Local government appears to be headed towards an existential crisis - a situation in which few of us care enough about the existence of local authorities that we can even be bothered voting. And with just a few more days left to vote, the current voter turnout figures are suggesting New Zealand might reach a record low. In fact, the declining interest and voter turnout is shaping up as the main theme of this year's election campaign. This is nicely captured in Guy Williams' Why our local elections are a shambles, and how to fix them.
Early signs of trouble
Throughout the country, preliminary voting statistics based on those who have already sent in their postal votes are mostly negative. Today, Laura Dooney and Sam Sachdeva report: Turnout still at record low for Wellington local body elections. Similarly, Taryn Utiger's news article says: Seventy five per cent of people yet to vote in New Plymouth's 'really close' election.
In Timaru, a public meeting for candidates and voters was organised a few days ago precisely because of the decline in voter turnout. Yet, ironically, Daisy Hudson reports that "Candidates nearly outnumbered members of the public at the meeting in Timaru on Monday night, with 10 council hopefuls taking questions from a dozen audience members" - see: Key issued debated at meet the candidates meeting in Timaru.
Hudson reports that the declining public engagement issue has been one of the recurring "points of contention throughout the election, with many candidates acknowledging there was a lack of interest and participation in council activities. Garry Simpson believed 90 per cent of apathy was down to people feeling like they could not contribute to the process."
Elsewhere, Mike Yardley says that Apathy rules in Christchurch elections. In Auckland, Bernard Orsman reports "Latest figures show just 19.88 per cent of votes have been returned in Auckland, with some areas as low as 16.3 per cent. On these figures, Auckland is tracking for a 40 per cent turnout, better than the 35.5 per cent figure in 2013 but down on 51 per cent in 2010" - see: Low turnout renews calls for online voting at local elections.
In this election campaign there has been a particular focus on why younger voters aren't participating in local elections. Journalists everywhere are trying to work out what young people are thinking. For the latest, see Jonathan Carson's 'We do care' - What young people in Nelson and Tasman want from the local elections, and Michael Hayward's Christchurch youth not interested in voting in local elections.
Is the problem that youth don't see people like themselves on local authorities, and therefore feel less represented, engaged and inclined to vote? That's what a number of young people are telling reporters - especially those young people who are looking for spots on councils themselves - see Ben Hill's Why the young feel alienated from local body elections. One younger candidate is quoted as saying that her age was her "best asset", and that "Young people feel disengaged because they aren't being best represented. The way we have branded local body politics, quite simply doesn't appeal to a younger demographic."
There is indeed a real imbalance of demographics on councils. Hence Labour MP Meka Whaitiri says "When I look at local government, you're seeing the white, old male staring you back" - see Felix Marwick's 'White old men': Lack of diversity behind local politics apathy.
The news media are putting much more focus on the non-voters, in an attempt to understand why they're not voting, and convince them to do so. See for example, Cherie Howie's series of articles based around one individual: #WillSheVote? Candidates put their best pitches forward to our lifelong non-voter, Papakura mum-of-three Hinekia Fitzgerald.
Proclamations to vote
The newspaper editorials and various local government authorities appear to be making many more proclamations to vote this year than usual. And there are likely to be many more in the last few days before your voting papers need to be delivered to your local council.
In Christchurch The Press says today, Whatever the factors in switching people off elections, just get out and vote. The newspaper asks "Why is such a simple act seemingly such a challenge for so many? Only about a quarter of Christchurch residents eligible to vote have so far returned their forms, a huge concern for those who value democracy and those who want as many as people as possible involved in the city's post-quake rejuvenation." This follows on from an earlier editorial, Don't let apathy win.
Yesterday the Dominion Post expressed its concern with the decline, and although it admitted that there was a lack of policy choice between mayoral candidates in Wellington, emphasised there were still strong reasons to vote for candidates with the better "temperament, likely leadership style and political allegiances" - see: Voters, turn dwindling turnout around.
Solving the voter turnout decline
There is now somewhat of a mania developing for technocratic solutions to the declining voter turnout. Essentially authorities and experts want to discover and implement new mechanisms to make voting easier and more meaningful. Of course finding a quick fix is tempting, and therefore there are plenty of demands for online voting to be implemented in the future - see Bernard Orsman's Low turnout renews calls for online voting at local elections.
At a more basic level, there are various initiatives to help citizens get their ballot papers to the council. For example, the Waikato District Council has introduced "drive-through or mobile ballot boxes" - see Stuff's Council staff pound the pavements urging voters to use mobile ballots.
There have been all sorts of other corny and rather cringeworthily attempts to "make voting cool". See for example Stuff's White Man Behind a Desk satirist appeals to other young voters in funny video, and details of the Wellington City Council's poster campaign to convince the under-40s to vote - see Simon Wong's one-minute video and article, Council's 'corny' campaign to attract voters.
Some suggest that lowering the voting age to 16 could help. For example, writing about decreasing youth voter turnout, Janine Rankin says: "That is one way to get young people into the habit while they are still at home, still influenced by parents who might actually get quite excited about elections, and while they still have a clear idea about where "home" is and which electorate or territory is relevant for them" - see: The young, the very young, the footsore and the lost.
Similarly, there are a number of programmes to educate school-age people to vote in the future - see, for example, Newshub's Getting kids into local politics.
Bigger political problems with voter turnout
There is an argument that says the problem with the declining voter turnout is not one of voting systems, nor is it a problem with citizens being apathetic. Instead it's the whole political system that needs to be addressed. In this sense there is no silver bullet that can fix the problem easily. As one political scientist, Grant Duncan of Massey University, says, "How we change that, I don't know. If I had a solution to that, I'd probably be invited all over the world to tell everyone" - see Kurt Bayer's Candidates could change voter apathy.
So more than being a problem of public apathy, is it "vote suppression"? That's the argument of another political scientist, Bronwyn Hayward of the University of Canterbury, who explains why she thinks Christchurch is experiencing a decline in voting. She says that a number of factors combined are alienating people from the political process - see Jamie Small's Christchurch 'perfect storm' for vote suppression, head of uni politics says.
Leftwing blogger Steven Cowan goes further than this in explaining the Christchurch situation: "just like the low turnout out at the general election, the low turnout at the local level reflects the huge degree of scepticism felt by a majority of people towards all the main political parties, and alienation from local and national government. While the good people of Christchurch are being urged to vote to have a say in the running of their city, that's not been the reality since the quakes. The good people have not only been denied a say in the rebuild of their city they have watched many of their local 'representatives' defend the bureaucratic and top down rebuild" - see: Another low voter turnout.
In terms of the declining engagement in Auckland, Chris Trotter has responded to Simon Wilson's argument (The man in the middle) that Auckland city needs bolder and bigger change than what the current mayoral candidates are offering. Trotter is in basic agreement, "Except, of course, the whole point of the neoliberal supercity is to ensure that "big visions" and "bold execution" in the pursuit of anything other than neoliberal objectives is rendered impossible" - see: Reinvent Auckland, Simon? If Only We Could!
I've given some of my views about the "political solutions" to the voter turnout problem in an article by Daisy Hudson - see: Voter turnout for local govt elections declining. One of the possible solutions I put forward is to have greater political party involvement in local government. If candidates were the responsibility of parties, then we might get a higher quality of candidate, and clearer political messages and programmes. At the moment voters have to deal with rather indecipherable election campaigns from supposedly "independent" candidates who are not accountable once they are in office. If candidates were representative of Labour, National, Greens or so forth, there would be much greater incentives to provide clear policies.
In response, the Waikato Times' Tom O'Connor makes the case against parties interfering in local politics: "It was exactly that issue which played a major part in the dysfunction and eventual dismissal of the Canterbury Regional Council in 2010. Two former parliamentarians held senior positions on the newly elected regional council and could not resist reliving old battles and animosities. The arguments, many of them petty and personal, effectively divided the council into two warring factions, progress on the establishment of an all-important water plan for the region ground to a halt, and the Government, at the insistence of local mayors, stepped in and replaced the council with commissioners" - see: Personalities, not policies, too often rule in local body elections.
Of course we have to remember that political participation is falling throughout the western world at the moment, especially in terms of voting. For a number of decades there has been a general downward direction of voter turnout in most countries. This is happening in all types of elections - parliamentary, local government, and in state elections in other countries. Therefore what we're witnessing in New Zealand's local body elections is hardly unusual - it's happening in other elections, and the general decline of votes for councils and mayors has been going on here for quite some time.
The local government elections are taking place in a particularly strong anti-political era. Politicians of all stripes and colours are suspected as being a problem. We don't trust them and we don't like them. Therefore the public is quite logically choosing not to participate and elect politicians. They're turning to non-voting out of disgust in many places.
Unfortunately, the local New Zealand candidates are generally not very inspiring, nor are they standing on exciting or innovative platforms for change. And in a world where there's so much happening politically and socially, our rather bland candidates for office look even more off-putting than usual. Where are our Bernie Sanders, or Jeremy Corbyns or even Donald Trumps? New Zealanders are seeing that politics can be more meaningful, interesting and vibrant elsewhere, and by comparison our local government politicians are very middle-of-the-road.
The public increasingly just don't like or trust politicians. Two recent news reports on one of the leading Wellington mayoral candidates, Jo Coughlan, might illustrate why public trust is declining. This week she allegedly "held up a fire truck on Friday morning because she was trying to take a photo of her supporters waving election placards" - see Lloyd Burr's Wellington mayoral candidate Jo Coughlan didn't move for fire truck - witnesses.
While this might been easily passed off as an accident or oversight, her campaign may have also been damaged by the strange news that her leaflets included a doctored image of a Dominion Post frontpage "which had her photoshopped into the main story to replace fellow candidate Nick Leggett... which aimed to convince voters the race for mayor was a two-horse race between herself and Labour candidate Justin Lester, not a three horse race with Mr Leggett" - see Lloyd Burr's Wellington mayoral candidate Jo Coughlan's photo faux pas.
Finally, for the best explanation for why the public is less inclined to vote, just have a look at some of the truly awful campaign billboards that Giovanni Tiso has found in Wellington and the North Island - see: Wellington, city of adverbs. The various platitudes, inanities, narcissism, and vagueness is enough to put anyone off voting. As Tiso says: "the choice is so depressingly drab. And it is drab for the same reasons why voting is hard: nobody is saying what they are going to do or what voting is even for. Everything everyone is content to do is remind us what they look like and what their name is."