Well the local government elections are all over, and crocodile tears are being wept over the poor turnout, which is practically a record low across New Zealand. It has been claimed by a former Labour president in Auckland that the local government structure there which puts control of transport and other significant municipial functions outside direct political control is responsible and deserves reform. However that does not explain the outcomes being seen universally across the country.
There are some very significant reasons why there is a large level of disinterest in voting in local elections, and I believe the active favouring of ratepayers in local government decisionmaking processes is a key aspect. Another way to describe this group is as property owners. Whereas anyone who lives in a region can vote, the reality is that the ratepayers who own the property in a city or town are those who are overwhelmingly advantaged and entitled in the key decisions made by councils around the country. This is because councils have the ability to create desirable residential neighbourhoods which produce a financial incentive for ratepayers by increasing the value of the property they own. If you want to know why inequality and skyrocketing housing prices are so prevalent across New Zealand, look no further than the actions of territorial councils which are the main enablers of these situations across the country.
Another significant problem is that territorial councils have control of their own electoral structures and systems. It is entirely within the control of each council to decide whether or not it has a ward system. Wards encourage councillors to develop their own little empire instead of focusing on the whole city. All a councillor has to do to be elected is to gain the confidence of voters in their ward, rather than across the whole territory. It is also entirely within the control of each country to decide whether it allows first past the post or proportional voting and that power has existed since 2001. Currently only a handful of territories around New Zealand have adopted the STV proportional voting system although it is used by all 20 of our DHBs. The reasons being obvious, that powerful people (i.e. ratepayers) dislike proportional systems, and so have exerted enough influence to maintain the status quo in most cases. Yet another issue is that it is entirely within local jurisdiction whether to spend funds on campaigns to increase voter turnout. Christchurch City budgeted a token $80,000 for this purpose for the recent elections. Auckland City by comparison spent $1.6 million.
What is even more galling is that the Labour Government justifies the status quo by claiming to support local government democracy. The fact that the local governments even when dominated by members of its own political hue are implementing policies that directly contradict what is handed down from Wellington, amounts to massive hypocrisy, conveniently overlooked in the name of political power. This is why in this blog I actively oppose the Labour Party and its local government allies (in Christchurch, the People’s Choice). Labour will bend over backwards to give at least the shadow of “local democracy” even when firmly cementing the dominant power within an elite group. Another example of this is the change from Regional Health Authorities in the early 2000s to a supposedly superior system of elected District Health Boards, a key Labour policy. That the Government kept firm control of these boards through its appointment of the chairman and some of the members, in order to keep the lid on potential political risks in a major area of government expenditure, has been minimised but it is clear that Labour only really pay lip service to “democracy”. The outcomes we see in local government are hardly surprising as it is par for the course, internationally, for a higher level government to attempt to shore up its support in lower levels of government, like for example the restructuring of Greater London or Sydney. However, this is New Zealand, and the hypocrisy of Labour is astounding. Both major parties play local government to the same ends but Labour’s caving in to the dominant elitism at local level in the name of winning political office amounts to a huge contradiction to their core values, although some will argue that this is how Labour Governments behave these days anyway.
So it is very fair to suggest that some very fundamental changes in local government electoral structures are needed to re-empower voters. Changing the funding system for local government is fundamental to changing the way it operates. In other words some sort of local tax on each elector to replace rates is the way to empower voters, but still based on property values. This has its own challenges, but should be taken seriously and is a key campaign cause of LGNZ president Dave Cull, the former mayor of Dunedin. Labour has shown its general ineptitude by claiming the answer is to provide for online voting. Like their many other changes to local governance such as giving us full time professional paid councillors, creating some very small territorial authorities of less than 10,000 population, and allowing unitary authorities to be developed in some regions, this is a nonsense answer that begs for a question. It has been roundly criticised by internet security experts, and makes no effort to address the reasons why the engagement is low in the slightest. In short, it is a typically lightweight answer from the Prime Minister that fails to address the glaring failures of local governance.