The Northland Regional Council seems to tick along pretty effectively (at least until it hit the GE judder bar a couple of months ago, which might well determine the outcome in a seat or two), the community boards seem to do a reasonable job at a very local level, and the DHB functions like a secret society, which few of us would expect to be influenced by whoever is elected to it.
Meanwhile some candidates have campaigned the old-fashioned way with enthusiasm, some are relying on social media, and some don't seem to be bothering at all. So far, with less than a week to go, the writer has seen five of the 11 mayoral candidates in the flesh. Some seem to be campaigning within their local communities, some apparently not at all. You have to wonder why some are bothering.
The think tank Economic and Social Research Āotearoa reckons it knows why so few of us are voting though. It's released a report arguing that the lack of interest is symptomatic of structural problems with the content and delivery of representative democracy, and that the solution lies in changes in "economic distribution," political representation, and the role of government.
While non-voters were socio-demographically diverse, the 'typical' (general election) non-participant, the report said, was more likely to be young, have a low income, and be other than Pākehā, meaning those groups were under-represented in Parliament, and presumably also in local government. In fact it might be argued that our Parliament is extremely diverse, albeit perhaps lacking in MPs who are living on the breadline, and our local election candidates offer a wide range of options, in terms of gender, ethnic origins, political views, life experience, and, to put it bluntly, wealth.
If its diversity the Far North is looking for, there is absolutely no reason not to vote. And in case anyone is thinking differently, in the Far North at least those who might be expected to support older white men are in the minority. If they have electoral dominance, it is only because others choose to allow it.
The report also suggests that, in terms of general elections, we need stricter limits on electoral spending to curb the influence of wealthy donors on political parties' policy development, and a three per cent threshold for parties' entry to Parliament. God forbid. Any party that can't muster five per cent support doesn't deserve to be there. The last thing we need in Wellington is a plethora of tiny, single-issue parties that others have to pander to to form a government.
Economic and Social Research Āotearoa also wants political parties to genuinely reflect the interests of the working class, the precarious and ethnic minorities — the current government seems to be doing a pretty good job of that now — a stronger role for trade unions so they can play a "mobilising role" in electoral politics, active government intervention in the economy to reverse the economic inequality that contributes to lack of voter interest, and a far-reaching redistribution of wealth and of the mechanisms by which that wealth is produced.
You can see where these people are coming from, can't you comrade? And if they got their way there would surely be a lift in the voter turnout, if only to ensure that their vision of Utopia remains a vision. But we are hearing similar explanations for the lack of interest in local authority elections. The poor, the disadvantaged, don't vote, we are told. They do in other countries, when they are allowed to, and don't die in the attempt, but not here.
We have also been told that 18 to 24-year-olds in this country don't vote because they don't know how to. Using two electoral processes, first past the post and preferential voting, confuses them apparently, and must be made easier. One might be of the view that anyone who cannot understand the voting system shouldn't be allowed to vote anyway.
At the end of the day, the only remotely valid reason for not voting would be to support the status quo by default, and that's not what we're seeing. Rather it is a fundamental lack of engagement. It is not, however, as Economic and Social Research Āotearoa would have it, the wielding of an "outsized degree of political influence and delegitimis(ation of) the foundation of representative electoral democracy, that one person has one vote and that all votes are equal in influence."
Actually they are equal, but only if they are cast.