Monday, October 4, 2010

Why aren’t we voting?

Are voters indifferent to the new Auckland?
My colleague, Richard Dunbar of Nexus Planning and Research and CityScope Consultants was asked by TVNZ News why the election for the new Auckland City Council does not appear to be attracting the voters.  Among other things he mentioned a protracted and drawn out postal voting system.  This reduces the urgency to vote and therefore its significance in the minds of voters.  Putting it off until it is just too late or seems unimportant is consistent with his experience of community surveys generally.
The voting papers were not particularly helpful, with pages of pen pictures devoted to a string of mayoral candidates, local ward and board aspirants, and district health board contenders.  (The last-mentioned attracts a large number of aspirants, many having moved on -- or having been moved on -- from council positions.  It provides for the nonsense of allowing electors to rank more than 30 candidates in a preferential voting process, something somewhat beyond the normal powers of cognition and computation!)
Richard also talked about the apparent lack of relevance of local government in people’s minds.  This isn’t helped if, as he observed, there is no apparent desire to actually share power with communities and actively involve them in decision-making. 
Nevertheless, the apparent failure so far of radical reform to engage voters surprised even the normally unflappable Richard.  The creation of a new single city has had plenty of publicity, emotions have run high, and the election itself has been well publicised.  The key mayoral candidates have had a lot of exposure.  This is important because one of the key thrusts of the reforms was to create a stronger mayoral office to ensure that Auckland gets strong and focused leadership.
Yet, on 4th October the New Zealand Herald reported that less than 25% of eligible electors had voted with just three days left for postal voting.  This compares with a reported 37% turnout across the region in the last elections (2007).
So what are the consequences?
This is not business as usual.  In terms of expectations for a Super City it’s a bit of a disaster.  The aim was to create strong leadership that would directly represent the region as a whole.  If only 35% to 40% of eligible electors vote, who might the Council be said to represent? 
And if the mayoral vote is split by a close election or simply because too many also-rans attract votes, we face the prospect of a “strong” Mayor enjoying less than 20% elector support!  How seriously will he be taken in Wellington (or anywhere else) under those circumstances?
Perhaps the reformists missed a trick by not thinking through the electoral implications of what they were doing, and what effect this might have on the integrity of representation in the new council.  It may be time to review what exactly we mean by local democracy in New Zealand, and how it might be achieved.  This is something to return to in future postings.
In the meantime, here are some more thoughts on why the turnout is looking so weak.
1.       Nothing has changed
·         Voluntary local body elections generally have a low turnout.  This is true in most countries where local government is seen to be weak relative to central government.  Compulsory voting might help, but what do the results mean if people remain disengaged?
·         In New Zealand Sir Brian Elwood, architect of the 1989 local government reforms, tackled this problem by emphasising the importance of the opportunity to vote, whether or not it is exercised.  Certainly relative to non-democracies this makes sense.  But the world has moved on since then, looking at ways of giving citizens a voice and promoting active local democracy. In the meantime, local government in New Zealand remains a bit of a yawn – or maybe a mystery -- for many people.
2.       Bigger is not necessarily better
·         A quick review of 2007 local body elections statistics confirms that larger councils tend to have lower turnouts.  For example, the Auckland figure cited by the Herald, 37% turnout, compares with a 49% average nationally in 2007.  The sense of disempowerment seems to grow as the numbers get bigger and representation (electors per councillor) reduces.
·      This is true of mayoral as well as councillor elections.  This evidence should have had the reformers looking at the options.  If a larger council is going to deliver the hoped for efficiencies, then how did they hope to marry these up with democracy, other than by fiddling with ward representation?  In fact, by creating a double structure of local boards and ward-based voting for councillors, they may have added to electoral confusion rather than compensating for the disempowerment voters experience when dealing with larger units of local government.
3.       So why aren’t we voting this time round?
·         In any case the agenda has been driven by the media to a large extent, defining broad regional issues that may not relate to individual electors' circumstances or  interests.  Through the practice of asking each candidate the same "big" questions and each, consequently, trying to cover his bases, rather than enunciating a distinctive policy platform, the result has been a focus on matters seem somewhat remote. 
·         The press (particularly the New Zealand Herald) has gone further by setting out its expectations of a single city in terms of the agenda of a range of business-oriented groups: it has effectively played the role of cheer leader.  Both these positions – lectern campaigns and media as cheer leader – diminish the potential differences and choices in the mind of the electorate.  
·         We have watched the Auckland Transition Agency implementing what seems to be a central mandate.  Whether or not the impression is fair, the main decisions appear to be made by central government.  In the public mind the key figure shaping this council is Minister of local Government, Rodney Hide.  Centralisation of power both in the structure of the new council and how it was put together quite possibly undermines voter enthusiasm.
·        Not unreasonably a lot of media attention has been on industrial issues: appointments, roles, redundancies, and so forth.  Press releases from the Auckland Transition Agency give the impression that several small bureaucracies are about to be replaced by one large one and some rather remote council controlled organisations. This is unlikely to grab the public imagination.
The single city process to date has probably reduced the sense of empowerment among the voters, the notion that "my vote will make a difference", simply offering more of what went before, writ large. 
What happens next time round?
Perhaps I should leave the last word to Richard.  He suspects that the first term will be one of turmoil.  The new council will be on a hiding to nowhere, trying to put the pieces together, to present a unified face, and fulfil expectations for civic and, particularly, economic leadership.  
He also notes that the election is just one opportunity for citizen  participation.  Perhaps if those who are elected recognise their tenuous hold on power and really do try to share the decision making with the community, there will be less chance of a major upheaval next time.  
What might be most interesting is what impact this situation will have on the next election.  Will this first term of the new council complete electors’ disillusionment or will it galvanise them into action?  And, either way, will this mean the end or the beginning of the single city? [1]

[1]               For some clues see the Canadian experience, summarised at

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