Fixing the local government snooze-fest

There is a big question mark hanging over local government. Turnouts have been low for years and this year early indications are for a poorer result than ever.

The general public shows very little interest in who governs these various bodies – why?

A certain proportion of the population is completely disinterested in politics in any event. We don’t see 100% turnout even in national elections. We are in the 80 percents at best, which by international standards is pretty good.

There is very little media coverage. Major positions – the Mayor of Auckland etc – attract media attention, especially this year when two former Cabinet colleagues are fighting out what looks like a bitter battle in public. But mostly the media cover local bodies only very erratically and mostly around controversies. When it comes to the assessment of most candidates, voters only have roadside signs and blurb sheets to go by.

The timing does not help. Although it would inevitably add to complexity, if the local elections coincided with the national elections and the voting was carried out together there would be a higher turnout.

It was hoped postal voting might help. It may have at the margin, although for most part it just shifts the abstention from ‘not going to the polling booth’ to the ‘a pile mail that sits unattended at the kitchen table’. When voting papers arrive they look remarkably similar to junk mail.

Local government is responsible for a range of activities that we all use in our day-to-day lives – rubbish and sewage disposal, water supply, local roads, the list goes on. Local government also plays an important role in the planning process. Public irritation quickly surfaces when things break down, but mostly the system seems to work, although questioning of local government’s performance across the board is not uncommon.

Despite candidate promises, rate bills go in but one direction – up and up.

Some candidates – often those with little or no local government experience – offer major improvements as their policy when they promote their candidacy but I seriously doubt anyone believes it would come to anything even if they succeeded.

Addressing major cock-ups – the Wellington major bus operations rejig of a year or so back comes to mind – are the subject of candidates promises this time. The Wellington commuting public have found problems aplenty with the reformed routes and timetables that the Regional Council introduced with such fanfare as a great leap forward a couple of years back. But again, despite the good intentions, I seriously doubt anyone seriously believes the bus operation will improve except by way of the slow bureaucratic process of problem correction that happens regardless of results.

That is problem number one – the general public don’t think it matters much who is elected. Things will just muddle on.

Problem number two is the public awareness of the candidates. The general public have never heard of most candidates and the little blurb pamphlets that show the picture along with a short statement say very little of substance.

Typically there is a profession of the candidate’s love for the area and a few drifty lines about the bright future the area has if they are part of its governance. It gives little information on how a successful candidate will vote. In national elections the party flag indicates the candidates general direction of travel. There are no such guidelines in local elections. A number of potential voters who abstain or don’t vote tell me that they won’t vote for someone they know nothing about. That’s a fair point.

Problem number three is that there are so many positions up for grabs. Regional and local councillors, district health boards, community boards and various trusts. For central government there are two votes to figure out – a party vote and a constituency vote. Decide those and the vote can be cast. With local elections there are numerous decisions to research and make if a voter makes their choice for every available position. Although it is optional, the STV requirement to rank candidates adds to the confusion and complexity.

Can the lack of public interest/low voter turnout be fixed? I am not holding my breath on that one. The only possibility I see is if:

· there were significantly fewer bodies with a materially wider range of responsibilities so that their deliberations and decisions had sufficient profile to attract interest;

· the votes were held using one voting system; and

· we held both national and local elections on the same day.

Way too radical I expect.