Local Government Magazine
Local Democracy

For the want of an informed vote

By Richard Prebble, former ACT Part leader and Labour Party member.
We were told postal voting was the way to increase voter turnout. It was not. Now we will be told Internet voting is the answer. It will not be.

Any review has to consider the real reasons for non-participation. Non-voting is a huge problem worldwide.
It is increasing in general elections.

In America, party primaries favour extreme candidates. In the election there is often no rational candidate for an intelligent voter to support. Donald Trump’s endorsed candidates are so wacky the Republicans are now predicted to fail to capture the senate.

In Britain, in the last election, the Conservatives won nearly 14 million votes. Liz Truss, the new Prime Minister, was the first choice of just 50 out of the 365 conservative MPs. Just 81,326 Conservative Party members, mostly old, white and reactionary, elected her. Liz Truss claimed in the primary she would be a new Margaret Thatcher. She is implementing spending policies that will have the Iron Lady turning in her grave.

Millions of Tory voters will stay at home next election. Primaries invented to make elections more democratic make elections less democratic.

Bottom of Form
Here in New Zealand, Labour’s party primaries to select its leader have been failures. The members’ choice for the 2017 election was Andrew Little. The MPs were only able to elect Jacinda Ardern because there was no time to hold a primary.

The Green Party leadership selection method is even worse. The party conference claims the right to select the leaders and also to remove them. A Green party conference could stage a coup and remove a future duly elected Green Prime Minister. This year the Green youth movement attempted to remove James Shaw. If every Green MP had not refused to stand the coup might have succeeded.

These primaries are a threat to parliamentary democracy. Labour Party members and Green Party conference delegates have no democratic mandate.

Ardern could decide she has had enough and accept a plum United Nations job. A primary to select the new prime minister would destabilise the Government. Willie Jackson might win. Labour voters would stay home.

In local government the problem is the reverse, there is no candidate selection process. Any idiot can and does run for office. For mayor in Rotorua we had seven candidates. Our councillors are elected from wards, six general, three Maori and one rural. We can predict now the different constituencies will lead to dysfunction.

I was one of those in Rotorua who voted. I confess I did not know who to vote for. Just one candidate put a pamphlet in my rural letter box. The material posted on social media was unreliable. The one meeting I attended told me little.

The 200-word candidate profiles were largely meaningless. Candidates told me how many children they had. One candidate said “I think”. Few said what the issues are. Fewer had solutions. Even fewer indicated they had any experience in managing a multi-million dollar enterprise. I had to guess who might be able to read a balance sheet.

In a real sense the mayoralty is a phoney contest. The mayor has just one vote. Tania Tapsell, our new mayor, will be discovering this week whether the new councillors will support all or some or perhaps none of her policies. I might have voted for councillors who will wreck her mayoralty.

Tauranga, our fifth biggest city, is governed by appointed commissioners because the mayor and council were at loggerheads. Invercargill is not the only council that has been at war with the mayor. My council has been at war with councillors taking legal action against each other. The reputation of our city has been trashed. Central government has dumped the country’s homeless into Rotorua’s motels.

A reason for the Three Waters reform is many councils are so dysfunctional they cannot even agree to maintain the water pipes. Central government should have started its reforms by making councils democratically accountable.

Political parties serve a democratic purpose: they make manifesto politics possible. Parties produce slates of candidates pledged to work together for agreed goals. It gives voters a meaningful choice. If mayors were elected by the councillors then local body candidates would have to form teams, agree on the leader and their policy priorities. We could then in elections hold councillors to account.

Wayne Brown’s constituency is so large only the wealthy can afford to stand, as Viv Beck discovered with her $353,000 campaign bill. The only other viable Auckland mayoral candidate is one backed by Labour’s electoral machine. 

How democratic is this?
The people who made an intelligent decision in the local body elections were the approximately 60 percent who did not vote. They knew they could not make an informed vote.

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