THE LOW VOTER TURNOUT in the 2016 local body elections is hardly a surprise; it continues a trend also reflected in the general election. With voting closing Saturday, we're headed for another low turnout, continuing a decline that began in the 1980s. In 2013 total national voter turnout for the local body elections was 41.3 per cent.
Despite Local Government NZ's (LGNZ) ten-month #Vote16NZ campaign, people have again shown a marked lack of enthusiasm for voting. LGNZ President Lawrence Yule's words that “democracy is both a privilege and a responsibility" seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
LGNZ looks like it has not achieved its stated goal which was "for the first time in nearly two decades to get local government elected by a majority of New Zealanders.'
Already the calls are being made that 'something needs to be done' about the low voter turnout with, once again, that old favourite - online voting - being raised as a way of lifting voting numbers. But this is a technocratic solution to what is a political problem and is unlikely to succeed if ever implemented.
In my hometown of Christchurch 41 percent of people voted in 2013 and it doesn't look like its going to be any better this year. As at September 26 just 11 percent of voting papers had been returned - at the same time in 2013 13.8 per cent of Christchurch's eligible voters had returned their papers.
While LGNZ is alarmed at the low voter turnout that hasn't been the view expressed by the Mayor of Christchurch, Lianne Dalziel. Seemingly unconcerned about the poor health of local democracy, she has claimed that the lack of interest shown in the local body elections is simply a sign that people are "generally happy" with their elected officials. Clearly Dalziel hasn't spent much time out in the neglected eastern suburbs like New Brighton.
The usual accusations that people are 'apathetic' and they 'get the representatives they deserve' are already being made - usually by people who have a stake in defending the status quo. But, just like the low turnout out at the general election, the low turnout at the local level reflects the huge degree of scepticism felt by a majority of people towards all the main political parties, and alienation from local and national government.
While the good people of Christchurch are being urged to vote to have a say in the running of their city, that's not been the reality since the quakes. Local folk have not only been denied a say in the rebuild of their city, they have watched many of their local 'representatives' defend the bureaucratic and top down rebuild.
Last year, through over 3000 submissions on the Christchurch City Council's Long Term Plan, the good people of Christchurch expressed their strong opposition to both a massive rates hike and the sale of council assets. Mayor Lianne Dalziel and her supporters on council simply ignored that opposition. The rates have been hiked up and the council have already tried to sell City Care, its maintenance and construction division.
One of the prime movers for the rates hike and privatisation has been Cr Raf Manji. He has a lot of opinions on lots of things and he once expressed the view that local democracy was ' a two way street'. But Manji's maxim doesn't seem to apply to such things as massive rates hikes and privatisation. Manji though has regularly displayed a penchant for hypocrisy.
It has also not been 'a good look' for local democracy when the Labour-aligned People's Choice councillors have participated in an attempt to rig the mayoralty in favour of Lianne Dalziel by not opposing her, even though People's Choice opposed the rates hike and oppose asset sales.
It has been left to John Minto, the Keep Our Assets candidate, to provide an alternative vision for Christchurch that puts people first. He has forced Dalziel into a policy debate which she has tried to avoid as much as possible. Despite being a strong advocate of asset sales, for example, all reference to such sales have been conspicuously omitted from all her advertising material.
John Minto though, as well as campaigning against Dalziel, is also having to campaign in a political environment where local folk effectively feel disenfranchised. That Lianne Dalziel should interpret this disenfranchisement as actually a sign that people are satisfied with their representatives and the direction that the Christchurch City Council has been taking, is a telling sign of Dalziel's loyalty to the corporate interests that have dominated the Christchurch rebuild for over five years.