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Democracy unleashed

Democracy unleashed Featured Image LG Oct 2016

Bun fights and small communities help drive voter turnout.

How likely is it that we will see a bigger turnout of voters than in previous local government elections? This is being written long before polls close but I’d wager a decent amount that it won’t happen. Local Government New Zealand has reported an increase in the number of candidates putting themselves forward for election and, in growth centres, the numbers of candidates per seat is said to make them “hotly contested”.

Unfortunately, ‘hotly contested’ does not translate to a choice between a wide range of diverse candidates. Nor does it mean that more people will be excited enough to actually vote. I’d love to be wrong but it is way more likely that voters just won’t bother.

Voter apathy is something that local government finds puzzling and difficult to address.

However, history tells us that there are councils where voter turnout is greater than a third of eligible voters. So what are the characteristics of councils that get as much as 60 to 70 percent voter participation?

Usually it’s one of two things:

  • they are smaller;
  • they are having a bun fight.

Being smaller means that people seem to have a more direct sense of connection to the candidates. They’re all “locals”.

Bun fights mean there is division – often polarising the community – and lots of debate and arguments. These will be either issue-based (water meters / no water meters, museum / no museum, tree / no tree) or personality-based. Bun fights ignite public interest. And this public interest is ignited and fanned in the full glare of the communities that are affected – through the media or any gathering where people can, and do, voice their opinions.

Most of what local government does, and delivers, is quiet and efficient. Perfectly formed, smoothly provided and under the radar.

But some of it – the entertaining and exciting stuff – is where the idealists, the pragmatists, the fantasists, the visionaries, the egoists, the inarticulate, the orators, the fun-police, the bean-counters, the bewildered and the good-hearted gather with the intent to make the very best decisions they collectively can. Because that is their job. This part of local government is the democratic process – messy, complicated and fun.

Maybe one answer to addressing widespread voter apathy is for councils to proactively (and provocatively) embrace the concept of “openness and transparency”. Not just in the sense of demonstrating accountability, but in the sense of exposing and encouraging greater visibility of the humans that we voted in.

It seems to me that one of the unintended consequences of closed ‘briefing’ meetings or ‘workshops’ is that these diminish the connectivity between elected members and the people they represent. They remove a very important opportunity to get to know the individuals and the issues, as well as the theatre of the democratic process.

Where there are too many of these confidential or closed meetings, there is a sense that the governing body is being sanitised for public consumption. While the intent is not Machiavellian, the outcome sometimes appears that way.

The closed doors put up an artificial barrier between the truthful authenticity of the debate that occurs between elected representatives, and the people they represent.

Elected representatives ought to demonstrate their capabilities, agendas and interests via an open forum at every opportunity available – even, and especially, when the issues are complex and sensitive.

As a voter, I want to hear the unravelling of things that are complex and tricky. I want to hear the answers to the (sometimes) ‘dumb’ questions because those are the questions that I would probably be asking. And I want to track the progress of the thinking that is going into the decision-making.

Once people cotton on to what really goes on behind closed doors – the level of interest in local government might improve.

Perhaps unleashing democracy is one way citizens will get to know their elected representatives a little bit better and, through this exposure, their interest in voting might indeed be piqued.

This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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