COMMENT:

The Albany ward of Auckland Council stretches from the East Coast Bays and Hibiscus Coast across the upper harbour to Hobsonville and Whenuapai. On a stormy night last week I went to Paremoremo to see candidates perform at the last public meeting of these local body elections.

About 35 residents turned up, more than have attended meetings in more populous parts of the electorate, we were told. No meeting had been arranged in my suburb this time.

There seems to be an increasing disengagement with local government in Auckland where the 38.5 per cent turnout last time was below the national average and well down on the 51 per cent in 2010, the first election in the Super City. This week the postal vote was running even lower, with just a week to go.

Advertisement

I went out to Paremoremo at the urging of one of the candidates, Julia Parfitt, who was aggrieved that Albany was not to be among the wards the Herald featured last week. She thought I would find its contest interesting - and I did.

Anti-government protestors hold flags during a protest in Hong Kong. Photo / AP
Anti-government protestors hold flags during a protest in Hong Kong. Photo / AP

It gave me a glimmer of hope that a battle for democracy may be under way in Auckland. It is not as stirring as the battle the brave citizens of Hong Kong have been waging for many weeks now, but it bears comparison.

Both cities have been given a constitutional veneer of democracy. Hong Kong gets to elect a legislative council from candidates approved by the Communist Party of China. We get to elect an Auckland Council that is not allowed to make the decisions that matter to most of us.

Practical, down-to-earth decisions have to be delegated to council managers or its appointed agencies, designated in Orwellian newspeak "council controlled organisations". Most of the angst at Paremoremo that night was about the bus service and the road, issues with Auckland Transport.

Unlike Hong Kong, civil liberties are not at risk here. We are not threatened, just insulted. Having seen our council in "action", I've been disinclined to vote.

Now I will. Albany's incumbent councilors are a couple of rebels, Wayne Walker and John Watson, who believe there is a chance that enough of their ilk might be elected in other wards to take control.

Julia Parfitt, their main challenger, is quite different. She has been chair of the Hibiscus and Bays Local Board for years and before that, a councillor and deputy mayor of North Shore City. She is personable and dedicated, known and appreciated by probably every club and community organiser in the Bays.

Members of the Auckland Council
Members of the Auckland Council "B team" at Eden Park Left to right: Wayne Walker, Daniel Newman, Angela Dalton, Paul Young, John Watson. Photo / Supplied

As local board chairwoman she says she has found Phil Goff helpful and does not believe the ward is well served by two representatives in the "B team". I've found her helpful on tennis club problems and I'm glad she is standing for the board again.

Advertisement

But it feels almost cruel to put a practical person like her on the council. She would spend most of her days sitting in interminable seminars on nebulous subjects that constitute the work of the "governing body". More newspeak.

Yet she must know that and she really wants a seat on the council. So what is this voter to do? It's a dilemma probably shared by many across the city. It certainly faces voters in the Waitematā and Gulf ward where the discontented incumbent, Mike Lee, is being challenged by local board chairwoman Pippa Coom.

Lee was a council representative on the board of Auckland Transport and gave the public some valuable reports on that contentious body until Goff, for reasons never explained, pulled council members off the board.

Like the citizens of Hong Kong, we are not that badly served by our unelected rulers. Materially we are fine. The much-maligned Auckland Transport, for example, has redesigned the bus network very well as far as I can tell. It's just the limited democracy that grates on many, but by no means all, eligible voters, even in Hong Kong.

Should we vote for critics or co-operators? What chance the likes of Walker and Watson would get enough allies on the council elected next Saturday to be more than annoyances? And could a new majority make much difference?

But then, do stroppy representatives do the district much harm? Parfitt's main gripe that night was that Avondale has a new library and Albany is still waiting for one. Walker said Albany is still waiting because the local board gave priority to repairing a sea wall at Orewa.

When asked about bigger things – a harbour tunnel, rail to the Shore and other idle conversation topics - Walker and Parfitt said yes to all of them. Only Watson had the courage to say they were a distraction to more urgently needed projects on roads.

That's worth a vote.