It is to be hoped that the Local Government Minister is not setting great store by a select committee inquiry into the low turnout at the local-body elections. If Chris Carter is, he is bound to be disappointed. Much tinkering with voting systems and procedures over the years has failed to provide a permanent solution to widespread apathy. In all likelihood, Parliament's justice and electoral select committee will come up with another variation on this theme, offering, at best, a short-term boost in turnout.

The persistence of the problem indicates its deep-seated nature, as well as the fact that, short of compulsion, there is no instant panacea. Given this, Mr Carter would do well to keep the problem in perspective. He is obviously right to be disappointed that just 44.8 per cent of voters sent in their postal ballots. And to be vexed, if only because of the direct impact that local bodies have on our everyday lives. Yet, as the minister has himself pointed out, declining interest in voting is a worldwide trend. In that context, the weekend's turnout was not, as Mr Carter would have it, "embarrassingly low". A similar 46 per cent voted in the 2002 United States congressional elections.

New Zealanders, in fact, managed better than that in local body elections in which candidates and issues attracted their interest. In a normally apathetic Auckland City, the turnout increased from 42.8 per cent to 48.3 per cent thanks to the sometimes bitter mayoral dogfight between John Banks and Dick Hubbard. In other areas, low turnouts owed much to complacency and a lack of divisive issues. Such was clearly the case in North Shore (a 34.6 per cent turnout) and Waitakere (35.7 per cent), where the sitting mayors were returned. The message here is that candidates, notably the challengers, must inspire voters.

The answer to apathy in this year's elections was to be the single transferable vote (STV) system. It failed. In Wellington and Dunedin, which used STV for the first time, turnout was down significantly from that under the former first-past-the-post system. Even the contest to replace Sukhi Turner as mayor in politically alert Dunedin could not prevent a drop from 56 per cent to 53.6 per cent. Additionally, the complexities of STV doubtless resulted in more spoiled ballots than usual. Such would especially have been the case in Auckland, where voters were asked to rank a multitude of district health board candidates in order of preference. This ran contrary to one of the points sure to be made by the select committee inquiry - that the convenience and simplicity of the voting system is a key to attracting a good turnout. The more complicated voting is, the less likely are people to bother.

The next supposed cure-all, in Mr Carter's eyes at least, seems to be electronic voting. This would appeal to young people, the lowest participating group in this and seemingly every local-body election. Electronic voting, either by telephone or the internet, would indeed be more convenient, but it is unlikely to offer more than a temporary fillip, just as postal voting triggered a jump in turnout when it was introduced in 1989. It would not overcome a dearth of galvanising issues or candidates, or an unnecessarily complex voting system. Similarly, more comprehensive voter education would make minimal difference. Today's school curriculums pay more attention than ever to civic issues. This has not prompted a widespread rush to vote.

If Mr Carter is serious about tackling the low turnout, he probably needs to look at the structure of local government. This country has too many local bodies - from regional councils through city and district councils and district health boards to community boards. Further reorganisation is overdue. One body should oversee Northland, one Auckland, one Bay of Plenty and so on. Each of these regional bodies would have more power. Each should, therefore, be worthy of more voter attention. Orchestrating such a rationalisation is not an easy answer - but it may be the only realistic one.

Herald Feature: Local Vote 2004

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