While I'm a bit of a politics nerd, I have to admit local government doesn't exactly light my world on fire. Yes, I'm a ratepayer. Yes, I've called noise control when loud parties at Antoine's (of all places) got out of hand (that rowdy Parnell set). Yes, the growing pressures on Auckland's infrastructure are apparent to me every day and yes, I'm affected by a number of bylaws, but for the most part I tend to think about local government like I think about wallpaper – not at all, unless it does something to offend my sensibilities.
Many of us likely feel the same. Voter turnout at local body elections is notoriously grim. Only 43 per cent of voters bothered to vote in the 2016 local body elections, and I can see why. Receiving my little booklet with blurbs about largely unknown strangers last time round, I skimmed the highlights and made only slightly educated guesses. It bored me half to tears. Only my girly swottish sense of civic responsibility prevented me from biffing the whole lot into the bin.
The way that local body elections are run leaves a lot to be desired. Online voting seems well and truly dead in the water, media coverage tends to focus only on the big names, and a lot of time seems to be spent by candidates preaching to the choir at choir practice, if you catch my drift. Engaging the wider community – whom local bodies are supposed to represent – doesn't seem to be high on the agenda for many candidates. Funnily enough, a number of candidates appear to be quite content appealing to constituencies that look and sound just like them.
Local bodies have a representation problem. To begin with, the vast majority of elected local government representatives are aged between 40 and 70. In 2016, more than 80 per cent of elected members were aged over 51. Only 6 per cent were aged under 40. Women were also in the minority, making up only 38 per cent of elected members. Only 10.1 per cent of representatives were Māori, while only 2.1 per cent were Pasifika, and 1.4 per cent Asian.
By contrast, our population looks nothing like that. Our median age nationally is 36.9 years. Māori make up 15 per cent of the population, while 7 per cent are Pasifika and 12 per cent are Asian. Of the national population, 50.7 per cent are women. Older Pākehā men are over-represented in local government, while the rest of us are drastically under-represented.
Which is one of the reasons why the last thing Auckland needs is Mayor John Banks 2.0. After losing the mayoral race (resoundingly) to Len Brown in the first Super City election, John Banks apparently hasn't given up on wearing the mayoral chains again. He's considering a new tilt at the mayoralty, likely hoping that John Tamihere and Phil Goff will split the vote on the left, allowing a right-wing candidate to emerge victorious. With Tamihere presenting himself as a centre-right-wing candidate (with Michelle Boag, no less, advising him), however, Banks may be relying on outdated political data.
He hasn't promised much yet, other than "cutting wasteful spending" (which is surely a phrase every mayoral candidate has uttered since elections began), but I don't expect much in the way of visionary leadership. So far he's suggested that under his watch the council wouldn't fund the Santa Parade, that climate change shouldn't be a priority area for the council because he's "not at all sure" that it's man-made (which, incidentally, goes against pretty much all established and peer-reviewed science on the subject), and bashed the light rail link from the city centre to the airport. So basically, if you're a Grinch who doesn't really care that the planet is on the brink of destruction and you don't want a quick and cost-effective way to get to the airport, then John Banks is your man.
Jokes aside, the questions that continually clatter around my brain when I think about local government are these: where are the whip-smart, forward-thinking female Māori, Pasifika, Asian, Indian candidates (because you can't tell me that of the many amazing women of colour in this country there aren't a few who could stand for mayor)? Where are the LGBTQ+ candidates? And if they're already putting their hands up, why are they not getting the same traction/support/media attention as Phil Goff, John Banks, John Tamihere and co.? Why are voters not demanding a better selection to choose from?
Increasingly, as Auckland becomes more and more diverse, the face of the city is not an older Pākehā gentleman. And with a rock star Māori economy and strong ethnically diverse business communities, it's becoming harder and harder to argue that there aren't diverse candidates that are adequately qualified.
John Banks says Phil Goff's mayoralty like 'grandma's boiled cabbage'
Ex-mayor: Phil Goff has failed - why I'm backing John Tamihere
Lizzie Marvelly: The creepy reason I don't go out anymore
I want local government candidates that make me want to pay attention to local politics. People with vision, who are able to connect with diverse communities, and who actually care about the future of the planet once they've left it.
Why aren't these kinds of people coming forward in their droves? I would venture that the establishment hasn't been particularly welcoming to them. Councils have historically been colonial hangovers dominated by land-owning men. Research has shown that Pākehā are much, much more likely, for example, to make submissions to councils than people of other ethnicities. In the halls of power, some voices have always carried further than others.
In 2019, however, with as many challenges as opportunities on the horizon, it's time for us to be bold and visionary. And diverse and inclusive. It's going to take many divergent points of view and different ideas to future-proof our cities. To give us the best chance of success, this election, we should vote to have as much diversity of thought as possible in our council chambers. Let's not let the old guard take us backwards.