By Linda O’Reilly, Tompkins Wake.
Welcome to all newly elected and re-elected mayors, chairs, councillors, local and community board members.
I am by nature an impatient person. Yet I have been patiently waiting through every cycle of local government since the commencement of the Local Government Act 2002 for strong and motivated elected members to take up the challenge of promoting the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of their communities.
To take up the reins of leadership and run with change. But apart from Auckland where amalgamation forced structural changes, scarcely anything has happened in the last two decades to change the community view of local government.
This appears to be reflected in the apparent lack of interest in the 2022 election. Since 1989 the percentage of eligible persons returning votes has dropped steadily from 56 percent to 42 percent and even less this election.
And report after report since voting papers were sent out suggests that the rate of returns is dismal. Days before the close of the 2022 nominations LGNZ were warning that some roles would not be filled, or key roles would go uncontested unless more candidates threw their hat in the ring. In the event it was reported that 20 percent of local body election places were uncontested.
While some voters may be put off by the difficulty of finding an actual post box, and the Minister of Local Government and some others did not even receive their snail mail voting papers, such pre-loaded excuses for not voting do not stack up against the undeniably obvious trend not to bother to vote. By and large they do not consider it an effort worth making.
This apathy and disinterest comes despite the introduction of new Maori wards and constituencies across the North Island, and the fact that chief executives of local authorities are now required by law to facilitate and foster representative and substantial elector participation in elections
The massive legislative changes proposed and underway in relation to infrastructure and planning seem to have motivated only the dedicated Three Waters opponents, and the prospect of local government reform generally to have overwhelmed rather than energised voters about who should represent their communities at a local level.
There was lots of noise about the elections, but not enough real interest. So, what is the climate for those embarking on this term of local government?
The reality is that most communities have come to expect very little. As long as the water flows and sewage and refuse are taken away, most people will only react to scandals, rate hikes or unwanted activities in their street.
But in this term the status quo will not endure. Legislative changes will fundamentally impact on the operations of almost all local authorities, and the recommendations of the Review into the Future for Local Government have the potential to change almost everything except the existence of some form of local government.
The recommendations and draft report of this review were due out on 28 October (too late for this issue), which is conveniently post-election. But, before you will have even completed orientation and taken the oath of office you might be interested to know that those consulted have ranked a sustainable future as the most important priority for local government.
Couple this with the fact that the review is likely to recommend that for future elections the voting age be lowered, and any idea you may have had that local government is about rates and core services is about to be up-ended.
Why are you in local government? What is your vision? It is not enough to be there just because you thought you could do a good job of keeping things on track, or even because you want to address a single important issue.
Make something happen. No excuses; this may be your last chance. By the next term of council, whatever form that takes in your district or region, everything may have changed.
Infrastructure and planning largely may be largely out of your control, and functions, duties and responsibilities may have fundamentally changed.
Above all else ‘climate change’ will have come home to roost and the effects of ever more frequent adverse weather events will be yours to deal with if they are not planned for now. Central government is good at directing what local government can and cannot do but protecting local communities will largely be left to local government.
Next time around 16-year olds will be voting. If you do not act now the future is going to run you over.