By Dr Jean Drage, local government sector expert.
It’s election year again for our local councils. In October, we will once again consider just who we want to make decisions for our communities; we will debate (and in some cases, protest) important local issues; and some of us (or a few academics, at least) will again reflect on whether the current system for voting in our local councillors is fit for purpose.
At the same time, as a backdrop to all this local electoral activity, a period of significant reform to our local government system will be moving forward.
So, the 2022 election is a significant one. It could be the final time we vote for all of our current 78 local authorities and 1600 councillors. If, as the Local Government Minister has announced, the three waters infrastructure is removed from our local councils to four water services entities in this parliamentary term, we immediately face questions about the viability of some of our smaller local authorities.
If planning is to become primarily a regional council function with the proposed new resource management system about to begin its passage through Parliament, local democratic input into the future of our local communities could be further undermined. And while we are still to see what the future for local government review team is going to recommend, the following electoral term is also likely to see changes arising from this quarter.
Yes, some of this reform will depend on whether the current majority Labour government holds onto power in the 2023 election, whether it has to negotiate a policy programme with a smaller political party or is even replaced by what appears to be (at this moment in time) a slowly reviving National party.
To date, the National and Act parties have opposed the three waters reforms but with the recent reshuffle on National benches resulting in the local government portfolio shifting into the back row again (as has so often been the case in the past), it is unknown whether this political party will make local government a priority.
Further, the current pandemic and the climate crisis have completely transformed the political agenda. These major life-changing events will demand the most attention for future governments to come and so remain at the forefront of the policy programme.
So what does this all mean for the 2022 local elections?
Will the current government’s pursuit of centralisation (on several fronts) lead to increased debate and higher levels of voter participation within our local communities? Or, will the inevitability of change (given the current government’s majority) create greater apathy than usual?
What we already know about local elections is that participation ebbs and flows according to the level of activity or discord in a community and the level of change occurring. Voter turnout over the past three decades tells us that imposed reform brings the voters out in a way that is hard to do otherwise. In 1989 in the face of radical restructuring of local councils, average voter turnout peaked at more than 65 percent and despite a gradual decline in voter numbers since then, when the new Auckland council replaced eight local authorities in 2010, there was a five percent bump in voter turnout.
Both of these increases were fuelled by heightened debate and a great deal of community opposition to the reforms underway. And while this opposition did not change the outcomes here, nevertheless it was a positive sign of local democracy in action.
The last two local elections have finally seen the decline in voter turnout arrested, partly due to the growing debate around the impact of major climate changes on local communities and the need to ensure these views are represented at the council table.
Over this past year we have seen our local councils become increasingly assertive with central government over the impact of its reform agenda. Our local elections are an opportune time to show they have the mandate of their communities in this debate.
We know already that an increasingly heavy hand from central government can heighten concerns about the implications of top-down changes on local democracy.
But, local democracy must also be supported by local communities and local elections are a time to show this support by participating in the debate, perhaps standing for an elected position on council and ensuring we vote.
In 2022 it is even more important.