Local Government Magazine
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Representing local communities

Gavin Beattie from the Local Government Commission discusses council options with electoral systems.

Recent times has demonstrated the value, more than ever, of strong, caring and resilient local communities. To nurture these communities, councils need to have a good understanding of their nature including, for the purposes of representation reviews, how they can change over time.

Local communities may be identifiable as geographically defined placed-based communities, or they may be based more on other factors relating to common identity or the interests of its members. The latter communities, such as those based on ethnicity or age, are often not confined to electoral divisions within cities, districts or regions but rather are spread unevenly across the whole area.

While regions must be divided into constituencies given their size and diversity, territorial authorities have options of elections ‘at large’, by wards or a mix of the two in recognition of the varying characteristics of their local communities.

Another option for territorial authorities, in recognition of the varying characteristics of local communities, is the establishment of community boards. These can recognise particular geographically-based communities alongside other representation arrangements designed, for example, to reflect communities of a more city- or district-wide nature.

Clearly, effective representation of communities of interest, as required by the Local Electoral Act, must be based on good knowledge of those communities of interest, how they are defined and where they are located. This knowledge is the foundation for an effective representation review process. Equally important, appropriate recognition of these communities of interest is also the base for effective and meaningful ongoing engagement of communities in the affairs of council including higher levels of participation such as at election time.

Two further options, prior to development of formal representation review proposals, are important to help achieve effective representation of communities of interest. These are the choices of electoral system, i.e. ‘first past the post’ (FPP) or ‘single transferable vote’ (STV), and provision for separate Maori wards or constituencies.

FPP or STV?

A particular benefit of the STV option is it provides the opportunity for effective representation of communities of interest which are spread across a city, district or region, such as young voters, rather than being confined to localised placed-based communities. It does this by enabling proportional representation of communities of interest.

It does need to be understood, however, that STV only provides the potential for proportional representation. To achieve this, STV first requires larger multi-member wards of at least five members, or perhaps even ‘at large’ elections, to achieve actual proportionality.

To reach its full potential, STV also requires a good understanding by both candidates and voters of just how it works. For example, in say a 10-member council (excluding the mayor), a successful candidate requires just over one eleventh of the votes (preferences) cast in order to be elected. (One twelfth in an 11-member council and so on.)

With this understanding, candidates can campaign with a particular target number of electors in mind. Voters, on the other hand, just need to understand there is no disincentive in identifying their actual first preference in that if that candidate is unsuccessful, the vote is transferred to the voters’ next preference.

This is not to say there are no benefits for single-position elections under STV, such as the mayoralty, as these will result in the successful candidate always gaining a majority of the valid votes cast. This majority also reflects the benefit that, to the extent voters rank a number of preferences, their votes will not be ‘wasted’ in the sense of not having any say in the final election outcome.

If proportional representation of local communities of interest is what a council is seeking to achieve, then STV is the only system that can provide it. Clearly, however, there is a need for a good understanding of this electoral system and effective educational material in order to achieve the desired outcome.

On the other hand, it is argued that STV is more complicated to understand and less familiar for voters compared to the well-established ‘tried and true’ FPP electoral system. This is hard to deny, though STV has now been an option for councils for six elections and DHB elections have been conducted using STV all that time, and a small but growing number of councils (11 at the 2019 elections) have seen benefits in the alternative STV system.

It should also be pointed out, it is the method of counting STV preferences that is more complicated to explain rather than the requirements for voters on how to vote (i.e. simply ranking candidates 1, 2, 3 etc.) This latter point relates to the argument often used against STV that it results in more informal votes. Analysis of actual election results shows, however, it is the requirement to change between FPP and STV on the one voting paper that is the problem for voters rather than any inherent complexity of STV.

The benefit of proportional representation relates directly to the much debated issue of encouraging traditionally hard to engage groups to become involved in council activities including elections. The argument is, in relation to elections, if these groups can see a real possibility of electing their preferred candidate, they are more likely to become involved, by standing as a candidate, voting, or both.

These then are the sorts of issues which councils need to consider carefully when making their decision to opt for either FPP or STV, or in putting the question to the community for feedback or decision by way of a poll. Councils need to be considering these matters well ahead of the public notice deadline of 12 September this year.

Separate Maori representation?

Another option for enhancing representation for a particular community of interest is that of establishing Maori wards or constituencies. This can be seen as addressing generally poor representation of Maori around council tables. At present, three councils have such wards/ constituencies: Wairoa District Council and both the Bay of Plenty and Waikato regional councils.

Voters in Maori ward/constituency elections must be registered electors on the Maori electoral roll used for parliamentary elections. According to the Electoral Commission website, this means that, as a result of the 2018 Maori electoral option, an average of only 52 percent of Maori would be entitled to vote in a particular Maori ward/constituency election.

Councils are able to access the number of electors in their city/district/region eligible to be registered on the Maori electoral roll. They can then take this into consideration along with knowledge of the iwi [tribe] and hapu [sub-tribe] in their city/district/region and how easily these may be represented by the number of positions proposed for the Maori ward/constituency.

Councils need to take these factors into consideration in their deliberations on the option of one or more Maori wards/constituencies. They can also weigh these against the nature and characteristics of the STV option, as outlined above, in their decision-making on achieving a desired objective of enhanced Maori representation around the council table.

Achieving effective representation for local communities

The options of FPP or STV and of separate Maori representation are preliminary questions and not formally part of the representation review process.

As argued here, however, they are still important matters in a council’s considerations for achieving effective representation. In the event Maori wards/constituencies are established, a representation review applying to the next election must be undertaken. A review may also be desirable in the case of a move to STV, if the desired objective is proportional representation for communities of interest.

Ahead of looming deadlines for public notice relating to the FPP/STV option (12 September 2020) and separate Maori representation (23 November 2020), councils should carefully consider the various options for best achieving effective representation of their own diverse communities.

More information

Future articles will address councils’ formal representation proposals and subsequent appeal and objection processes involving the Commission.

 Staff of the Local Government Commission are happy to discuss these matters or provide further information. You can contact:

Donald Riezebos, Principal Adviser, at donald.riezebos@lgc.govt.nz ph. (04) 460-2202

Gavin Beattie, Senior Adviser, at gavin.beattie@lgc.govt.nz ph. (04) 460-2204

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